The Economist: ‘Canada’s immigration policy: No country for old men’

IN 1967 Canada invented a way to remove discrimination and prejudice from the process of choosing which immigrants to let in. The points system ignored an applicant’s race and country of origin (until then it helped to be white). Instead, it rewarded education, fluency in English or French and work experience. With the change, Asians supplanted white Europeans as the dominant immigrant group…

…Canada remains relatively enlightened on immigration. The ruling Conservative Party may be the only right-leaning party in the Western world firmly in favour of it. While European countries look for ways to close their doors and the United States argues about how many illegal immigrants to deport, Canada recently lifted its target for new permanent residents from 265,000 a year to 285,000. Chris Alexander, minister for immigration, says he expected a fuss when the announcement was made in October. It never came. “People thought it was the right thing to do,” he says.

But Canadian policy is changing. Since winning power in 2006 the Conservatives have moved away from the idea of letting in people based on their “talent for citizenship” to admitting workers with job offers. On January 1st the government moved further in that direction. A new “Express Entry system” greatly increases the weight given to offers of employment for people applying to become permanent residents…

But critics worry that in shifting from a policy based on civic values to one governed by commercial logic, Canada is making the system more vulnerable to fraud and discrimination. Though more open than other right-of-centre parties, Canada’s Conservatives have been characteristically hard-nosed about letting in refugees and immigrants’ family members.

The original points system had flaws. Immigrants escaped discrimination at the entry gates but often faced it when they tried to find a job. Employers did not always recognise skills and education acquired abroad, especially outside Europe. Doctors ended up driving taxis; architects toiled at convenience stores. The unemployment rate among immigrants is nearly 50% higher than that of Canadian-born workers…

…The changes amount to a privatisation of immigration policy and could reintroduce discrimination, says Jeffrey Reitz of the University of Toronto. “The points system, with all its flaws, had some value,” he believes. Visa officers fear that an employer-led system will be “fraught with fraud”, according to a survey commissioned by the immigration department. They worry that non-existent employers will offer fictitious jobs to residents’ friends and families.

Immigrants who are tied to an employer for a fixed period are at risk of abuse. Unlike the old points system, which is neutral on race and nationality, the new one makes it possible for employers to discriminate in ways that are hard to detect. English-speaking employers in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver give preference to job applicants with English-sounding names, according to a study published in 2011…

…The Conservatives’ turn towards employers goes along with a tougher line on refugees and elderly people who want to join their families in Canada. The old points system gave applicants credit for family members in Canada (under “adaptability”); the new one does not. Jason Kenney, who preceded Mr Alexander as immigration minister, tightened admissions of refugees on the grounds that too many “abuse our generosity or take advantage of our country”. A court ruled that his cuts to spending on refugees’ health care were cruel and unconstitutional, a decision the government is appealing against. Mr Alexander is under fire for agreeing to admit just 1,300 refugees from Syria in 2014. He insists that Canada taking more than its share given the size of its population. About 2,400 Syrian refugees now are in Canada and the government has promised to take in an additional 10,000 over the next three years.

The new Canadians are younger and better educated than ever before, boasts Mr Alexander. “Our immigrants have a much higher incidence of post-secondary degrees than the Canadian population at large,” he says. That bodes well for Canada’s future. But the idealism of the past is fading.

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