What Can The U.S. Learn From Canada’s Immigration Policy?

Widespread debate about how to reform the U.S. immigration system has become a major theme in this year’s presidential race. The growing awareness of an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. has sparked Republican candidate Donald Trump to promise that, if elected, he would round up all “illegal” immigrants and expel many of them from the United States upon taking office. Even scholars who reject such extreme measures as impractical and counter-productive argue that U.S. immigration policy needs to undergo significant reforms.

“Immigration policy, which has undergone minor modifications since the 1965 amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act, has fallen out of step with the nation,” wrote economists Pia M. Orrenius, vice president and senior economist at the Federal Reserve Board of Dallas, and Madeline Zavodny, a professor at Agnes Scott College, in a recent study. “Caps on the number of visas have not kept up with either population growth, particularly among immigrants who want to bring in relatives, or with employers’ increasing demands for foreign workers. The mismatch between quantities supplied and demanded has resulted in lengthy backlogs for most numerically limited categories of permanent resident visas; shortages of numerically limited temporary work visas; frustrated potential immigrants and employers, and more than 11 million unauthorized immigrants.”

Canada Northern Escape Plan
Photo by Unsplash (Pixabay)

While public support for the immigration system has waned in the U.S., most Canadians support their immigration system, and the concept of multiculturalism that underpins it. In a nation only about one-tenth as populous (36.2 million) as the U.S. (322.7 million), the Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is on track to welcome 25,000 government-supported Syrian refugees by the end of 2016 or early 2017. In contrast, as of July 25, the Obama administration had exceeded two-thirds of President Obama’s target of 10,000 admitted by September 30. Obama announced in September that it plans to increase the number of Syrian refugees admitted to the U.S. to 110,000 in the fiscal year that begins October 1.

In a 2015 report by the Toronto-based Environics Institute, only 38% of Canadians agreed with the statement, “There is too much immigration in Canada.” Moreover, 54% of Canadians said they placed a higher level of importance on Canada’s official policy of “multiculturalism” than on such national symbols as hockey (39%) and the Queen (21%). Multiculturalism is most widely seen as “very important” in Ontario (61%, especially in Toronto at 67%), and among youth (63%) across the country.

Which factors account for contrasting views about immigration in the two neighbors, which otherwise share so many cultural traditions? What, if any, lessons can U.S. immigration policy makers apply from Canada’s experience as they set out to reform U.S. immigration policy?

Differing Policies

According to economists Orrenius and Zavodny, there are several fundamental differences between the Canadian and American immigration policies. First, while Canada’s immigration system is focused largely on the needs of Canada’s labor markets, the U.S. system responds mostly to the needs of families. As Orrenius notes, “[Canada’s] employment-based immigration policy can more closely serve the national interest and Canada’s economic needs than a family-based system — which is the U.S. model — which mostly benefits those immigrants who came to the U.S. before” by enabling them to reunite with their relatives. As a result, Canada’s stream of immigrants is much less likely to compete with current job-holders, and thus be perceived as threatening by them.

Fifty-four percent of Canadians said they placed a higher level of importance on Canada’s official policy of “multiculturalism” than on such national symbols as hockey (39%) and the Queen (21%).

Second, say Orrenius and Zavodny, Canada’s immigration policy is more responsive and nimble than that of the United States, since the Canadian system focuses on the needs of the labor market, using the latest data to assess where policy changes are required. “Where they see a problem, they address it quickly, and they move on,” says Orrenius. “Whereas in the United States, we’ve had the same policy for 50-plus years, Canada’s policy is very much responsive to changes, not only that happen in Canada, but changes in potential immigrants.” She adds, “We’ve been told by political scientists that this is probably because the parliamentary form of government makes it much easier for Canada to be responsive” than American legislative institutions.

Third, say Orrenius and Zavodny, there are still vast areas of undeveloped land in Canada where new immigrants can create their communities — often while having little contact with the mainstream of other ethnicities — without being viewed as a threat.

Fourth, unlike the U.S., which borders on Mexico and is directly accessible from the Caribbean, Canada does not share a border with any “developing” nations. Thus, Canada is not subject to significant migrations of “undocumented” or illegal migrants from such countries. On the other hand, notes Zavodny, “For a lot of employers, and for a lot of families, and even individuals, it is to their advantage economically to have a large influx of low-skilled, low-cost labor…. Canada has the advantage of geography. It is only bordering the United States, and not that many people are clamoring to move from the United States to Canada.”

Fifth, unlike the U.S., which celebrates the eventual assimilation of future generations into the mainstream culture, an essential part of the Canadian creed is a bilingual system that is multicultural. Notes Ray Marshall, professor emeritus of economics and public affairs at the University of Texas and former Secretary of Labor under President Jimmy Carter, “Canadians believe that if you say to an immigrant, ‘You’ve got to forget all about the values that your ancestors had, and your identity with your ancestral country, and you’ve got to take our values and give up your values,’ then you’re going to have trouble…. [For Canadians,] immigration is always a two-way street.”

Finally, a major factor has been Canada’s long experience of accommodating the needs of the Francophone population of Quebec. “One of the reasons that the Canadians developed a pretty good multicultural system is that they had to work out first a bicultural system in order to hold Canada together,” notes Marshall. “The Quebecois wanted to separate from Canada during the 1960s to form a separate nation that would break up Canada. So [the other provinces of Canada] worked out an accommodation with the Quebecois, and accepted that ‘we will be a bilingual and bicultural country.’ Then, the other ethnic groups [in Canada] such as Greeks and Jewish people said, ‘What about us? We didn’t come from France or England.’ And so the Canadians, in their usual deliberate way, said, ‘Let’s think about that’ — and that’s how they came up with multiculturalism.”

“Whereas in the United States, we’ve had the same policy for fifty-plus years, Canada’s policy is very much responsive to changes.”–Pia Orrenius

The Importance of Planning

More fundamentally, Marshall stresses significant cultural contrasts between Canada and the U.S. Nowadays, the U.S. and Canada are “pretty interdependent, but our values and attitudes about government are very different. Thomas Jefferson believed in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but the Canadian founders believed in peace, order and good

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