What Is Canada’s Immigration Policy?

What Is Canada’s Immigration Policy?

New Canadians take the oath of citizenship in Toronto.
New Canadians take the oath of citizenship in Toronto. Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star

With its comparatively open and well-regulated immigration system, Canada has become a top destination for immigrants and refugees.

August 3, 2020 9:00 am (EST)

New Canadians take the oath of citizenship in Toronto.
New Canadians take the oath of citizenship in Toronto. Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star
Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.


Canada has built a reputation over the last half century of welcoming immigrants and valuing multiculturalism. Foreign-born people make up about one-fifth of Canada’s population—one of the highest ratios [PDF] for industrialized Western countries. Immigrants have helped the country counter aging demographics and fuel economic growth. In recent years, Canada has become an even more attractive destination for immigrants because the United States, under the leadership of President Donald J. Trump, has curtailed many of its immigration programs, including those for refugees, asylum seekers, and temporary workers.      

What role has immigration played in Canada historically?

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As in the United States, immigration has significantly shaped Canadian society and culture. Following its independence from the United Kingdom in 1867, Canada used immigration to help develop vast tracts of land. Government-sponsored information campaigns and recruiters encouraged immigrants of that era to settle in rural, frontier areas.

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But not all immigrants were welcome. Nineteenth- and early twentieth–century policies prevented or discouraged immigration by select groups, including certain people of non-European and non-Christian backgrounds, as well as the poor, ill, and disabled. Canada’s immigration calculus changed during the postwar period as refugees and others fled Europe, public attitudes toward outsiders softened, and economic growth demanded a larger workforce. Cold War tensions also influenced Canadian policy, with preferences established for anti-Communist and Soviet-bloc immigrants.

Legislation in the 1960s and 1970s laid the groundwork for the immigration regime Canada has today, which embraces multiculturalism. In 1967, Ottawa introduced a points-based system for evaluating applicants, after which Canada saw a jump in immigration from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and Latin America. A 1971 policy first articulated the government’s support for cultural diversity, and legislation in 1976 explicitly codified Canada’s commitment to refugees, mandated federal and provincial officials develop immigration targets together, and cast immigration as a tool for meeting the country’s cultural, economic, and social objectives.

Immigration has long played a vital role in Canada’s economy, providing a relatively young stream of workers. Immigrants have become increasingly important as the native-born labor force ages and the fertility rate remains low, at roughly 1.5 births per woman. However, Canada continues to suffer a shortage of skilled workers despite attempts to attract this category of immigrants. Today, immigrants account for nearly one-quarter of Canadian workers.

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How do Canadians view immigration?

The Canadian public has held favorable views of immigration for decades. In a 2019 poll, only about one-third of Canadians felt immigration levels were too high. Canadians generally view both immigrants and their country’s immigration system more positively than their counterparts in the United States. This is due in part to the Canadian government’s efforts to promote and embrace a policy of multiculturalism and make diversity part of the national identity. Canada also does not have large-scale unauthorized migration, a challenge that has fueled backlash against immigrants in many other countries, including the United States. Still, some research suggests public support for immigration could slip easily.

Who immigrates to Canada, and where do they settle?

Canada welcomed roughly 340,000 new permanent residents in 2019, the highest number in more than a century. The United States, with a population nearly nine times larger, accepted 577,000 permanent residents that year. The greatest share of new Canadian permanent residents came from India, and many were skilled professionals. In addition, Canada admitted about eight hundred thousand temporary workers and international students last year.

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Ontario has long been the leading destination for immigrants. In 2019, the province was home to 45 percent of new permanent residents, the majority of whom settled around Toronto, Canada’s largest city.

How does the Canadian immigration process work?

Canada admits new permanent residents under four main categories. In 2018, 58 percent of new permanent residents were admitted through the economic stream, followed by 27 percent through family sponsorship, 14 percent through protected persons and refugees, and 1 percent through humanitarian or other.

Economic. Canada’s economic immigration process has been touted as a model for other countries. The largest share of economic immigrants come through federal high-skilled worker programs. Many apply through a point system that gives preference to younger candidates with job offers and high levels of education, experience, and language proficiency (i.e., English and French). Every two weeks, the government invites top-ranking individuals to apply for permanent residency, an expensive and comprehensive process that includes language testing and biometric screening. Most applicants receive a decision within six months.

