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Immigration dilemmas

Print edition : Aug 15, 2003 T+T-

Canada's liberal immigration policy comes under intense scrutiny following the passage of the new Immigration Act, and the exercise will gain momentum with general elections just round the corner.

in Toronto

IMMIGRATION is one of the most contentious issues in Canadian politics. Time and again it comes to engage the attention of the political party in power and those in the Opposition.

The Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, which came into force on June 28, 2002, replaced the Immigration Act of 1978, which was actually conceived in 1976. The 1978 Act was amended more than 30 times and new regulations were added to it to encompass the changes in immigration trends and needs. The new Act of 2002 was introduced because it was high time an overhaul of the whole immigration process was done and a much closer view was taken of what Canada was and what Canada hoped to become in another decade or so.

This close inspection was already in the works when 9/11 happened and, as it is often said, the world changed. In the light of the threat to global security and, more so, to Canada's only neighbour, the United States, a new mood and a new thinking set in. But the changes - whether they would satisfy those who are against Canada's open-door policy or those who want Canada to continue its tradition of letting in immigrants while removing some of the newly erected barriers for immigration seekers - were long in coming.

The anti- and pro-immigration forces in the country have always been engaged in a see-saw battle. The ruling Liberal Party has been pro-immigration while the Conservatives and the Canadian Alliance, the right-wing parties, have been seen strong anti-immigration forces (though immigration actually increased during the term of the Conservative government of Brian Mulroney).

Neither the Conservatives nor the Alliance has ever said that Canada should stop taking in more people; their demand is that the immigration process be tightened so that only those who are of any economic and social benefit to the nation are admitted.

"Building a Nation", the report of the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration, which was tabled before Parliament in June 2002, will accompany the Act. While tabling the government's response to the report last November, Minister for Citizenship and Immigration Denis Coderre said he firmly believed that the new Act provided the tools for Canada to respond better to the global challenges of the 21st century and that Canada's immigration programme was now poised to play a critical role in the country's social and economic progress. He said the Act took a balanced approach and valued the contributions of immigrants and refugees while being tough on those who posed a threat to public security.

The words Coderre chose are no different from those found in the government initiative of 1999 under Minister for Immigration Lucienne Robillard. The government's directions, presented in the report "Building on a Strong Foundation for the 21st Century: New Directions for Immigration and Refugee Policy and Legislation", were the result of a process that began with the work of the Legislative Review Advisory Group in 1997, followed by ministerial consultations in early 1998.

Elinor Caplan took over from Robillard in 1999. It was during her time that boatloads of Chinese people landed on Canada's shores, forcing her to make a trip to China to warn the "people smugglers", known there as snakeheads, on the dangers of illegal entry into Canada.

She too reiterated Canada's commitment to follow a fair and equitable immigration and refugee policy. She said: "Immigrants and refugees are now the main source of Canada's population and labour force growth... We must close the back door to illegal entrants who abuse our laws, and open the front door to those on whom our growth and prosperity depends."

Her successor, Denis Coderre, has however done something that critics say would prevent people from the Third World from immigrating to Canada. With the general elections likely to be held next year, the Liberal Party would want to bring to its side some of the moderate right-wingers without alienating its major voting bloc, the minorities.

Paul Martin, the frontrunner among the Liberal candidates to succeed Prime Minister Jean Chretien in the leadership convention to be held in November 2003, too has spoken his mind on immigration. While commenting on the controversy surrounding the non-recognition of foreign-trained professionals, he said that immigrants need to be better informed about jobs. Emphasising the absolute importance of immigration, Martin said: "We need to do a much better job with these qualified professionals before they come."

THE issue of professionals languishing in low-paid jobs and the need to reform the immigration system further are some of the subjects that form the core of two books published last year. Diane Francis' Immigration: The Economic Case, and Daniel Stoffman's Who Gets In argue from the right-wing perspective. Both challenge the government's immigration policy and argue that Canada's economy cannot be subjected to the burden of immigrants such as those coming under the family reunification class, or refugees who are not really refugees. She says that of the 5,000 immigrant physicians, many are cleaning houses or driving taxis while other highly skilled people are also doing menial jobs. This shows that the government's claim that the country faces a skills shortage is a myth, she argues.

