ANALYSIS: Canada’s federal election campaign provides us with the opportunity to think about the future of our immigration system.
The upcoming Canadian federal election on September 20 is an opportunity to think about the future of Canada’s immigration system.
Political parties are currently campaigning across the country outlining their vision on how Canada should be governed. The next government will then have a four year mandate to lead the country.
One of the most important policy areas over the next four years and beyond is immigration. Canada is becoming more dependent on immigration to support its prosperity.
Immigration is the main driver of Canada’s population and labour force growth, and is playing a greater role in Canada’s economic growth. Canada’s dependence on immigration is a function of its aging population and low birth rate.
An aging population is more expensive to care for since they rely on vital government-funded services such as health care. Older people also spend less than younger ones which results in weaker economic activity. In Canada’s case, the birth rate is not high enough to replace the population and retiring workers which means that younger Canadians will be required to shoulder an even greater tax-burden, as well as an economic burden in terms of generating economic activity through their work in the labour market and their personal spending on goods and services. Immigration does not solve all these challenges but welcoming newcomers helps to alleviate the economic and fiscal strain caused by Canada’s demographic realities.
The Canadian government recognizes this which is why it is increasing newcomer arrivals. Under the 2021-2023 Immigration Levels Plan, Canada is seeking to welcome at least 401,000 new immigrants per year, which is the most ambitious plan in the country’s history. Only once has Canada welcomed that many immigrants, back in 1913.
With immigration set to become a more prominent issue, it is a great opportunity to identify what steps Canada can take to improve what is already arguably the best immigration system in the world. It is clear there are some immediate COVID-related immigration issues Canada needs to address. In addition, there are other issues which are not immediate priorities but are important nonetheless and are worthy of exploration.
The pandemic has created a multitude of immigration challenges for Canada. The following are immediate priorities that need to be tackled:
Helping Newcomers Find Jobs: Newcomers have been particularly hard-hit in the Canadian labour market during the pandemic. Moreover, Canadian government research shows newcomers who arrive during recessions tend to have worse economic outcomes over their lifetime in Canada compared to those that arrive during stronger economic periods.
It is thus crucial for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) to work in conjunction with industry, lower levels of government, researchers, settlement organizations, the education sector, and credentialing bodies to identify how to best offer employment support to newcomers during this challenging period. While there are reasons to be optimistic that many newcomers will succeed in the labour market due to reasons such as more workers retiring, Canada increasing its economic class selection criteria, and transitioning more temporary residents to permanent residence, among others, there is still a significant risk that some newcomer segments such as women and family and refugee class immigrants will be impacted in a disproportionately negative way beyond the pandemic. IRCC needs to be proactive and vigilant to help prevent long-term economic scarring to such vulnerable newcomer segments.
Inviting FSWP Candidates: The Federal Skilled Worker Program (FSWP) has been the main way Canada has welcomed economic class immigrants since it launched the program in 1967 as well as since the launch of Express Entry in 2015. However, IRCC has not invited FSWP candidates in its bi-weekly Express Entry draws throughout all of 2021. Their rationale is FSWP candidates are more likely to be abroad and hence face COVID-related challenges that will interrupt Canada’s ability to land them as permanent residents. While this argument makes sense to an extent, it is also problematic.
There are FSWP candidates who currently live in Canada that are not receiving invitations. IRCC has been processing temporary resident applications throughout the pandemic enabling hundreds of thousands of new international students and foreign workers to travel here. Most of Canada’s travel restrictions have been lifted. And the most compelling counter-argument of all is that FSWP candidates tend to have higher core Comprehensive Ranking System (CRS) scores than other candidates. IRCC uses the CRS to rank Express Entry candidates with the purpose of Express Entry being that Canada wants to prioritize the highest-scoring candidates since they are most likely to succeed in our economy. All this to say, resuming invitations to FSWP candidates is long overdue and IRCC’s policy is becoming increasingly difficult to justify now that Canada has done away with most of its travel restrictions.
Landing Expired COPR Holders: Confirmation of Permanent Residence (COPR) holders continue to report difficulties getting their expired COPRs renewed so they can finally immigrate to Canada. These are individuals that have completed the entire immigration application process and have already been approved by IRCC. Thousands of them unfortunately saw their COPRs expire during the pandemic due to disruptions such as lack of flights, lockdowns in their countries, and not being permitted to travel to Canada. Canada finally lifted its restrictions on all COPR holders in June. However many COPR holders continue to report lack of communication from IRCC as they anxiously await the opportunity to begin their new lives in Canada. It is high time that IRCC expedite the processing of such individuals after they have had their lives on hold for the better part of the pandemic. These individuals have already quit their jobs, taken their children out of school, and packed their bags to move here, only for COVID to get in the way. The most Canadian thing to do is demonstrate compassion and give these future citizens the attention and support they deserve.
Beyond the examples above of immediate priorities, the following are ideas of other areas Canada can home in on to identify improvements.