The second-largest economic immigration pathway is the Provincial Nominee Program, which accounted for one-third of all economic immigrants in 2018. Through this process—as well as similar, Quebec-specific programs—people apply to individual provinces, which choose candidates that fill their economic needs. The federal government must still approve provincially supported immigrants, but it grants most permanent residency. Canada’s provincial immigration approach has sparked interest in the United States, where regional programs could bolster growth in cities with dwindling populations. In 2014, Michigan asked the federal government to set aside fifty thousand visas to attract high-skilled immigrants to Detroit, though this has not happened.

Family. This class of immigrants includes spouses, partners, and children joining family members already living in Canada. Under this program, legal permanent residents apply to sponsor their relatives, who must also apply for permanent residency. Canada recognizes same-sex couples for this immigration category, even if they are not legally married, although a couple must provide proof of a long-standing relationship.

Protected Persons and Refugees. Canada overtook the United States as the world’s top refugee resettler in 2018, granting permanent residency to more than twenty-eight thousand displaced people, mostly from Africa and the Middle East. There are two main types of resettled refugees: government-assisted and privately sponsored. Government-assisted refugees are referred by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees based on their location and vulnerability, and receive government assistance during their transition. Privately sponsored refugees, which account for roughly two-thirds of resettled refugees, are brought to Canada by government-approved citizens and organizations that assume legal and financial responsibility for them. Refugees cannot apply directly to be resettled in Canada. All undergo rigorous screening by Canadian officials, and generally have permanent resident status when they arrive.

Humanitarian and Other. Canada grants permanent residency to a small number of people for other reasons. These include broadly defined humanitarian and compassionate grounds, such as specific hardships that applicants would face if they were to return to their home countries. Individuals must receive permission to apply. Officials consider various factors when adjudicating cases, such as applicants’ connections to Canada and the circumstances they face if not admitted.

What is Canada’s policy on asylum seekers?

Canada is also known for its relative openness toward people arriving in the country seeking asylum. Asylum seekers often come to Canada for similar reasons as resettled refugees, but they differ from the latter in that they have not obtained government approval before arriving.

Migrants can make a claim at any border crossing or airport, as well as certain government offices inside Canada. As of 2017, about two-fifths of asylum seekers enter the country without authorization, which does not lead to criminal prosecution once they claim asylum. It can take officials nearly two years to decide whether to grant an applicant protected status. In 2018, Canada granted asylum in 7,600 cases, totaling more than 60 percent of claims, compared to about 35 percent for the United States. Most are immediately eligible to apply for permanent residency. In narrow circumstances, some unsuccessful asylum seekers may qualify for permanent residency under the Humanitarian and Other category.

Some critics, including immigrants who have entered the country via normal channels, charge that Canada allows asylum seekers to “jump the queue” and enter through “backdoor immigration.” While officials consider their cases, asylum seekers receive health care and, potentially, housing assistance, social welfare, and work rights. Moreover, the government tends not to deport failed asylum claimants, and some remain in Canada illegally.

How do immigrants adjust to life in Canada?

Canada goes to comparatively great lengths to help immigrants assimilate by providing them with orientation programs, skills training, social services, and pathways to citizenship. In recent years, roughly 70 percent of the federal immigration agency’s budget has gone toward settlement programs. This level of support has helped make Canada one of the most sought-after destinations for immigrants, with high rates of immigrant satisfaction and naturalization. Immigrants have risen to prominent positions within Canadian society, including the prime minister’s cabinet.

Still, immigrants continue to lag behind native-born Canadians on certain economic indicators, although the disparities have diminished over time and generations. Many struggle to find employment that matches their skills and qualifications. “Immigrants do have to work incredibly hard to find their footing in the Canadian economy, especially those immigrants who lack linguistic ability,” says Daniel Hiebert, a professor at the University of British Columbia who has advised Canadian officials on immigration.

What are Canada’s temporary foreign worker programs?

Canada has several temporary foreign worker programs intended to address industry-specific needs and support the country’s economic and cultural advancement. Officials granted roughly 340,000 short-term work permits to foreigners in 2018, including agricultural laborers, in-home caregivers, and highly skilled professionals.

The system is complex, but temporary workers generally come to Canada through one of two pathways. The International Mobility Program provides work visas to foreigners that fit broad criteria. Employers can hire them without considering Canadian applicants, though some permit holders have restrictions on where and what jobs they can work. Meanwhile, the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) allows businesses that cannot find employees domestically to recruit internationally. All foreign workers receive labor protections, and officials inspect their workplaces to mitigate mistreatment. Still, abuse and corruption are common in Canada’s temporary worker system, facilitated by insufficient government oversight and work permits that tie immigrants to a single employer. How long foreign workers can remain in Canada varies. While some skilled temporary workers eventually gain permanent residency, low-wage laborers generally cannot.