Francis notes: "Assume Canadians agree with current immigration. That's all very well and good, but policies, even accepted ones, are only as effective as their execution". She feels that the government's immigration practices have been questionable. According to her, Canada's system has been defrauded, abused, or ignored; she accuses the Immigration Department of malfeasance and neglect.

Stoffman, whose earlier book Boom, Bust and Echo, which he co-authored with demographer and economist David Foot, hits out at the government for basing its immigration policy on false premises - that immigration provides substantial economic benefits and that Canada needs a huge influx of younger people to offset the aging of population.

Echoing similar sentiments is former diplomat Martin Collacott (who served in Sri Lanka). In a recent paper for the right-wing think-tank Fraser Institute, he says that Canadians are living longer and that despite low fertility rates and other factors, Canada is well placed to deal with an increasing percentage of retiring persons, provided it has a well-qualified workforce, makes good use of it, and has normal increases in productivity.

Both Francis and Stoffman say that if population mattered, India and China would be economic giants. India, which ranks second behind China among the top 10 source countries, contributed 28,815 immigrants in 2000, 27,848 in 2001 and 26,088 in 2002. The total number of immigrants in 2002 was 229,091. In 2000, China, India and Pakistan together contributed 41 per cent of all immigrants to Greater Toronto.

BASING their fears on the 2002 Census results, pro-immigration groups and writers have warned the government that unless immigration is stepped up, Canada's economy will face a downward slide. Groups such as the Canadian Council for Refugees quote a Parliamentary Committee to argue that evidence presented to the Committee confirms that Canada's immigration programme continues to exert a positive influence on the country's economy. The Council also debunks the myth that immigrants take jobs away from indigenous Canadians, by saying that there is no established link between immigration and unemployment and that the economy has grown during periods of high immigration.

No matter what critics say, the Chretien government is bent on increasing immigration. The immigration target for 2003 has been hiked from 235,000 to 245,000. Whether the figure will be reached is beyond the realms of speculation, considering the tough regulations in the new Act. New immigration-visa applications distributed between June 2002 and February 2003 numbered 26,000 compared to 100,000 for the same period in the previous year, according to figures released by the Immigration Department. Pro-immigration groups and activists have called upon the government to increase the quota.

Critics of the new Act say it is biased against immigrants from underdeveloped or poor countries. The pass mark for immigration was raised from 70 points to 80 points, but after lobbying by special-interest groups, it was reduced to 75. The Act had a sunset clause, that cases filed before December 31, 2001 would be disposed of before March 31, 2003. But thousands of cases have still not been processed and a court recently ordered the Immigration Department not to stop processing applications made prior to December 31, 2001.

Lawyers feel the threshold is still high for many people to qualify. More points are awarded to immigrants with higher education. Instead of points allotted on the basis of job classification, immigrants will be assessed in terms of adaptability. The family class now includes conjugal partners in same-sex marriages, and the guarantee period for them has been brought down from 10 to three years.

In an effort to encourage those already on work permits, 10 points would be allowed if the applicant gets an assurance of further employment. Unlike before, language skills will be judged not by an Immigration Department officer but by an independent, accredited body.

The investor class has been extended to include not just investors but entrepreneurs and self-employed people, though the self-employed would have to be in the investor and entrepreneurial streams of this programme.

Canada takes in many refugees, a tradition that has come under a cloud in the new world order. The government passed the Anti-Terrorism Act in December 2001 following the arrest of some people in Canada for having links with terrorist groups, in the wake of the 9/11 bombings. The Act came under fire even in the Liberal caucus, with some Ministers demanding a sunset clause. They wanted the Act to be passed again in Parliament after at least three years. Many organisations were banned, including the Babbar Khalsa, the Babbar Khalsa International, the International Sikh Youth Federation, the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. The Canadian Security and Intelligence Services (CSIS) recommended a ban on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), but the government has not added it to the list on the grounds that banning it at this stage could harm the peace process between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government.

Critics find the Anti-Terrorism Act draconian in nature because it gives wide powers to enforcement officials. But supporters of the Act want more stringent rules so that refugees who fail to provide proper documentation can be brought under its mandate.

Canada has welcomed immigrants for long. Former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in particular, had left the doors wide open for immigrants from countries other than those in Europe, an act that has been hailed worldwide. Canada's policy of multiculturalism is no doubt behind its unique position in the global hierarchy.