What Is Canada’s Immigration Policy?
Backgrounder

What Is Canada’s Immigration Policy?

With its comparatively open and well-regulated immigration system, Canada remains a top destination for immigrants and refugees.
New Canadians wave the national flag during a citizenship ceremony in Toronto.
New Canadians wave the national flag during a citizenship ceremony in Toronto. Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star/Getty Images
Summary
  • A global leader in refugee resettlement, Canada has an immigration policy that is often touted as a model for other countries. Foreign-born people make up about one-quarter of the population.
  • Immigrants play a vital role in Canada’s economy. Officials granted over 645,000 temporary work permits to foreigners in the first ten months of 2022, nearly four times the previous year’s total.
  • The government has put forth an ambitious plan to welcome five hundred thousand immigrants each year by 2025, but critics worry the increase will exacerbate the demand for housing and social services.

Introduction

Canada has built a reputation over the last half century for welcoming immigrants and valuing multiculturalism. Foreign-born people make up about one-quarter of Canada’s population—the largest share in over 150 years and one of the highest ratios for industrialized Western nations. Immigrants have helped the country counter aging demographics and fuel economic growth, though some Canadians have expressed concern about the increasing strain on housing and social services. 

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In recent years, Canada has become an even more attractive destination for immigrants after policies enacted under U.S. President Donald Trump severely restricted access to the United States. Yet, Canada is also experiencing a labor shortage exacerbated by a dearth of skilled workers. Its immigration system faces an array of other challenges as well, including a surge in asylum claims, rising deportations, and labor abuses against temporary-visa holders.

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.

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, and Latin America and the Caribbean. A 1971 policy first articulated the government’s support for cultural diversity, and legislation in 1976 explicitly codified Canada’s commitment to refugees, mandating that federal and provincial officials develop immigration targets together. It also cast immigration as a tool for meeting the country’s cultural, economic, and social objectives.

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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 1.4 births per woman, far below the global average of 2.4. However, Canada continues to suffer a shortage of skilled workers despite attempts to attract this category of immigrants. Today, immigrants account for more than one-quarter of Canada’s labor force.

How do Canadians view immigration?

The Canadian public has held favorable views of immigration for decades. In a 2022 survey, less than 30 percent of Canadians [PDF] 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, as it has during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Who immigrates to Canada, and where do they settle?

Canada granted more than 437,000 foreigners permanent residency in 2022, the most ever in a single year. The greatest share of new Canadian permanent residents came from India, followed by China, the Philippines, and Nigeria. The current government plans to steadily increase immigration levels over the next several years, with the goal of accepting five hundred thousand new permanent residents into the country each year by 2025.

Ontario has long been the leading destination for immigrants. Between 2016 and 2021, the province welcomed 45 percent of all new permanent residents, the majority of whom settled in and around Toronto, Canada’s largest city.

How does the Canadian immigration process work?

Canada admits new permanent residents under four main categories. In 2021, 62 percent of immigrants were admitted through economic pathways, 20 percent through family sponsorship, 15 percent as protected persons and refugees, and 3 percent for humanitarian or other reasons.

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). Approximately 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 more than 21 percent of economic admissions in 2021. Through this process—as well as similar, Quebec-specific programs—people apply to individual provinces, which choose candidates who fill their economic needs. The federal government must still approve provincially supported immigrants, but it grants most permanent residency.

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. In 2021, Canada resettled the most refugees of any country for the third consecutive year. (It overtook the United States in 2018.) The government welcomed just over twenty thousand refugees in 2021, mostly from Africa and the Middle East—more than double the numbers from 2020, when pandemic-related restrictions slowed resettlement processing. 

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, who accounted for close to half of resettled refugees in 2021, 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 refugees 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 they are not admitted.

What is Canada’s policy on asylum seekers?