How much of a challenge is illegal immigration in Canada?

Canada’s geography—bordered by three oceans and the United States, which is itself a magnet for immigrants—has helped Ottawa limit flows of undocumented people. Its highly regulated immigration system, including some of the world’s strictest visitor-visa requirements, is designed to further curb this phenomenon. Experts estimate there are 200,000–500,000 undocumented people living in Canada.

Nearly half of Canadians favored increasing deportations of people in Canada illegally, according to a 2017 Reuters/Ipsos poll that also found public reluctance to accept unauthorized immigrants from the United States, whom some deemed a safety concern. Nonetheless, several Canadian cities have sanctuary city and “access without fear” policies that limit police cooperation with immigration authorities and guarantee undocumented people public services. Officials also rarely enforce a law banning Canadian companies from hiring undocumented workers.

How have U.S. policies affected Canada’s immigration system?

The United States and Canada have long collaborated to control the movement of people and goods across their shared, mostly unguarded border, the longest in the world at more than five thousand miles.

In 2011, the governments announced a “Beyond the Border” strategy to enhance security cooperation and promote lawful travel and trade. Under the plan, the two countries began sharing information about visa applicants and border crossers. More broadly, the bilateral framework has fostered a healthy working relationship between Canada and the United States, which some analysts say is likely to last for years to come. “The Beyond the Border agreement and all of the subsequent actions under it have institutionalized a level of Canada-U.S. border cooperation that is deep enough…to survive changes in political leadership in both countries,” says Theresa Cardinal Brown, an immigration expert at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Over the last few years, some of the Trump administration’s immigration actions have placed strains on Canada’s system. In 2017, when Trump took office, Canada received roughly fifty thousand asylum claims, double the previous year’s. Experts link this to a number of Trump policies, including asylum and travel restrictions, heightened immigration enforcement, and the decision not to renew Haitians’ Temporary Protected Status. The surge has overwhelmed Canadian authorities, prompting officials to tighten border security, modify the asylum screening process, and even visit the United States to deter would-be migrants.

The immigration pressures could increase, analysts say, following a Canadian court’s July 2020 ruling that a long-running agreement with the United States that requires Canada to turn back asylum seekers entering from the United States violates Canada’s charter. Specifically, the court said the 2004 agreement put ineligible asylum seekers at risk of detention by U.S. immigration officials. Canada’s Parliament has until January 2021 to address the court’s ruling.

Some of Trump’s immigration actions have been a boon for Canada’s economy. For example, in June 2020, his administration suspended the issuing of visas for highly skilled workers until at least the end of the year. Meanwhile, Canada has made it easier for foreign workers to acquire jobs there, giving qualified professionals, many applying from the United States, work permits within two weeks. Some U.S. companies are also expanding their presence in Canada.

How has the coronavirus pandemic affected immigration?

Amid the pandemic of the new coronavirus disease, COVID-19, the Canadian government, like many across the world, has imposed travel and immigration restrictions. In March, the country blocked most foreign travel, including nonessential transit of the Canada-U.S. border. As a result, Canada began turning back most asylum seekers arriving from the United States, raising concerns among advocates. The country also suspended refugee settlement, as well as the processing of many work permits and permanent residency applications. Nonetheless, Ottawa made it easier for international students to virtually attend Canadian universities after Washington sought to deport international students taking only online courses at U.S. universities.

The pandemic has also prompted some reforms. A spike in infections and deaths among migrant farm laborers, which prompted Mexico to temporarily stop sending workers to Canada, forced Ottawa to reevaluate how it safeguards the tens of thousands of temporary foreign workers employed by Canadian farmers. Ottawa is also considering how to recognize the efforts of asylum-seeking health-care workers.

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The University of British Columbia’s Daniel Hiebert explains Canadian multiculturalism and support for immigration.

This Atlantic article challenges Canada’s open-arms reputation.

Drawing on interviews with asylum seekers, this Migration Policy Institute article assesses the impacts of Trump’s policies on Canada.

The Migration Policy Institute chronicles changes in Canada’s immigration policy.

This Globe and Mail investigation reveals a dark side to Canada’s temporary worker system.

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