Immigration reform in the U.S. could end up hurting Canada
LUIZA CH. SAVAGEJuly92007
SEND US YOUR SKILLED!
Immigration reform in the U.S. could end up hurting Canada
LUIZA CH. SAVAGE
As she looks OUt beyond New York harbour, the Statue of Liberty beckons the world’s “tired,” its “poor” and its “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” She also asks, with blunt specificity, for “the wretched refuse of your teeming shores.” She says nothing of credentials or graduate degrees. And neither does the bulk of the American immigration system, which is built around the notion of reuniting families, admitting spouses, siblings, parents, even adult children and their spouses—often entire clans, be they designers of computer software or herders of goats. Almost two-thirds of American immigrants are admitted solely based on their family ties to people already in the country; only 15 per cent are let in on special visas sponsored by employers seeking skilled workers.
But this could soon change as Congress considers a sweeping immigration reform that includes a proposal to adopt a system like the one Canada has had in place for four decades: the explicit cherry-picking of the
world’s most skilled immigrants based on criteria such as the desirability of their occupation (journalists, for example, are not on the list), their years of higher education and work experience, and their age. That is fed into an elaborate matrix of “points” assigned by bureaucrats whose job it is to unsentimentally sort out those who are likely to add to the national treasury from those who won’t. If you score 67 out of 100 points, welcome to Canada. If you don’t, then we politely “recommend that you not apply at this time.”
In Canada, more than half of immigrants are skilled workers and those picked for their contributions to the economy (such as investors and entrepreneurs). This approach is seen as key to keeping the country competitive, growing a skilled workforce, and bringing in enough young productive workers to keep social programs afloat. Now, under the Amer-
ican proposal, visas for siblings and adult children would be eliminated, and limits placed on the number of parents that can come in. The number of family-class immigrants would eventually drop to less than 40 per cent, and the points-based immigrants would account for another 40 per cent.
It’s a proposal that, along with the deep divisions over what to do with the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants (turn them into citizens or ship them home and wall off the southern border), is transforming a policy disagreement into a battle over the nation’s soul. Immigration is becoming
to the U.S. what health care is to Canada: a debate that transcends policy and reaches into the national mythology, where proposals are judged not only on their effectiveness but on whether or not they are “un-Canadian” or “un-American.”
President George W. Bush defends the Canadian-style points proposal as a meritbased system. “This will reward new applicants based upon skills and education, so we can ensure that America continues to have the world’s most talented workforce,” he said. But critics such as Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama, himself the son of an American mother and a foreign student from Kenya, has criticized the proposal as “social engineering” and a “class-based system” that threatens to “weaken the very essence of what America is.”
House Leader Nancy Pelosi, who like Obama supports other parts of Bush’s immigration approach, such as a path to citizenship
UNDER THE NEW SYSTEM, THE ‘TIRED’ AND ‘POOR’ NEED NOT APPLY
for undocumented workers, has criticized the points proposal as undermining “family values” and devaluing hard work. “Whether you’ve come here as a doctor, as a scientist, as a computer specialist, or you’ve come here to pick grapes, or you’ve come here to wash dishes or clean out bedpans, all work is valued and honoured here,” she said. “It all makes our economy the strong economy that it is, and we honour and value all of that work.”
In Canada, when it is critiqued at all, the points system is mostly faulted for contributing to the “brain drain” of developing nations—and for skimming off their engineers and doctors only to leave too many driving taxicabs because they can’t get their foreign credentials recognized by provincial licensing bodies.
But in the U.S., the debate centres to a large extent on how the proposal could reshape the face of American immigration. Roughly half of family-class immigrants today
are from Latin America and the Caribbean, and their numbers would shrink under the points system. For example, recent immigrants from India, Korea, China and the Philippines were the most likely to have university degrees; those from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic and Vietnam were quite likely to not even have a high school diploma, and therefore would earn no points for education, according to a study by the Migration Policy Institute, a non-partisan think tank in Washington.
Critics also cry elitism. “How many of our
ancestors would have been allowed to enter the U.S. under this new system?”asked Obama. Probably not many, if the Canadian experience is any indication. When economist Don DeVoretz of Simon Fraser University compared the qualifications of a random sample of native-born Canadians from the 2006 census against the criteria for immigration points, he found that only 34 per cent of Canadians would be allowed into their own country. “It’s a tough test,” said DeVoretz.
Of course, Canada does allow family reunification (28 per cent of immigrants come in this way). Another 13 per cent are allowed in as refugees escaping persecution. But Canada has historically seen immigrants as a much-needed source of manpower, notes Tamara Palmer Seiler, head of culture studies at the University of Calgary. “In Canada, there has not been the same notion that this is a haven for the downtrodden of the world— rather, it has been, ‘we want to choose who will work best for us,’ ” she says.
Canada’s points system was not faced with the same elitism charge when it was enacted in 1967 The main reason was what it replaced: an ethnically biased system that divided potential immigrants into those coming from countries classified as “preferred” (northern European) and “non-preferred” (everyone else). But the system has its shortcomings. “Everyone naively thought that at last we have a completely objective system for determining who gets in,” says Palmer Seiler. “But critics would say there is a built-in class bias, and perhaps a gender bias.”
And, despite its careful design, the points system has not ensured that immigrants to Canada fare better here once they arrive. Whether it’s due to discrimination, language barriers, or the difficulty of having their credentials recognized, recent immigrants to Canada generally fare less well than their educational backgrounds would suggest.
As well, the system seems to attract a highly mobile group of immigrants who aren’t averse to acquiring a Canadian passport and then moving on. For example, about 40 per cent of the Chinese who came to Canada in their prime working years over the last 10 to 12 years eventually left the country-most went to high-paying jobs in Hong Kong and the U.S., says DeVoretz, who studies the movements and motivations of what he calls the “foreign-born Canadian diaspora.” A significant number of Indo-Canadians have also left—either returning to India or using Canada as a step to employer-sponsored visas to Silicon Valley and elsewhere,
he notes. As many as half of the people who leave Canada for the U.S. in a given year are foreign-born, mostly Chinese and South Asian. DeVoretz’s interviews with hundreds of Canadian immigrants-turned-emigrants yielded one common answer for why they left: “Jobs, jobs, jobs.”
So what happens if the United States suddenly swings open the doors to its immense job market to young skilled workers from across the world who don’t necessarily have relatives in the country or a job offer in hand? DeVoretz predicts that “Canada is screwed. It will demolish our system.” The U.S. will become the destination of choice for the same people Canada wants to attract, he predicts.
But there are ways Canada could continue to attract and keep the best and brightest. DeVoretz suggests paying less attention to foreign credentials, and instead laying out the red carpet for the 130,000 foreign graduate students who are already here. Allowing them to stay, work, and begin their family lives here would cement their ties, he says. “We should be fast-tracking graduate students and undergrads for citizenship. My idea is once you have two kids, you ain’t movin’.” M
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