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Focus should be on temporary foreign worker program

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On Aug. 1, the Manitoba government stopped accepting immigration applications for its "skilled worker overseas" stream. This immigration stream is designed to allow skilled workers to immigrate to Manitoba without a job or job offer as long as they have a relative or close friend in Manitoba or can show another close connection to Manitoba.

The skilled worker overseas stream is, in most cases, a family-reunification program. The decision to close this stream, while keeping the immigration stream for temporary foreign workers in Manitoba open, raises a fundamental question: Who should choose our immigrants -- Manitoba employers or Manitoba families? If a choice has to be made, the correct answer is Manitoba employers.

While the closing of the skilled worker overseas stream is another blow to family-based immigration, it is the right move for Manitoba. With the federal government limiting the number of immigrants Manitoba can nominate to 5,000 families, Manitoba must prioritize applications from foreigners currently working here. These foreigners have become our friends, neighbours and valued employees. They spend money in our province, pay Manitoba taxes and contribute to Manitoba businesses seeking to expand and grow.

Supporting the immigration of workers already in Manitoba has an additional advantage. In many cases, these immigrants are in less need of government-funded settlement services. Immigrants who come here without a guaranteed job come to Canada unemployed. By comparison, temporary foreign workers start their jobs immediately upon arrival and have a track record of work in Manitoba before they apply for permanent residence. Because these workers have jobs upon arrival, there is no need for them to use government-funded settlement services such as job placement, job training or language training as many employers pick up these costs. By freeing up these dollars, governments can focus on the immigrants who need our support the most -- refugees who come to Canada fleeing persecution.

Focusing on the immigration of workers already in Manitoba brings another advantage. The temporary foreign worker program is designed to allow foreigners to work in Canada only when there is proven domestic labour shortage or when Canadians have reciprocal opportunities to work abroad. If administered properly, the temporary foreign worker program will result in immigrants filling jobs where there is a proven shortage. These immigrants will not be taking jobs away from Canadians but will be taking jobs Canadians are neither willing nor able to fill.

As well, curtailing immigration for individuals who do not have guaranteed jobs in Canada may actually be better for the individual seeking to immigrate here. Earlier this week, Global News reported Statistics Canada's unemployment numbers for recent immigrants with university degrees was 14 per cent. In comparison, the unemployment levels for Canadian-born university grads was only 3.3 per cent and the unemployment rate for immigrant university grads who have been here for more than 10 years was 5.6 per cent. Since immigrants seeking to come to Manitoba must usually be employed in their home countries before they apply to immigrate, why make employed foreigners become unemployed Canadians?

Now, this is not to say family-based immigration should be done away in its entirety. There are still significant advantages to encouraging family reunification including domestic support, child care and emotional support. However, unless Ottawa increases the number of nominees Manitoba can bring in, Manitoba must prioritize the immigration of foreigners already working here.

When the province reopens the skilled worker overseas stream in 2015, there are no guarantees the program will be the same. While Manitoba has no plans to change the immigration program, over the last number of years, similar family-based immigration programs have been severely curtailed or eliminated across the country.

In 2010 for example, Alberta put its family stream "on hold." This "hold" was never lifted, and Alberta's family stream was permanently cancelled last year. When Manitoba announced its freeze of the Skilled Worker Overseas program last month, Manitoba stated it had a backlog of over 8,000 applications for its entire immigration program, of which almost 2,000 were from temporary foreign workers.

As Manitoba can only approve 5,000 applications per year, there is a possibility close to 60 per cent of Manitoba's 2015 spaces may already be allocated. If, in 2015, Manitoba has to choose again between supporting the immigration of individuals already working in Manitoba versus supporting the immigration of individuals abroad, the choice will again be clear.

R. Reis Pagtakhan is an immigration lawyer with Aikins Law in Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 2, 2014 A13

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