Canada’s Immigration Policy

Canada has a comparatively open immigration policy designed to attract a group of diverse, educated professionals. But recent arrests linked to a terror cell have raised questions about integration of Muslims and lax policy.

July 6, 2006

Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

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Canada is among the world’s most generous nations for immigrants and has one of the highest per capita admission rates. It has, on average, offered residency to about 200,000 immigrants and refugees a year over the past decade, earning a global reputation for an "open arms" attitude. However, with the United States seeking to secure its borders after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and over a dozen terrorism-related arrests in June involving Muslims of foreign descent, questions have been raised about Canada’s immigration policy and its ability to assimilate those immigrants already on Canadian soil.

What has Canada’s position on immigration been historically?

Like the United States, Canada is one of a handful of countries where immigration has traditionally been a major shaping factor in society and culture. With its small population and vast tracts of unsettled land, Canada’s immigration policy was initially fueled by a desire for expansion, with most immigrants settling in rural, frontier areas. In the early twentieth century, Canada began to control the flow of immigrants, adopting policies that excluded applicants whose ethnic origins were not European. However, by 1976 new laws removed ethnic criteria, and Canada became a destination for immigrants from a wide variety of countries, which it remains today. The 2006 UN Report on International Migration and Development (PDF) ranked Canada seventh among twenty-eight countries that currently host 75 percent of all international migrants.

Who immigrates to Canada?

Canada has granted permanent resident status to more than 200,000 immigrants and refugees in each of the last ten years and aims to maintain similar if not higher levels for 2006. The majority come from Asia, particularly China, India, and the Philippines. Significant numbers also come from Pakistan, Iran, Britain, and the United States, in addition to a number of African countries. The number of Muslim immigrants to Canada has increased in recent years; over 175,000 Muslims immigrated to Canada from 1996 to 2001.

How does Canadian immigration policy work?

Immigration policy in Canada is structured around three main categories:

  • Economic. This category represents the largest portion of immigrants each year. Selection is based on a point system that rewards applicants with higher levels of education, job experience, and language skills (i.e., English and French). With the manufacturing sector in decline and the country shifting toward a more information-based economy, this policy emphasizes flexible, transferable skills over specific occupations.
  • Family reunification. This class of immigrants includes spouses and children joining family members who are already living in Canada. This is the second-largest group of immigrants admitted on a yearly basis. Canada will recognize same-sex couples in this category even if they are not legally married due to restrictions in their country of origin, although a couple must provide proof of a long-standing relationship.
  • Refugees. This is the smallest group of immigrants admitted to Canada every year. It includes both humanitarian resettlement programs and claims for asylum protection.

Between 1990 and 2002, 49 percent of immigrants to Canada were from the economic class, 34 percent were from the family reunification category and 13 percent were humanitarian cases.

Don DeVoretz, codirector of Vancouver’s Center for Research on Immigration and Integration in the Metropolis (RIIM) at Simon Fraser University, says the policy is designed so that economic immigrants will fuel growth in Canada, offsetting the cost of other types of immigrants. "The policy of the Canadian program is very clear," Devoretz says. "They expect that those that are selected for their economic prowess will support those that are not selected for their economic prowess."

How does the government accommodate immigrants?

Canada provides immigrants with language training and access to Canada’s national health care and social welfare programs. "The Canadian government has many more programs to welcome immigrants and help them settle than the United States," says Deborah Meyers of the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based group. However, the Canadian government is concerned by certain economic indicators that suggest immigrants arriving since the 1990s have had more difficulty matching the economic success of those who came in the 1980s. Some studies also show that despite the focus on admitting educated professionals, many recent immigrants do not find jobs that match the level of their qualifications. The Conference Board of Canada estimates underemployment affects approximately 340,000 immigrants annually, costing them some $4 billion in lost earnings. "It’s the story of a mismatch of qualifications," says DeVoretz. "Some immigrants don’t have the language skills [in English or French] to exploit their degrees. Some people arrived with [foreign] qualifications that we didn’t recognize."

However, the problem may be broader than that. While income levels rise for Canadian-born children of immigrants, this is more often the case for immigrants of European origin. Non-white Canadians are almost twice as likely as the rest of the Canadian population to experience low income rates. Still, the 2001 census, which was the first to ask whether a respondent’s parents were foreign born, indicates some positive signs for second- and third-generation immigrants. Education levels are as high, or higher, than their counterparts throughout the country, and intermarriage in urban areas is relatively common.

What is Canada’s policy on asylum seekers?

