Businesses Applaud Proposed Immigration Law

Businesses applaud proposed immigration law

From Friday's Globe and Mail
March 28, 2008

OTTAWA, MONTREAL With the Olympics coming to town and a massive building boom, British Columbia will have about one million job openings over the next five years.

But during that same time period, only about 650,000 students will graduate from the province's high schools, said Philip Hochstein, president of the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association of British Columbia.

And it takes about five years to process applications for the immigrants expected to fill the gap.

“We don't have a need five years from now, we have a need right now,” Mr. Hochstein said.

Immigration groups and lawyers may be overwhelmingly against proposed changes to Canada's immigration laws, but Canadian businesses say fixes are needed, and soon.

“I take heart in the fact that politicians have realized that the [immigration] system is just completely broken,” Mr. Hochstein said. “And using old ideas to solve the problem isn't going to work any longer. It takes a more dramatic approach.”

Under a proposed new law, Canada's immigration minister would have the power to issue instructions to immigration officers about the type and number of immigration applications to process. It is unclear what these instructions may contain, although Citizenship and Immigration Canada would no longer be required to process all applications.

The government has said the changes are aimed at getting more skilled immigrants to Canada faster. Immigration groups and lawyers have largely condemned the proposed changes, saying they give the minister broad power and would create a fundamentally unfair system.

But Mr. Hochstein said the government is moving in the right direction by focusing on Canada's economic needs. “We need strong, young, willing workers to come, much like the people who built this country,” he said.

Last year, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business issued a report on immigration and labour shortages in Canada that called for a reduction in immigration waiting times and more emphasis on skilled workers.

Dan Kelly, the federation's senior vice-president of legislative affairs, said his organization hasn't taken a position for or against the changes proposed by the Harper government. However, he said serious changes are needed to fix the current system. “A lot of applications are caught in a massive backlog,” Mr. Kelly said. “A lot of more recent applications are stuck behind huge, huge glut.”

Citizenship and Immigration Canada estimates a backlog of more than 600,000 in the “skilled worker” category.

However, it is unclear how long it will take before the changes actually make a dent in that backlog – if implemented, the new law would apply to applications received after Feb. 27, 2008.

Still, as another in a long line of issues that may yet trigger a federal election, the proposed change remains a political hot topic.

In Montreal yesterday, Liberal Leader Stphane Dion said the growth of Canada's work force depends on immigration, and that the Tory project is unpalatable. “It's unacceptable in terms of procedure, and even more unacceptable in terms of content,” he said. “We'll take all available means to ensure that it's studied adequately at the [House of Commons] immigration committee.”

He refused to say how far the Liberals were willing to go, or whether they would force an election over the issue. The changes were part of a budget implementation bill, which means any vote on the bill would be considered one of confidence in the government.

Mr. Dion's immigration critic, Maurizio Bevilacqua, echoed his party's desire to have the bill debated and changed when it is studied in committee. Mr. Bevilacqua said feedback to the bill has been overwhelmingly negative and offered a clear sign that the Liberals may defeat the government this spring over the proposal.

“We're obviously not supportive of the bill,” he said. “There's a menu of issues for us to pull the government down and this is certainly one of them.”

NDP immigration critic Olivia Chow said she shares the concerns of immigration agencies who fear the measures will block applicants from certain poor countries and encourage the use of labour exploitation through temporary work permits. “I have quite a large number of immigration community groups coming to my office,” she said yesterday from Toronto. “I didn't get any positive comments from any of the groups.”

Ms. Chow said existing laws already give the minister powers to make certain skills a priority. The fact that the change gives open-ended power to the immigration minister to determine criteria for processing applications is a major concern, she added. “[The criteria] could be racially based, it could be by country, it could be by religion. It can be anything.”



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Why are MPs suddenly talking about immigration?

The Conservative government inserted immigration changes in its Budget Implementation Act. The bill is a confidence issue that could trigger a federal election.

What are the new immigration changes?

The changes would give the Immigration Minister broad powers to issue instructions to her department. Currently, the department must process every application in the order received. Processing takes time. Under the proposed new law, the minister could spell out which applications should be processed quickly. She would also have new powers to give instructions as to what type of applications should be rejected outright. The changes also remove an obligation on the minister to examine applications from people otherwise inadmissible on humanitarian or compassionate grounds.

Why is the government doing this?

The backlog of immigration applications is now more than 900,000, of which about 600,000 are in the skilled-worker category. Skilled workers currently wait up to six years to get to Canada, which is frustrating for them and the Canadian firms who need workers. The government says the changes would allow the minister to issue instructions so that applicants whose skills match the needs of Canadian employers would be processed more quickly.

So, what are people upset about?

The main concern is that the changes give open-ended powers to the Immigration Minister to give instructions to the department. The legislation does not say what those instructions would look like. They would be made public only after the bill is passed by Parliament through a notice in the Canada Gazette. Departmental officials say the instructions would be solely focused on fast-tracking skilled workers to meet demand, but critics say the law as worded could allow instructions that block the processing of applications based on country of origin, race or religion. There are also objections to the changes relating to mandatory review of humanitarian applications.

Why do critics say the government is trying to “sneak through” these measures?

Immigration changes of this sort would usually be presented in standalone legislation from the Immigration Minister, which would then be debated by MPs on the House of Commons immigration committee. Instead, the measures were included in the Finance Minister's budget bill without any major announcement by the government.

The budget bill was tabled in the House of Commons on the afternoon of March 14, just after the daily Question Period and hours before MPs went home to their ridings for a two-week Easter break.

Rather than going to the immigration committee, the legislation will be studied by MPs on the Commons finance committee, where the immigration section will be just one part of the entire budget package that they will be tasked to review.

The government says immigration is up and the opposition says it's down. What's going on?

The government has changed the way it communicates immigration figures. The minister issued a news release this month declaring, “Government of Canada admits highest number of newcomers in Canada's history” at 429,649. But that number includes temporary foreign workers and students. If those are removed, the number of permanent residents allowed into Canada in 2007 was 236,689, which is down from 251,649 in 2006 and 262,236 in 2005.

Labour unions have expressed concern that the numbers signal an increase in the use of temporary workers. They warn that temporary work visas are sometimes used by employers to bring in low-skilled foreign labour to work in conditions that Canadians would not accept.

Does this affect applications related to family reunification?

The government says the changes are focused on skilled workers and are not meant to affect family reunification. Concern has been expressed, however, that the removal of the ministerial requirement to examine applications from abroad on humanitarian grounds could have a negative effect on family reunification.

Bill Curry; illustration: Dean Tweed