Immigration: Striking a balance

Immigration: Striking a balance

Daniel Stoffman

Sep 24, 1992

CANADA IS a better place with immigration than it would be without it.

Immigration makes our country more interesting, more diverse, more dynamic, and more connected to the rest of the world. Welcoming a steady flow of newcomers is a fundamental part of our national character. In the 21st century, we will live in a multicultural global village. Canada is leading the way to that new world.

These are reasons enough for having immigration. In fact, they are the only real reasons.

As the Economic Council of Canada has shown, whether we have many immigrants or few makes little difference to the pocketbooks of the vast majority of us. As for demographics, while it is true we need to maintain a reasonable human presence on this large chunk of land, it is also true that we don’t need immigration on a socially disruptive scale to achieve that goal.

Immigration is good but, as with many good things, it is possible to have too much of it.

That is what we have now. We are getting too many immigrants, too many uneducated immigrants, too many people who cannot speak one of our languages, and too many refugees who are not refugees. Most of them go to our three largest cities where they are overburdening school systems and social services.

Immigration policy must take into account the interests of the people who already live in Canada, not just those of the people who want to come here. The immigration bill currently before Parliament attempts to do that by increasing our ability to select who gets membership in our society. But that bill is not the last word. Our immigration policies need a major overhaul. Here are some ideas for getting started:

* Slow down. Just what exactly is the big hurry? With 11 per cent unemployment, is there really such a shortage of people in Canada that we have to bring in 1.2 million new ones in only five years? An annual level of 250,000 is too much in normal economic times. In the midst of a recession it is, as economist-demographer David Foot observes, “insane.”

The Irish author and diplomat, Conor Cruise O’Brien, speaking last year on CBC-Radio of the rise of neo-fascist groups in Europe, said “it would be unwise to stimulate them further by being too relaxed about further immigration.” While fascism is not an imminent threat in Canada, not enough thought has been given to the social implications of large-scale immigration that is too quickly changing the ethnic balance of the cities where it is concentrated.

In a report in 1990 on immigration levels, the Parliamentary committee on labor, employment and immigration noted that immigration in a given year had exceeded 200,000 only three times in the last 70 years and warned the government against venturing above that level. It warned of social tension, overconcentration of immigrants, and integration problems. It said we need “a period of slower growth so as to take stock of the situation.”

That advice was wise and the Mulroney government’s decision to ignore it was extremely foolish.

The post-war average level of immigration is 150,000 a year. This is the level that has worked well in the past. At that level, immigration could be held steady even in rough economic times. It would give those charged with planning settlement programs a long- term horizon. With a more relaxed pace of immigration, newcomers would have a better chance at being integrated harmoniously into our society. Most important of all, they would have better access to the language and other training they need to become productive members of an increasingly complex industrial society.

A level of 150,000 immigrants a year is more than enough to assure Canada’s demographic future. Natural increase, at current fertility rates, will continue until 2026. After that, unless fertility continues its recent upward trend, our population will begin a long, slow decline.

But that does not mean Canada will become depopulated. Even if fertility does not increase, and with immigration of only 130,000 a year, a federal demographic review in 1989 found that the population would stabilize at 18 million in the year 2186.

Canada prospered during the 1950s with a population of that size. Our major industries depend on trade, not on the domestic market. A declining population would force us to invest more in training and technology, thus becoming more competitive.

That anyone might think a level of 150,000 a year represents low immigration only serves to illustrate to what extremes the government has gone. With 150,000 newcomers per year, Canada would still have more immigration per capita than the Australians, Americans or anyone else in the world.

* Bring back the points system. We should be picking more immigrants because of their brains and fewer because of who they happen to be related to. Currently fewer than 15 per cent are selected for their ability to contribute productively. We should aim to get back to the 1971 level of 32 per cent.

This can’t be done without cutting back on family class immigration. In its new immigration bill, the government has chosen to do this through quotas. Parents would be subjected to annual quotas. This is important because it is parents of the original immigrant who can sponsor sons and daughters, thus allowing extended families to come to Canada.

However, it seems unfair to make parents past retirement age wait before being reunited with their children. In the past, Canada distinguished between working-age parents and old parents. The old ones should get priority.

Meanwhile, as in Australia, working-age parents of adult immigrants should have to pass the points test just like any other independent immigrant, although with extra points for being related to someone in Canada.

As for independent immigrants, why are we giving more points to pastry chefs than to engineers? Many engineers – and doctors and lawyers for that matter – work in fields other than those they were trained for and the analytic skills acquired during their education serve them well.

Independent immigration should focus more on attracting people best able to contribute to an advanced, fast-changing economy and less on filling job openings. Our immigration policy hasn’t yet caught up with the changing economy. Most observers of labor force needs for the ’90s and beyond say that generic skills such as flexibility, literacy and computer-literacy will be more important than specific skills. If employers can use such criteria to pick people, so can Immigration Canada.

At 7,000 this year, business immigrants, including investors and entrepreneurs, are a very small part of total immigration. But the program is important because it is a way of introducing some low- cost capital into an economy in which the high cost of money is an impediment to growth.

The problem is that little attention has been paid to how that capital can best be put to use. Too much money has flowed into dubious real estate ventures. In some cases, we have sold Canadian citizenship too cheaply – as little as $2,250 per person in a family of eight, the head of which borrowed $150,000 for a three-year investment in an approved fund. In other cases, investors have been cheated when managers of government-approved funds did not perform adequately. This program needs much better monitoring and enforcement.

