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Friday, March 28, 2008

On Harper and immigration

Harper and immigration: divisive policy by stealth. Petty politics and power plays trump vision and principle

The immigration system needs an overhaul. But what it doesn't need is poorly conceived, divisive tinkering by an election-hungry prime minister, slipped stealthily into his budget.

Immigrants built Canada and are the backbone of, and enrich, Canadian society. The federal government must vastly improve the process of applying to immigrate to Canada and, once and for all, facilitate the recognition of foreign educational credentials and foreign work experience, while recognizing that both skilled and unskilled workers have invaluable contributions to make.

An immigration system that generates a backlog of 850,000 applications, with many in the queue for 5 or 6 years, is a dysfunctional nightmare and an embarrassment to a country like Canada which increasingly depends on our interconnectedness with the rest of the world. Indeed by as early as 2012, immigration will account for all net labour force growth.

The solution does not lie in the Harper government's ill-considered proposal to give the immigration minister sweeping powers to pick and choose different types of immigrants and establish arbitrary caps on categories of applicants. Nor does it lie only in ad hoc, albeit laudable, steps such as creating a new category of "Canadian Experience Class" which allows temporary workers and foreign students to apply for landed status without first returning to their home countries.

The proper route is to undertake a serious and complete overhaul of the immigration and refugee protection system and take the time necessary to get it right.

To begin with, we need to speed up the immigration application process by hiring more staff in all our offices abroad and ensure that enough individual attention is given to potential immigrants to ease their arrival in Canada and maximize their chance of successful integration. But staffing up to adequate levels will only work if we have adequate capacity within Canada to integrate new Canadians once they arrive. We must provide the necessary infrastructure, especially individualized human assistance, to help new Canadians maximize their potential - language training, settlement services, internship programs that provide work experience, expeditious certification mechanisms to recognize foreign credentials and work experience.

Given the massive backlog, it may be advisable to establish a new system for processing all new applicants as of a certain date, this time sufficiently staffed in all areas, while creating specialized teams over the short-term to attack and eliminate the backlog in an equitable and very expeditious manner. This will require a significant and long overdue investment of public funds at both the federal and provincial levels, something that is infinitely preferable to the introduction of extraordinarily arbitrary ministerial powers.

Ensuring the efficient and equitable operation of our immigration system will relieve the pressures on the refugee determination process which arise when would-be immigrants attempt to circumvent the clogged and frustrating immigration stream by making unfounded refugee claims. To some extent, our refugee protection system has functioned as an overflow mechanism for the immigration system, and this has unfortunately fuelled much exaggerated claims that our good will and humanitarianism are being abused.

But minimizing unfounded refugee claims is neither the only nor the most serious reform that merits our attention. While we should be proud of Canada’s record in assisting refugees fleeing persecution in their country of nationality, our refugee determination process too often gives rise to incomprehensible situations in which a deportation offends our standard of basic fairness and compassion, in addition to defying common sense. This situation must be corrected at the earliest opportunity.

Among other things the current refugee determination structure and process should be changed as follows:

- The members of the refugee board should comprise experts in the field, appointed by an arms-length commission, who decide both whether a person falls within the legal definition of a refugee or whether, in any event, the person should nevertheless stay in Canada on humane and compassionate grounds. (Currently there are two separate, costly and time-consuming proceedings).

- The board must be adequately staffed so that backlogs do not build up. Equally, our overseas offices must be adequately staffed to allow much greater processing of refugees in transit points and hot spots around the world.

- There should be an appeal to a quasi-judicial Refugee Appeal Division.

All persons who have been welcomed within our borders as immigrants, refugees, or people meriting humanitarian and compassionate relief, become eligible for Canadian citizenship. As part of the process of applying Canadian citizenship, we must also promote the responsibilities that go along with the rights of citizenship. In gaining the rights of Canadian citizenship, all persons must accept the responsibility to maintain a civil society and a political community that espouses democratic ideals and acts on them, upholds the rule of law and outlaws the use of violence as a means of political expression. As well, all persons must accept the responsibility to maintain a civil society and political community in which women have equal rights and privileges with men.

At the same time, all Canadians must discharge our serious collective responsibility to ensure that new Canadians have real equality of opportunity. The evidence is clear that the latest wave of immigrants, while perhaps better educated than their predecessors, face more difficulties with respect to employment, reuniting their families, proper housing and health services. The huge mismatch between the skills of new Canadians and what they are actually employed to do here is astonishing. It seems that newcomers are now seen as a source of low-income workers, not as a solution to the much-needed upgrading of skills in both the manufacturing and knowledge sectors, and as much-needed new professionals.

No less than 41% of immigrants with university degrees are now in chronic low-income categories, compared to only 13% in 1993, before the immigration laws were changed to encourage more educated immigrants to come to Canada. Especially among the young there is a real sense of exclusion as the disaffected lash out against a society that fails to give them equal opportunity in practice. Canadians, particularly employers in Canada, must identify what barriers are preventing many new Canadians from advancing their careers, and then address those barriers with positive action. According to a 2007 report of the Conference Board of Canada, "although Canadian organizations say they value diversity, they have not yet fully committed their policies, practices and resources to embedding diversity in their operations."

We clearly require much more public investment in education and training, sector by sector, so that we stop shedding so many valuable middle-income jobs that traditionally have allowed workers to climb the income ladder, and so we can really focus on keeping people employed. Wouldn't dramatic national action be great for a change? Like offering free employee training to employers who locate or expand their operations in Canada? For that matter, why not the Irish route of free college tuition?

But this takes us to another area of discussion, to be addressed at another time.