Don’t copy America: Canada needs fewer guest workers, more citizens

Posted on March 20, 2016 in Debates – Opinion/Editorials
Mar. 18, 2016.

There’s a long list of things Canada does better than the United States, and one of them is immigration. Both think of themselves as countries built by immigrants – and the similarities end there.

In Canada, immigration is smooth, legal, economically beneficial and designed to welcome newcomers as future citizens. South of the 49th parallel, in contrast, legal immigration is actually quite low, and far below Canadian levels. But millions of non-legal, non-citizens labour in the U.S. underground economy, unable to fully join American society, vote or become citizens, while providing ammunition for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign of resentment and wall-building to keep out “illegals.”

These days, the inscription on the Statue of Liberty might as well say: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to work as undocumented labourers who can never get citizenship.” We’ll stick with the Canadian model, thanks.

Canada mostly gets immigration right. It’s all about people – economic immigrants, reunited family members and refugees – joining the Canadian family as full members. Almost everyone who comes becomes Canadian. Or at least that’s how it mostly works. But over the past few years, one part of our immigration system started to look less like the Canadian ideal, and more like the U.S. dead end.

In the mid-2000s, during a period of relatively high unemployment, the number of temporary foreign workers coming to Canada began to quietly explode. By the end of 2014, there were more than 353,000 people in Canada under the Temporary Foreign Worker and International Mobility programs – a seven-fold increase since the mid-1990s. In a huge change from Canadian practice, the temporary worker population was greater than the annual number of immigrants.

Faced with a wave of public outrage, with stories of companies refusing to hire Canadians for restaurant and other service jobs, or undercutting wages by bringing in non-Canadians to “temporarily” fill what were clearly permanent positions, the Harper government, which had allowed this to happen, reined in the program.

On Thursday, the Globe revealed that the Liberal government last month quietly rolled back some of those Conservative fixes. Thanks to lobbying from businesses in Atlantic Canada, seasonal industries such as seafood processing will now have something approaching carte blanche to hire temporary foreign workers, even in areas of high unemployment. At the same time, however, the Trudeau government said this relaxation of the rules is just, well, temporary. It will be spending the coming months studying the issue and drafting what it promises will be a newer, better policy.

So what should Canada’s rules on temporary foreign workers look like? To find the answer, follow the principles that have made Canadian immigration a positive force for the economy and society.

There will always be businesses that genuinely need short-term help from overseas, some in highly-skilled fields and some for recurring but short-term work in areas such as agriculture. There has to be a sensitivity to that. But as much as possible, Canada’s workers should be Canadians or people who have the right to become Canadians. Employers shouldn’t be able to drive down wages by bringing in workers with fewer rights than the rest of the community. Nor do we want a legal and economic underclass of permanent non-Canadians, occupying low-wage jobs. Both Europe and the U.S. have gone down this road, to terrible effect. This is Canada, not Qatar.

In 2014, Canada accepted 260,000 new permanent residents, both regular immigrants and refugees. That’s an immigration rate of more than 0.7 per cent of the Canadian population, a level that’s been roughly consistent for a couple of decades. This year, in large part because of an increased intake of refugees, the Trudeau government says Canada will accept between 280,000 and 305,000 people, or as much as 0.85 per cent of our population. They will all come to Canada legally, and they will become Canadians.

Now look at the U.S. In 2013, slightly more than 990,000 people became what the Americans call “lawful permanent residents.” The U.S., remember, has roughly nine times Canada’s population, which means the U.S. rate of legal immigration is 0.31 per cent – less than half the Canadian level.

But those are only the figures for legal immigration, which is not the whole U.S. story. According to the Pew Research Center, there were also 11.3 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. in 2014. Unauthorized immigrants are believed to make up 5.1 per cent of America’s labour force, and 7 per cent of primary and secondary school students had at least one parent who was illegal. In Canada, there are no good statistics, but the numbers are believed to be far lower. And unlike the U.S., it’s not a burning political issue –probably because the numbers are so small, and the paths to legal immigrantion and full citizenship is so much more open.

The lessons in all of this? Both Canada and the U.S. are high immigration countries – but because Canada has the right model, we have far more immigrants, yet far less social dislocation. Canada welcomes large numbers of newcomers into the Canadian family, in a legal and orderly manner, whereas the U.S. only accepts relatively small numbers of legal immigrants, while simultaneously being home to huge number of long-term, illegal entrants. It denies that group the full legal protections of the law, and the right to become citizens.

And many U.S. businesses rely on those non-citizens to fill their lowest-wage and least-desirable jobs. It looks a lot like a black-market version of Canada’s temporary foreign worker program. Canada should be studying the U.S. experience – and doing the opposite.

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