Pandemic Borders: Analysis

Why the Canadian government must review its immigration policy

Canada’s immigration planning is increasingly divorced from the real impacts of COVID-19 – and undervalues ‘essential workers’

Andrew Griffith
23 Feb 2021 - 12:00am
A rally against racism and in support of migrant workers' rights in Toronto, Ontario, on 16 June 2019
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Creative Touch Imaging Ltd/NurPhoto/PA Images
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Immigration can be a politically charged topic but the beauty of economics is that there is no arguing with the numbers. Canada’s birth rate has not kept up with an ageing population and so its future prosperity depends significantly on attracting migrants to fill jobs and pay pension contributions.

Immigration is less emotionally charged in Canada compared to most countries, with public debate and discussion focussed more on the specifics of selection criteria and priorities than on fundamental questioning of immigration.

The Canadian government continues to prioritise skills that don’t fully reflect the reality of the country’s needs – which has been laid bare by COVID-19.

Last October, when hopes were high of a flattened curve, the government published an immigration plan for the coming years. The target was to admit 401,000 migrants in 2021 to catch up on the 50% drop in immigration in 2020, with an overall emphasis on skilled economic immigrants.

Yet, this pandemic – which has proven to be far more of a long-term crisis than anticipated – has shown which workers Canadian society actually depends on. Low-paid grocery staff, truck drivers and healthcare support workers were deemed essential, even though they are not prioritised in immigration plans or rewarded monetarily.

The pandemic bottleneck

Between April and December last year, permanent residency applications and admissions were down by about 60% compared with the previous year (from 275,000 to 115,000 admissions).

During the same period, the total number of temporary workers residing in Canada fell by 6.3% (from 272,000 to 254,000), except in the agriculture sector where it dropped by 1.5 % (from 45,000 to 44,000). In this period, only 149,000 foreign students applied for study permits – a 59% decrease compared with 364,000 the previous year.

Newcomers are still subject to travel restrictions that are likely to remain in place until this summer, given the ongoing waves of infections and the fact that most people won’t be vaccinated until early autumn. So all of this will create a bottleneck for welcoming in workers that the country urgently needs.

COVID has shown which workers Canada depends on. Low-paid grocery staff, truck drivers and healthcare support workers were deemed essential, even though they are not prioritised in immigration plans or rewarded monetarily.

The reality is that the government’s immigration target levels set last year are no longer realistic for this year and possibly won’t be for next year either.

In fact, maintaining these target levels is questionable as to do so may undermine the credibility of the government’s whole immigration plan.

“Immigrants with higher education levels benefit most from services designed to support economic integration – putting the lower educated at further disadvantage.”

While selection criteria and settlement programming can be adjusted to improve economic outcomes, or at least attenuate the impact of the pandemic-induced downturn, this will be harder to achieve given that the downturn is likely to continue well into the year.

In 2018, the government department Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada evaluated the settlement programme and highlighted several areas for improvement. These included the labour market and the services that support immigrants’ economic integration. The evaluation showed that immigrants with higher education levels or more work experience were benefitting most from these services – further deepening the disadvantage that the lower educated face.

Shouldn’t such programmes serve the essential workers who need this support more? And shouldn’t settlement agencies better support those who are, as John Shields explained, “less digitally adept, lacking in technology and with more limited official language abilities?”

Immigration policies are selective by design: who can obtain permanent residency; who can only stay on a temporary basis; and what are the criteria they have to meet (e.g. language knowledge, education, age, professional qualifications).

Policy steeped in inequality

These criteria invariably raise equality issues between permanent and temporary residents. This can be seen most clearly in the realisation that lower-skilled workers are deemed ‘essential’. These frontline workers are more exposed to COVID-19 than those able to work remotely yet are poorer.

Personal support and healthcare workers – mostly women and visible minorities – are vital to an increasingly ageing population yet remain under-appreciated. Many of these workers come from migrant backgrounds but aren’t supported in immigration policies.

Other inequalities exist in the ability to obtain permanent residency – it’s an easier process for those considered to be higher skilled and less so for those considered lower skilled.

Agricultural workers, given their crowded living conditions, should be prioritised for permanent residency. Some of this work is clearly seasonal, but many jobs, such as meat-packing, are not. This is where a more direct path to permanent residency would be appropriate.

One approach to improve equality in this area would be to draw from the live-in caregivers experience, whereby two years’ full-time work as a temporary resident provided a pathway to permanent residency in Canada. Why not apply this approach to any immigrant who has worked two years full-time?

Recession hits migrants hardest

The Canadian government has essentially adopted a Keynesian approach: more immigration means more demand and thus economic growth.

This approach considers growth only in terms of a country’s GDP, ignoring the more important GDP per capita that shows the total value of all the goods and services produced in a year, divided by the number of people living there. In this way it ignores the importance of equality among all, immigrants and citizens alike.

Yet it’s been proven from prior recessions that recent immigrants suffer the most in a downturn and some remain impacted in the long term.

This is why an increase in migration at this time could likely contribute to an increase in inequality over time, given poorer economic integration for those arriving during this downturn. The Canadian government has yet to adjust its policy though to address these important issues.

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