No country for old men
Posted on January 13, 2015
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. The idea of basing admission to Canada on merit rather than on a bureaucrat’s whim was visionary at the time. Several countries, including Australia, New Zealand and Singapore, adopted Canadian-style points systems. In Europe even politicians hostile to “uncontrolled” immigration sing the praises of Canada’s selective approach.
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.
In this, Canada is a follower rather than a leader. New Zealand started giving preference to job holders in 2003 and Australia made the shift in 2009. The change makes sense. 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.
Employer-led systems are intended to correct some of these problems. They reduce the mismatch between available jobs and immigrants’ skills, and encourage them to settle outside big cities such as Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, where they tend to congregate. “If you care only about how immigrants fare in an economic sense, evidence suggests an employer-led system is good,” says Madeleine Sumption, head of the Migration Observatory at Oxford University.
The Conservatives’ first attempt to adopt one was not a success. The government tried to please employers by sharply increasing the number of foreign workers allowed in temporarily. That was the only way to fill low- and semi-skilled jobs that Canadians did not want, says Dan Kelly, head of the association that represents Canada’s small businesses; applicants for permanent residence were too well educated. But there were complaints. Rather than discriminating against immigrants, employers went out of their way to hire them at lower cost. A bank laid off 60 information-technology workers and contracted the work to a supplier, who applied to bring in foreign workers to replace them. Visas for “exotic dancers” embarrassed the prime minister, Stephen Harper, an evangelical Christian. The government severely restricted entry under temporary work visas last June.
Express Entry is a second attempt. It ranks would-be economic migrants on a 1,200-point scale, with half the points awarded to those with a job offer or a nomination under one of Canada’s provincial immigration plans, which are closely aligned with job vacancies (see chart). Those with the highest scores will be quickly invited to apply for permanent residency under one of three economic entry programmes. The rest remain in a pool from which the government and eventually employers can pick. While skilled workers must still pass the old 100-point system, this is a legal formality. The new system will help attract the engineers, information-technology specialists and health-care workers that Canada needs, says Mr Alexander.
The changes deal with earlier problems by requiring that applicants prove in advance that their credentials are recognised in Canada and by obliging employers to show in advance that no eligible Canadian is available for the job. The new scheme lowers Canada’s age targets: applicants in their 20s get maximum points for age. Canada’s new dream immigrant is younger, more polyglot, has already worked longer in Canada than the older version and, unlike him or her, has a job offer. One former minister praises the Conservatives for transforming the immigration department into a giant manpower agency.
Not everyone is so happy. 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.