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Immigration debate needed

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Two weeks ago, the Toronto Star reported Immigration Minister Chris Alexander discussed imposing language and education requirements on foreigners sponsored to immigrate to Canada by their Canadian spouses. While this may not become policy, these discussions raise a bigger question: Should Canada continue to move toward more employer-driven and employer-friendly immigration or back to more family-based immigration?

Imposing language or education requirements on foreign spouses would clearly frustrate family-based immigration. When individuals choose to marry, they do not require their future partners to write language tests or provide report cards. Minimum language or educational standards are used by Canadian immigration programs for skilled workers. For skilled-worker immigrants, minimum standards are appropriate.

Instead of discussing language and education requirements for one select immigration program, a discussion on the direction of the entire immigration systems is necessary.

In January, Citizenship and Immigration Canada re-opened a program that allowed Canadian citizens and permanent residents to sponsor their parents and grandparents to Canada. This program, which was restarted after being frozen for more than two years, was reopened with an announcement that only 5,000 applications would be taken in 2014. By the beginning of February, all these spots were taken.

The cap on parent and grandparent applications is the clearest example of the move away from family-based immigration. Before the freeze, more than 30,000 family-class immigration applications were received each year. Now the overwhelming majority of immigration applications are for skilled workers.

A number of years ago, there were numerous immigration programs that allowed highly skilled family members of Canadian residents to immigrate without jobs, job offers, or previous study in Canada. Today, most immigration programs make jobs or job offers mandatory prerequisites.

While having relatives in Canada can enhance an immigration application, the requirement for jobs and job offers more accurately classifies these programs as employer-driven programs as opposed to family-based ones.

The argument in favour of employer-driven immigration is compelling. Under these programs, immigrants enter Canada with jobs. Since most employers must go through a rigorous process to establish there are no Canadians or Canadian permanent residents available for a job before hiring a foreigner, not only do new immigrants start on the job on day one, most fill jobs for which no qualified Canadian was willing or able to fill.

Employer-driven immigration is also better at ensuring immigrant skills are matched to the job market. Before immigrating, immigrants must first prove to a Canadian employer they have the qualifications for the position.

By requiring immigrants to have jobs or job offers before arrival, the number of immigrants who begin their life in Canada as unemployed or underemployed is reduced. With employer-driven immigration, doctors enter Canada to work as doctors, and not as lower-skilled labour. As well, the amount governments have to spend to help new immigrants integrate into the workforce is decreased as most of these costs are picked up by the immigrant's employers.

Another argument for employer-driven immigration is Canada would no longer take highly skilled workers out of foreign countries only to waste away in Canada. For example, if a doctor from another country comes to Canada to work as an unskilled labourer, not only has Canada taken away a doctor from another country, Canada has put that doctor's skills to waste.

On the other hand, there is an argument that employer-driven immigration at the expense of family reunification is wrong. In a paper written for Ryerson University, Jacklyn Neborak argues there are compelling social and economic benefits from family-based immigration. She points to advantages of domestic support, child care, emotional support, socialization of children and financial support from family-based immigration.

One of the main advantages of family-based immigration is the ability to bring grandparents to Canada to assist dual-career families with child care. This can result in a direct economic advantage as new immigrant families are able to participate fully in the workforce.

Another argument in favour of family-based immigration is to maintain cultural identity and language. In an increasingly global world, having family members provide this to young Canadians may pay economic dividends in the future as these Canadians become business people and leaders on the world stage.

Does increasing family-based immigration mean we will have to decrease employed-based immigration? Does increasing family-based immigration increase financial costs to the government? What are the financial and non-financial benefits of family-based immigration?

The subtle and gradual change from a family-based immigration system to an employer-driven one immigration may be the right thing. This question, however, is still in need of debate.


R. Reis Pagtakhan is a Winnipeg immigration lawyer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 3, 2014 A13

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