Reviews | The Expansion of Immigration to Canada Sets a Pattern the U.S. Should Follow

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The percentage of foreign-born American residents today is the highest in more than a century, and the number of immigrants to this country has more than quadrupled since 1960. These facts and a record increase in border crossings not authorized, topping 2 million in the fiscal year that ended in September, have contributed to unease and antagonism in some communities, Republican attacks on the Biden administration and, among Democrats, nervousness political fallout.

Meanwhile, in Canada, the share of foreign-born residents – almost a quarter of the population – is significantly higher than in the United States, and also at a peak of more than 150 years; few Western countries have a higher proportion of immigrants. Despite this, Canadian officials recently announced a substantial increase in immigration over the next three years. In 2025, the goal is to admit 500,000 newcomers, a 23% increase from last year’s record total. The news caused no public outcry.

The many differences between the two countries discourage easy comparisons. But one critical contrast is worth noting: Canada has a relatively functional immigration system that responds rationally to its economic needs. The United States does not.

Certainly, Canada has no trouble guarding one of the longest borders in the world separating a majority rich country from a majority poor country, as does the United States along its southwestern border. This affords Ottawa the luxury of a simpler application, i.e. being able to mostly select which migrants will be admitted and which will be refused. It is also true that while there is broad consensus on immigration levels in Canada— well over half of Canadians support welcoming more immigrants to increase the population and help fill nearly a million job vacancies — there are danger signs. Specifically, nearly half of Canadians say too many newcomers don’t embrace “Canadian values”.

Still, Americans should consider learning from Canada, especially at a time of massive labor shortages in the United States that have contributed to soaring inflation. Above all, the Canadian system gives preference to well-educated, highly skilled and enterprising migrants with good earning prospects. In contrast, the US legal immigration system strongly favors family ties, that is, relatives of current residents. Its H1-B program for skilled workers, including those with advanced degrees, has been capped for years at 85,000 visas per year; it is largely insufficient.

Canada’s policy is not aberrant; several of the other richest countries in the world, particularly in Europe, are pursuing similarly sensible initiatives. These include France, where President Emmanuel Macron survived a tough electoral challenge last spring from a far-right anti-immigration candidate, Marine Le Pen. His government, like that of Canada, is pursuing reforms that respond to economic reality, not xenophobic populism. This month, Mr Macron’s administration proposed legislation to establish residence permits that would grant legal status to undocumented migrants already in France who could take jobs in sectors desperate for workers, including l agriculture, hospitality and construction. The legislation is expected to be presented to the French parliament early next year.

French nativists howled, but the country’s largest employers’ organization applauded the measure, which is designed to support the country’s economy as it battles inflationary headwinds. Officials adopted a measured tone, pledging to strengthen enforcement by prosecuting migrants who remain in the country after receiving deportation orders while pushing for the new residence permits.

In Germany, too, employers in short supply have generally welcomed Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s promise, when he took office last year, that “it is high time to make life easier for immigrants to that they become German citizens”. His government has set a goal of attracting 400,000 skilled workers a year to the country, which has Europe’s largest economy, and facilitating access to language and other courses to help assimilate migrants. A recent survey found that the German economy is struggling with a record shortage of skilled workers, affecting nearly half of the country’s businesses. This forced many to cut production drastically, costing the German economy up to $85 billion on an annualized basis.

Elsewhere in Europe, the results are mixed. In Italy, the far-right government of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni took power this fall on an anti-immigration platform. Yet no one knows who will fill the low-skilled jobs, including carers for the elderly, if migrants are banned or forced to leave the country. Italians, whose birth rate has long been among the lowest among the world’s wealthy countries, are often outnumbered for such positions.

Denmark is pursuing what could be one of the most self-defeating immigration policies among rich countries. Earlier this month, Danish voters handed a narrow victory to the centre-left Social Democrats, who adopted a ‘zero refugee’ policy and proposed to relocate asylum seekers to Rwanda, against their will , as their requests are processed. At the same time, Danish companies face a severe labor shortage, which many see as their biggest challenge.

Ironically, it was Donald Trump, the most nativist of recent American presidents, who proposed reform based in part on the Canadian model, as well as similar points-based systems in Australia and New Zealand, that would tip the balance of legal US immigration to skilled workers while retaining about a third of the slots for relatives of current residents. Mr. Trump’s plan was primarily an act of political positioning; once introduced, in 2019, it was rarely mentioned again. Nor did it take into account the reality of the 10 or 11 million undocumented people, mostly longtime members of American communities, including nearly 2 million young “dreamers” raised and educated in this country.

Still, recognizing Canada’s lead, Trump’s proposal was a useful starting point. There are now 10.7 million jobs available in the United States, nearly two for every unemployed person, and an ever-increasing share of the openings are for skilled employees. As a proportion of the population, more jobs are vacant in the United States than in Canada. Canada is wisely opening the door wider to the legal immigrants its economy needs, while the politically crippled Congress has proven unable to fix the broken system in the United States.

The post’s point of view | About the Editorial Board

Editorials represent the opinions of The Washington Post as an institution, as determined by debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the editorial board and areas of intervention: Karen Tumulty, Associate Editorial Page Editor; Ruth Marcus, Associate Editorial Page Editor; Jo-Ann Armao, Associate Editorial Page Editor (Education, DC Affairs); Jonathan Capehart (National Policy); Lee Hockstader (immigration; issues affecting Virginia and Maryland); David E. Hoffman (global public health); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economy); Heather Long (economics); Molly Roberts (technology and society); and Stephen Stromberg (elections, White House, Congress, legal affairs, energy, environment, health).

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