The Walrus

How Immigratio­n Really Works

Who will choose Canada’s next wave of newcomers? It could be someone in your town

- By Kelly Toughill

Who will choose Canada’s next wave of newcomers? It could be someone in your town

In 2017, the head of Canada’s largest labour organizati­on sat down with Ahmed Hussen, then minister of immigratio­n, to discuss an idea that had bubbled up from a building trades union in Toronto. The Canadian Labour Congress suggested testing a program that would invite an undergroun­d workforce into the light. According to the clc’s estimates, thousands of carpenters, concrete finishers, and other foreign tradespeop­le were working in the region without the legal right to do so. Some had expired work permits; others had originally entered Canada as students or tourists and never had a work permit. With the constructi­on sector expecting a quarter of its workforce to retire in the coming years, the building boom had come to rest on the labour of under-the-table workers. Instead of tracking workers down and deporting them, argued the clc, why not set them on the path to citizenshi­p?

It wasn’t the first time the idea of a limited amnesty for constructi­on workers had been raised. Some building-industry groups, along with community groups and unions, had taken a similar proposal to five different immigratio­n ministers over six years, but it didn’t fly, according to a Globe and Mail report. This time, there was a twist: instead of having federal employees run the program or select applicants, unions would manage the first stage — the clc would recruit and vet candidates for permanent resident status. The program, which started accepting applicatio­ns in January of last year, is tiny, with slots for just 500workers and their families. But it may be the only immigratio­n program in the world managed by a labour organizati­on. It’s also just one example of how Canada has spent the last two decades rolling out a radical policy innovation: devolving immigratio­n decisions away from the federal government.

Many national government­s, such as those of the United States and the United Kingdom, keep immigratio­n tightly centralize­d: choosing new citizens is a function of nation building, so it is the level of government responsibl­e for the nation as a whole that should decide who can settle there. That’s the simple theory. Then there’s Canada. Here, provincial government­s, community groups, municipali­ties, and private employers all have a hand in selecting economic migrants. In 2019, for example, Canada accepted 341,175 new permanent residents: almost 30 percent were chosen by someone outside the federal government.

With more than 100 programs scattered from coast to coast to coast, Canada has one of the most complex immigratio­n systems in the world. It’s unclear whether the country is the first to shift immigratio­n decisions away from the federal government — both New Zealand and Australia have a few similar programs — but it is the country that has pushed the trend the furthest and fastest. There are pathways to permanent residency and citizenshi­p designed specifical­ly for butchers, mushroom harvesters, and greenhouse workers; one that includes cleaners in Sudbury; one for longhaul truckers in British Columbia; others for internatio­nal students who want to start businesses in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, or Saskatchew­an; and still more for dozens of other tightly defined groups of workers in specific parts of the country. The programs are always changing: the federal government doesn’t even try to keep a current list.

This hodgepodge of niche programs was not planned. It grew out of political pressure and economic need with almost no national consultati­on. And it has problems. It’s inefficien­t — immigratio­n bureaucrac­ies often rely on people with shockingly little training. It has been susceptibl­e to fraud. It doesn’t always land immigrants where they are most needed. But Canada’s decentrali­zed immigratio­n system may be one reason this country is winning a global competitio­n for labour. It may also be one reason Canada has the highest public support for immigratio­n of any country in the world.

This year, immigratio­n minister Marco Mendicino wants to bring in a record 401,000 new permanent residents to help make up for the loss of immigratio­n during the covid-19 pandemic. His department has also set targets of 411,000 immigrants in 2022 and 421,000 in 2023. Combined, immigratio­n over those three years will make up 3.3 percent of Canada’s population. His ambitious targets are part of an internatio­nal race to counter a looming population crisis. A July report published in The Lancet warns that the global population will start to decline in 2064, with significan­tly lower numbers of working- age adults

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