Jessie Thomson, who has sponsored a family of Syrian refugees, visits with Asmaa Alkrad and her son Taim, 3, in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, on Feb. 2. Canada’s warm welcome of some 40,000 Syrian refugees has its roots in the fact that Canadians themselves remain astonishingly hospitable, with many groups clamoring to take in more families. (JUSTIN TANG/NYT)
Canada’s merit-based immigration system was lauded by President Donald Trump in his first speech to Congress. But the merit system is only part of a program that also opens doors to refugees and residents’ relatives, with a goal to increase immigration and economic growth.
TORONTO — Canada’s merit-based immigration system received an approving mention by President Donald Trump in his first speech to Congress. Trump, who has railed against illegal immigration and talked tough about tightening borders, said adopting that kind of system would cost U.S. taxpayers less and help increase wages for poor workers.
But in Canada, immigration is not just about selecting newcomers based on their skills. It is part of a system that promotes the economy and the country’s multicultural society, which has arguably become as much a part of Canadian identity as hockey. And it is largely seen as a way to increase immigration, not reduce it.
“Canadians are more likely than citizens of any other industrial country to think immigration is essential to the economy and the future of the country,” said Jeffrey Reitz, a professor of ethnic and immigration studies at the University of Toronto.
Canada, a country of 35 million, aims to take in 300,000 immigrants this year — 0.85 percent of its population, compared with the United States’ 0.3 percent — and polls show Canadians are happy with this. In fact, the finance minister’s advisory council on economic growth wants 150,000 more.
Part of that enthusiasm is the country’s recognition that, with an aging population, immigration is essential to economic growth. Add to that Canada’s geography — a long border with the prosperous United States to the south and the Arctic to the north — and illegal immigration is less of an issue.
And finally, Canadians have a wholehearted belief in the merit-based immigration system, which creates a positive feedback loop.
“The advantage of our system is the people who come in — everyone agrees they’ve passed some sort of merit system,” said Ravi Pendakur, a professor of public and international affairs at the University of Ottawa. “The Canadian population in particular is more willing to buy into immigration. They can see it’s managed, and that’s an advantage.”
The program does have its drawbacks. It has become enormously complex, ever-morphing and a source of huge backlogs.
Created in 1967, the merit-based system was seen as a way to select immigrants based on their “human capital” and not simply their country of origin, as had been the tradition. The idea was to bring in immigrants, regardless of where they were born, with vetted qualities that would make them the most successful at integrating into the Canadian economy.
Candidates received points for their level of education, ability to speak one or both of the country’s official languages, work experience, age, a job offer and what immigration officials called adaptability, which meant they came with family or had family in Canada.
Initially, this system was the smallest of three streams of immigrants. The other two were people reuniting with their families, and refugees. But increasingly, Canadian leaders have favored these “economic immigrants” to the point that this year, the government projects they will make up 57.5 percent of newcomers.
The formula has changed over the years, with points for training and job categories rising or falling as officials’ ideas on job readiness changed. Until recently, admission was based on acquiring at least 67 points, with up to 70 given for advanced education, fluency in English and French, and four or more years of work experience. A job offer was worth only 10 points. There was no cap, so the waiting list grew to be huge: 800,000, which meant a four-year wait.
Two years ago, the country revamped the entire system, increasing the possible points to 1,200 and valuing a job offer at 600.
Other applications were put in a job bank for employers to select. Successful applicants were promised a six-month approval, but unsuccessful ones had to reapply.
After Prime Minister Justin Trudeau entered office later in 2015, his Liberal government rejiggered the formula again, greatly reducing the number of points awarded for a job offer and adding 30 points for candidates who had graduated, as foreign students, from a Canadian university.
Add separate point systems drafted by the country’s provinces and territories based on their job markets, and the system grows even more head-scratching. Saskatchewan, for instance, is recruiting long-haul truck drivers and hospitality workers, while Alberta wants food and beverage processors.
“I teach this stuff and I find it confusing,” said Audrey Macklin, director of the University of Toronto’s Center for Criminology and Sociolegal Studies. “It’s inherently confusing, plus it keeps changing.”
Still, the principle remains: The immigrants coming in under this system are well educated, literate in the local language and have great credentials.
Not surprisingly, studies have shown that economic immigrants, arriving with more education and language skills, land higher-paying jobs with greater potential for raises. Their children also have higher college graduation rates.
“If America changes toward our system, the Apples and Microsofts and Googles will be very happy,” said Robert Vineberg, a retired regional director general of immigration. “But the vegetable growers in California will not be so happy.”
Vineberg offered government immigration statistics from 2015 as an example. That year, Canada identified 66,360 newcomers as economic immigrants for their occupational skills.
Around 36,300 were categorized in the top two classes, meaning they were fluent in one national language and had a college degree. Most would have been recruited for a specific job, Vineberg said: for instance, vice president of a company or administrator of a hospital. Another 22,700 were picked for a job in skilled trades, like an industrial electrician. They needed the language skills to read a blueprint and follow complicated directions, and at least some postsecondary training and certification in their trade.
Only 2,177 were brought in as laborers, and even they would have been chosen for specific positions, most likely in a hard-to-fill job or a remote location — for instance, a Japanese-speaking hotel receptionist in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Vineberg said.
His example, however, illuminates the contradiction at the center of the immigration system.
In 2015, almost 272,000 people were granted entry, and only a quarter were picked for their merit. Most of those counted in the economic class were family members, chosen not for their human capital — although many might also be educated and intend to work — but their blood ties.
“The statistics convey the impression that Canada chooses most people based on economic criteria, and perhaps policymakers think this reassures Canadians that immigration serves Canada’s economic interests,” Macklin said. “In reality, most people still enter on the basis of kinship. The idea that this can be easily or significantly altered is a bit of a fantasy.”