Canada is also known for its relative openness to asylum seekers. They 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. In 2021, more than 1,500 asylum seekers entered the country without authorization, which does not lead to criminal prosecution once they claim asylum. That number jumped to nearly thirteen thousand in the first nine months of 2022 as conditions in many migrants’ home countries worsened. It can take officials up to two years to decide whether to grant an applicant protected status. Once that status is granted, most asylum seekers are immediately eligible to apply for permanent residency. In limited circumstances, some unsuccessful asylum seekers may qualify for permanent residency under the humanitarian category.

Some critics, including immigrants who have entered the country via normal channels, claim 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. However, deportations still occur; in 2020, the Canadian government deported more than twelve thousand people, the most since 2015.

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 three-quarters [PDF] 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 over 645,000 temporary work permits to foreigners in the first ten months of 2022, nearly quadrupling the rate of the previous year. These include 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; and these problems worsened amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 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. Estimates vary, but academic sources say there could be up to five hundred thousand undocumented people living in Canada.

In 2022, Canadian polling firm Léger found that about half of all Canadians surveyed felt the government’s target of five hundred thousand immigrants a year is too high, while 75 percent expressed concern that more immigration will result in excess demand for housing and social services. 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.

The Trump administration’s immigration actions 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 linked 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 (TPS). The surge 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. 

Still, the immigration pressures continued. In 2020, a Canadian court ruled that a U.S.-Canada agreement that manages refugee claimants at the border was unconstitutional. Human rights organizations similarly argued that it endangered asylum seekers. However, the ruling was overturned in April 2021, and the deal remains in effect.

Yet, some of Trump’s immigration actions were a boon for Canada’s economy. For example, in June 2020, his administration suspended the issuing of visas for highly skilled workers. Meanwhile, Canada made it easier for foreign workers to acquire jobs on its territory, giving qualified professionals—many applying from the United States—work permits within two weeks. This has led some U.S. companies to expand their presence in Canada. In light of Canada’s success in managing migrant flows, Trump proposed a merit-based plan modeled after Canada’s points-based system in which preference would be given to highly skilled migrants.

President Biden’s immigration policies have varied. He reversed many of Trump’s actions, such as the freeze on green cards enacted in late 2020. In addition, his administration has reinstated TPS for Haitians; extended benefits to several other countries, including Afghanistan and Ukraine; and raised the annual refugee admissions cap to 125,000 for fiscal year 2023. However, Biden has also imposed stricter requirements on  crossings at the southern U.S. border by proposing new asylum restrictions and increasing expulsions under Title 42, a pandemic-era public health order.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected immigration?

Throughout the pandemic, the Canadian government, like many around the world, has imposed travel and immigration restrictions. In March 2020, Ottawa blocked most foreign travel, including nonessential transit of the Canada-U.S. border, and turned away asylum seekers. In November 2021, asylum seekers were again allowed entry, but remaining travel restrictions, including vaccination requirements, still make it difficult for certain immigrants to enter the country. 

The pandemic has also spurred some reforms. Canada’s Express Entry program, which facilitates the acceptance of skilled workers based on a points system, now accepts migrants who receive a minimum score of sixty-seven, down from the previous record low of seventy-five. And in May 2021, the Canadian government created a new temporary pathway to permanent residency for nearly ninety thousand people living in Canada with a temporary status, including international graduates and health-care and other essential workers. The government ended that program but announced in September 2022 that it is planning to create an updated version that it says will help fast-track the immigration process.

Recommended Resources

For the Migration Policy Institute, Ian Van Haren looks at the success of Canada’s private sponsorship and resettlement programs.

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

The Economist discusses how the Canadian government plans to attract more immigrants.

For the Wall Street Journal, Paul Vieira details Canada’s struggle to provide housing for the influx of new residents.

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

Georgetown University’s Zachary Arnold writes about how more U.S. citizens are permanently immigrating to Canada.

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William Rampe and Antonio Barreras Lozano contributed to this Backgrounder. Will Merrow created the graphics.

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