Wednesday, December 13, 2006

John Deutsch Institute ~ Lecture on Immigration in the 21st Century

Several major issues face immigration policy in Canada at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Clearly, they are informed by the environments inside and outside the country, and they are very much interrelated.

First, Canada needs to review the goals and objectives of current immigration policy. As indicated, the environment of immigration to Canada has changed over the last 20 years. Large numbers of immigrants are settling predominantly in the three largest cities in Canada, with about half of the total arrivals living in and around Toronto. The speed and success of labour market integration of more recent immigrants have slipped compared to that of earlier arrival cohorts and compared to immigrants in the United States. Poverty rates among immigrant households within five years of arrival have increased dramatically since 1980 and are related to immigrant origins. Critiques of Canadian immigration policy (e.g., Daniel Stoffman's Who Gets In: What's Wrong with Canada's Immigration Program - and How to Fix It, 2002) have received high-profile coverage in the media. A lot is expected of immigration to meet several alternative goals - demographic, economic, social, humanitarian, and security. Indeed, as Alan Green's paper argues, perhaps too much is expected and immigration cannot be viewed as a silver bullet to satisfy all these objectives. It is thus worth having a public debate on the relative priorities we wish to set among these objectives of immigration policy, for these priorities will inform how we target and structure Canadian immigration policy. For example, a shift in emphasis from economic to social objectives for immigration will imply the need for closer cooperation between different levels of government with responsibility for community, education, housing, and social support systems.

Second, immigration policy has to address the issues of setting overall numerical targets and the selection criteria for admitting immigrants. One of the earliest classic studies of immigration in Canada was Mabel Timlin's book entitled Does Canada Need More People? (1951) and the debate is still ongoing on what is the appropriate total level of annual immigration and what should it depend upon. A more recent study by the Economic Council of Canada, Economic and Social Impacts of Immigration (1991), proposed a long-run target rate of 1% of population (or about 300,000 per year in current figures). How should such long-run targets be formulated and what consultation process should be involved? Also, for a given long-run target, should allowance be made for deviations from targets based on, say, short-run economic conditions and absorptive capacity - at either national or regional levels?

Immigrants arrive under different classes representing different program objectives. The three broad classes are: Family Class immigrants who enter on the basis of family relationships; Independent Class immigrants selected on the basis of a point system that reflects occupational skills, experience and likely adaptability to Canadian society; and Convention Refugee Class immigrants who are admitted on the basis of Canadian laws governing refugee admissions and likely adaptability to the Canadian environment. These are generally called family (reunification) class, economic class, and refugee class immigrants. Major concerns of immigration policy, then, are the relative numbers of immigrants to be admitted under these different classes, and the rules and procedures governing each of these admission classes. These do not exist in a vacuum, but are informed by overall goals and priorities, by actual economic success and rate of integration to Canadian society of the different immigrant groups, and by political and regional concerns. Within the point system, there has been considerable interest in the questions of appropriate selection criteria and the relative weights to attach to the specific criteria for economic immigrants such as education, age, occupational skills, knowledge of languages such as English or French, and likelihood of business success. What roles should be given to provinces in reaching such decisions? What rules and procedures should be applied to the selection of temporary immigrants, and who should have input into these decisions? Procedures should also ensure the integrity and security of Canadian borders in a post-9/11 environment. The success of the immigration program owes much to effective management, particularly of selection criteria. A number of the conference papers and discussions refer to these policy issues.

A third set of issues for immigration policy involves analyzing the adjustment process of recent immigrants to Canada and promoting the effective integration of permanent immigrants into the Canadian labour market and society. Good policy needs to be informed by up-to-date evidence and research. The period since the late 1980s has, in fact, seen a remarkable explosion and maturation of research on immigration issues in both Canada and the United States - see, for example, the major sets of studies in Smith and Edmonston (1997) and Borjas (2000) for the United States and the recent set of overviews for Canada in Canadian Issues (April 2003). The research is fostered by valuable new datasets and by the setting up of four dedicated research centres and programs focused on immigration related matters (i.e., the Metropolis project). It has also expanded to look at impacts of immigration and recent immigrant experience well beyond the labour market. Journal articles on all aspects of the immigration process, rare before 1980, are now part of the academic landscape. Many of the papers at this conference attest to this broadening range of inquiry. Such research helps to identify problems in the immigrant adjustment process, and to provide better understanding of the likely consequences of policy alternatives and of current rules and procedures.

The main involvement of federal policymakers in promoting the effective integration of permanent immigrants in Canada has largely been with settlement programs. These are directed mainly at smoothing the initial settlement process, and include counselling and language instruction. The objective has been to reduce the costs of settlement and help overcome early hurdles in the settlement process, and hence foster integration into the economy and society. A number of papers at the conference addressed various aspects of the immigrant adjustment process under the general headings of labour market adjustment and social integration, but clearly the two are linked. A number of significant issues and trends regarding the successful integration of immigrants go well beyond the initial settlement process. Much attention was devoted at the conference to the declining labour market performance of immigrants; the social welfare costs of immigration; difficulties in recognition of foreign educational and professional credentials; social exclusion or discrimination against immigrants or visible minorities in various sectors such as employment, education, housing and public services; and regional impacts and inter-governmental aspects of the uneven dispersion of immigrants across the country. Probably the most important of these issues in the short to intermediate term is the declining labour market performance of immigrants. Dealing with the above sets of issues will involve federal departments well beyond Citizenship and Immigration Canada as well as joint arrangements with provincial and even municipal levels of government.

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