OTTAWA AND the provinces should identify underfunded sectors of the economy that both need and deserve help and direct immigrant investor capital to these industries. The high-tech sector, perennially starved for venture capital, is a good example.

The nanny program, in which foreign domestics get landed status only after proving their worth for two years, should be a model for both investors and entrepreneurs. Give them a designated period, such as five years, to live up to their obligations. Only then should they become landed immigrants.

* Protect real refugees. Our refugee determination system is a mess. Why are we classifying upward of 50 per cent of the people who show up at our borders as Geneva Convention refugees when the average for the asylum systems of industrialized countries is 14 per cent? Members of the Immigration and Review Board (IRB) should be taught the definition of a Geneva Convention refugee – someone with a “well-founded fear of persecution” – and should apply it strictly according to internationally accepted standards. People who are not Geneva Convention refugees but are fleeing civil war should get temporary asylum until it is safe for them to go home.

We should not continue to allow economic migrants to pose as Geneva Convention refugees. Instead, our limited resources should be concentrated on making life better for the millions of real refugees stranded in Third World camps. Giving queue jumpers instant access to Canada as refugees is also unfair to legitimate family class applicants who have to wait almost two years to have their applications processed.

Why should the IRB be used as a vehicle for political patronage and why should its members be paid $83,900 per year? Better decision- makers can be had cheaper. They should be trained in refugee law and international affairs and have visited refugee camps in the Third World so that they know the difference between a real refugee and the self-selected immigrants who claim that status at Pearson airport.

A three-person IRB panel should thrash out a majority decision. A yes decision should have to be written up just as a no decision has to be now, thereby removing the built-in incentive for IRB members to avoid work by approving claims. Meanwhile, Immigration Canada should put increased pressure on airlines to more frequently retain documents of boarding passengers suspected of being likely to destroy them en route.

All of this would send a signal to the world that Canada is prepared once again to behave as a sovereign nation and reaffirm control of its borders. And it would cut into the profits of the criminals who currently exploit our system by selling forged documents at inflated prices to people with unfounded refugee claims.

Canada should press forward with diplomatic efforts to harmonize the developed world’s response to the phenomenon of unauthorized migration. The ultimate goal should be creation of a multilateral agency to apply uniform standards of refugee determination and apportion refugees equitably amongst the developed countries.

* Get serious about Third World aid. For years, the rich countries have been paying lip service to Third World development but have been unwilling to do much about it. Yet if these countries really want to curb mass migration, development aid is no longer a matter of charity but of self-interest.

Very few people become migrants out of choice. Most would rather stay in their native countries. But they can’t stay there if they can’t earn a living.

It’s time that Canada and other industrialized countries began assessing foreign-aid projects for their job-producing potential. Until now, with most aid inspired by Cold War considerations, that was rarely done.

Second, we have to buy things from Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe.

Third, all of us who are fortunate enough to live in the wealthy part of the world have to be patient because their is no quick fix to the problem of mass migration. The first impact of stronger Third World economies will be more, not less, migration because the supply of upwardly mobile people will be increased.

But, in the long run, there is no other solution. We have to share the wealth.

* Put out the welcome mat. We need to do a better job of welcoming immigrants. Modern society is too complex to rely on the sink-or-swim approach of the past. Working with non-governmental organizations, Immigration Canada should create an orientation program that would be offered to all immigrants. English-as-a- second-language training for adult immigrants, some of which is paid for by Ottawa, should have a standard curriculum that teaches students not only how our buses and banks work but also about such core Canadian values as freedom of speech and equality of the sexes.

Doing something about the overconcentration of immigrants in large cities is a long-term project. Dispersion works for doctors or nurses who can be readily employed in, say, the Far North. It doesn’t work for many others and only makes sense in the context of a broader regional development strategy. Meanwhile, an ambitious, mobile work force is an asset and immigrants are to be applauded for wanting to be where the jobs are.

HOWARD ADELMAN, a York University professor with long experience in refugee settlement, would like to see “a program to encourage people to become friends of immigrants.” The existing Host Program fits the bill and could be expanded. In the absence of such programs, says Adelman, studies show that “immigrants don’t know any Canadians after eight years. They just stay within their own ethnic culture totally.” This is a loss for both new Canadians and old ones.

Let’s also be more welcoming of the skills and knowledge new immigrants bring with them. We welcome investors’ money but assume that newcomers’ skills are defective. At least, that’s the experience of Mariette West, a Vancouver nurse who counsels immigrant nurses trying to get established in Canada.

“Instead of saying, ‘What can this person offer us, what assets does she have that would be beneficial?’, we say, ‘What is wrong with her, what hoops can we make her jump through, how many obstacles can we put in her path?’ ” It’s a self-defeating attitude, the same attitude that prompts an employer to reject a new immigrant, eager to prove himself, because he lacks “Canadian experience.”

As part of this suspicion of immigrants, and our ambivalence about multiculturalism, governments have cut back on funding for heritage languages. This is a mistake. Studies show that language retention dwindles to almost nothing by the third generation. Yet it is in Canada’s interests to have a large number of its citizens able to communicate easily with the rest of the world. If languages are lost, everyone is a loser.

Finally, let’s start seeing the connections between immigration policy and other parts of public policy. You can’t talk about dispersing immigrants without also talking about regional development. You can’t think about reducing the numbers of refugee claimants without thinking about our foreign aid policy. We should not be proclaiming our keen desire for industrial competitiveness while at the same time increasing our intake of illiterate immigrants. Nor, in trying to combat racism, should we ignore the harm done by a too rapid pace of immigration.

We are a country of immigrants and always will be. Let’s celebrate it. But let’s also take our immigration policy seriously.