Canada is known for having a relatively liberal policy on asylum. Any person who arrives in Canada can apply for refugee status at any border, airport, or immigration office inside the country. "If you arrive and say you are a refugee—even people that most other countries would not consider a refugee—Canada will at least look at a claim from anyone in the world, and that includes friendly nations and democracies like the United States," says Martin Collacott of the Fraser Institute, a conservative Canadian think tank.

The process is divided into two parts. First, a claim is submitted to Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC). CIC determines within three days whether the claim is eligible to be referred to the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB), the body that makes the final determination as to whether the applicant will receive protected status. Once a person has received refugee status, he or she can apply for permanent residency.

Critics of the system charge that it encourages people to attempt "back-door" immigration by applying for refugee status. In addition, because applicants can move around the country freely while awaiting a determination, potential security threats may go unnoticed. "Unless someone is very clearly on a [terrorist] watch list we release them fairly quickly and then hope they turn up for their hearing," says Collacott, who adds that applicants who are denied refugee protection are not aggressively pursued for deportation, and some remain in Canada illegally. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Canada’s acceptance rate for refugees (PDF) in 2005 was just over 50 percent, compared with 32 percent for the U.S.

Did the Toronto arrests in June spark new scrutiny of immigration policy?

The high profile break-up of an alleged al-Qaeda cell in Toronto this June sparked more debate over Canada’s anti-terror measures than its immigration policy per se, particularly the broad powers of surveillance contained in the law. Proponents see the arrests as proof that surveillance is an effective anti-terror measure, while opponents fear the policy grants too much power to law enforcement and could ensnare innocent civilians.

What changes have been made since 9/11?

Canada has tightened security measures since 9/11, including signing the Smart Border Declaration with the United States, which provides for increased intelligence sharing and security measures, among other things. The number of Canadian agents along the U.S.-Canada border has increased and new surveillance and truck cargo scanning systems have been installed. In June 2006, Canadian immigration officials announced a field trial of a face and fingerprint biometric screening system at selected ports of entry and immigration offices. In addition, Canada now deploys immigration officers overseas to identify undocumented travelers, or those with fraudulent documents, and stop them from traveling to Canada to seek asylum. Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade reports this program stopped more than 6,000 individuals from entering the country in 2004.

Critics say that though the current government has shown a commitment to making improvements, such as reducing the backlog of cases and speeding up the application process, the recent arrests of terror suspects in Toronto are proof that more should be done on security. "It’s taken for granted that we help people integrate so much that we don’t have problems with extremism," Collacott says. "No country is going to be perfect, but our combination of circumstances is that we’ve got a growing Muslim community, and there’s been an increase in radical mosque leaders."

How large is the Muslim community in Canada?

There are some 750,000 Muslims living in Canada today, a significant increase from the 580,000 Muslims recorded in the 2001 census. Approximately 90 percent are immigrants originating from South Asian and Arab countries. After the arrests in Toronto, Muslim leaders expressed concerns about profiling at the hands of law enforcement. In addition, public opinion towards Muslim may be worsening. A Toronto mosque was vandalized following the June arrests, and a Leger Marketing poll found some evidence of a backlash against immigration, though the effect was less pronounced in Ontario, where the arrests were made, than elsewhere in the country.

Does Canada have a guest-worker program?

Canada has several temporary worker programs including those for seasonal agricultural workers, live-in caregivers, and construction workers. Just under 100,000 foreign workers were admitted to Canada in 2004, the most recent year for which comprehensive statistics are available. These programs are intended to address industry-specific labor needs, but there is concern in the labor community that they are a drag on wages. "The whole temporary worker program is a scam to get people to come here who are willing to work for less money," says Robert Blakely, Director of Canadian Affairs for the Building and Construction Trades, AFL-CIO Canada Office. Temporary workers can apply for permanent residency, but they often do not qualify under the point system, which favors the well-educated. "A lot of them have no high school education, and the language skills are just not there," says Silvia Bendo, Program Manager for CREWS, the construction industry’s temporary worker program. Bendo says the program is not really intended to lead to permanent migration.

Is illegal immigration a problem in Canada?

Experts put the number of undocumented immigrants in Canada at between 100,000 and 200,000 people. It is illegal for companies in Canada to hire undocumented workers—they can face fines and even jail time—but this law is rarely enforced. Many illegal immigrants in Canada are failed refugee claimants who never leave the country, or people who overstay visas. Illegal immigrants are most numerous in the construction and hospitality industries. "It isn’t as big a problem as in the United States, but it is still a problem," says Blakely. "There are a fair number of people who are working in the underground economy in British Columbia, in Vancouver, and in Toronto, who are being paid less [than the legal minimum] and are being exploited."

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