The key to Canada’s immigration success
OttawaCitizen.com – Opinion/Op-Ed
April 2, 2014. By Irene Bloemraad, Ottawa Citizen
Last May, I was driving on Highway 101, which links San Francisco and Silicon Valley, when I noticed a billboard inviting temporary migrants in the United States to apply to move to Canada. The ad targeted skilled foreign workers who were having a hard time navigating the unwelcoming U.S. visa system.
The sign grabbed my attention personally and professionally. I immigrated to Canada at a young age, spent my formative years in Toronto, Saskatoon and Montreal, and hold a Canadian passport. Today I’m Chair of Canadian Studies at the University of California, Berkeley and do research on immigration. That billboard, paid for by the government of Canada, is a great illustration of the strengths of Canada’s immigration system. But it also holds some warnings for what might go wrong in the future.
Immigration and integration in Canada are a success story by many measures. Each year, Canada admits hundreds of thousands of migrants at rates among the highest in the Western world. The vast majority of those we admit as permanent residents become citizens quickly, at levels far higher than in the United States, France or Germany.
In addition, Canadians overwhelmingly see migration as a good thing. About two-thirds of Canadians feel immigration is a key positive feature of the country, and Canadians who identify themselves as patriotic are also the most likely to support immigration and multiculturalism. This is in contrast to countries such as the United States, France and the United Kingdom, where residents have much more mixed feelings about immigration.
Canada owes its exceptionalism in large part to government policy, which has made it a priority to integrate immigrants into society. For decades, Canada’s policy has focused on providing immigrants with permanent residence, supportive institutions, and a clear path to citizenship. A path to citizenship is not only about fairness, but it brings immigrants fully into the nation, generating mutual obligations and support between new and established Canadians.
As the number of temporary migrants to Canada rises and the government contemplates policy changes that might make it harder for immigrants to gain citizenship, it is important to understand why Canada’s immigration policy has been such a success so far.
Much of the ill feeling towards immigrants in the U.S. and many European countries is rooted in legacies of temporary and clandestine migration. Temporary immigration without a clear road to citizenship is bad for immigrants and for the countries where they live.
Based on the experience of other countries, we know that temporary migration leads to people overstaying visas and becoming “undocumented.” European countries that imported temporary labourers from Turkey, Morocco and other countries to help re-build the continent after Second World War quickly found that migrants stay.
Migrants develop ties in local communities, some fall in love and start families, and employers do not necessarily want to give up experienced workers. Moral questions also arise when you see a worker as little more than a piece of machinery, something to shut down — and send home — when times are tough, and activate again when economic conditions improve.
The United States faces the same challenge today. It finds itself economically dependent on low-skilled undocumented labour, and high-skilled temporary labour, but the country is unwilling to provide paths to citizenship to these workers.
Given this, the rapid rise in temporary migration within Canada’s immigration program raises significant concerns. In a 15-year period from 1996 to 2011, the number of temporary workers in Canada increased from under 150,000 to almost 450,000, according to Citizenship and Immigration Canada. The number is likely over half a million now. While a small number, just over 20,000 people in 2011, can transition to permanent residency, most have no avenue to make a long-term home in Canada.
In April 2015, the first batch of temporary workers subject to a four-year limit on their work in Canada will face the prospect of being forced to return to their home countries. Many will go without having been given the opportunity to contribute economically, socially, culturally or politically to the country over the long term. For others, the incentives to stay in the country where they have begun building their lives will be great.
The billboard I saw near Silicon Valley was there to attract workers on temporary visas, precisely the people who are having a hard time finding a pathway to U.S. citizenship. Canada wanted to offer them a better option. We need to make sure that option exists for temporary workers already in Canada, too.
Immigrants are people. And Canada needs people, not just workers or entrepreneurs. This idea should be front and centre as politicians and Canadians consider the country’s immigration and settlement policies.
Irene Bloemraad is a Senior Fellow at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR), and a professor at University of California, Berkeley. She’ll give the Big Thinking lecture Thursday morning at the Parliamentary Restaurant in Ottawa, presented in partnership with CIFAR and the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.
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