Express Entry: Express Entry has been designed in a way to give IRCC and its minister wide latitude to invite immigrants with high potential to contribute to Canada’s economy. However since its launch in 2015, the department has predominantly invited the candidates with the highest CRS, and during the pandemic the focus has shifted to mainly inviting candidates living in Canada. More creativity has been demonstrated by the provinces and territories through their respective Provincial Nominee Programs (PNP). One such major creative approach employed by the provinces is industry and occupation-specific draws that are meant to respond to very specific labour market needs. In Budget 2021, the Liberal Party of Canada proposed making changes to Express Entry but they did not specify what they have in mind. One new approach that IRCC can take is also hold industry and occupation-specific Express Entry draws to help alleviate worker shortages in key areas across Canada such as in technology, health care, and agri-food.
In addition, IRCC may want to consider counting self-employed work experience obtained within Canada for those who wish to apply under Express Entry. This is already recognized if a candidate has been self-employed abroad, but for some reason IRCC believes it is difficult to verify self-employment in Canada. This can be verified the same way that IRCC verifies employment, such as by asking candidates to submit their Canadian tax slips and employment letters (e.g., letters from clients and customers).
Municipal Nominee Program: The Liberals promised to launch a new Municipal Nominee Program (MNP) to help smaller cities attract more immigrants but this promise was interrupted by the pandemic. Launching it after the election would be beneficial since Canada’s experience shows that providing smaller jurisdictions with selection programs tends to promote a broader distribution of newcomers. An easier and quicker solution is to simply increase PNP allocations for interested provinces that vow to use the earmarked allocations towards nominating candidates who want to settle in smaller cities.
Business Immigration: Canada was once the global leader in attracting immigrant entrepreneurs and investors but IRCC has lost interest in this space since shutting down two of its longstanding programs in 2014. The programs were problematic and outlasted their shelf life but IRCC has not since launched modern replacements that can welcome tens of thousands of more business immigrants who can support Canada’s economic development. It is understandable why IRCC is apprehensive about doing so but Canada is now missing out on the opportunity to bring in immigrants with significant human, social, and financial capital. The Start-up Visa is a worthy program but it has proven after nearly a decade in existence that it is niche in orientation and unable to attract business immigrants on a larger scale. Canada has a very wide community of business immigration experts who can advise on IRCC what successful new programming may look like.
Spousal Sponsorship: IRCC took a major step forward several years ago when they stated the new processing standard for spousal sponsorship applications would be 12 months. Given the importance of spousal sponsorship to Canada’s economy and society, it is worth exploring pushing the bar even higher and getting this processing standard down to 6 months, which is the same standard that applied to Express Entry candidates prior to the pandemic.
Parents and Grandparents Program (PGP): IRCC has long struggled to balance the enormous demand to sponsor parents and grandparents. Its solution in recent years has been to host a lottery but this solution is also not ideal for any involved party. Once the pandemic is out of the way, IRCC would benefit from leading a dialogue with stakeholders across the country to identify a more sustainable and satisfactory approach to managing the PGP. Ideas that were proposed prior to the pandemic include a weighted lottery system whereby those not drawn in previous lotteries would be given a greater chance of receiving an invitation to sponsor in subsequent lotteries.
Afghan Refugees: The return of Taliban rule has sparked a panic in Afghanistan and will likely result in a major humanitarian crisis. Prior to the NATO-led coalition in 2001, Afghanistan had 5 million refugees and internally displaced persons. Its population has doubled since 2001 so we must unfortunately be prepared for the worst. Canada has already committed to welcoming 20,000 Afghan refugees but it will likely need to welcome way more than this. The next government must roll up its sleeves and identify how to welcome the first 20,000 Afghans as quickly as possible, and then to facilitate the arrival of more Afghans in the coming years.
Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program (PSRP): One way IRCC can support Afghan refugee arrivals and promote Canada’s humanitarian objectives even further is by improving the processing standard of its longstanding PSRP. The PSRP allows Canadians to privately sponsor refugees and support their settlement upon arrival. However processing times can take numerous years which is demotivating for potential sponsors and undermines Canada’s ability to help those in need.
Access for Temporary Residents: Canada offers the most robust immigrant settlement services in the world, spending nearly $2 billion a year to offer free supports such as language training, employment assistance, and more. However these supports are only available to permanent residents, which means that hundreds of thousands of international students, temporary foreign workers, and other temporary residents who are in Canada cannot access these great services. This is a policy flaw since IRCC openly encourages such individuals to transition to permanent residence. For instance, it launched in May 2021 a special program for essential workers and international graduates in Canada to apply for immigration. The sooner such individuals have access to IRCC-funded services, the sooner they are likely to be on their way to settling, integrating, and succeeding in Canada. There are many ways to solve this issue. For example, IRCC can make such services accessible the moment a temporary resident submits their permanent residence application.
Fees: The Liberals also promised to make Canadian citizenship applications free but we can assume they did not fulfil this promise due to the pandemic. A new federal mandate provides us with the chance to explore either proceeding with this promise or reducing citizenship fees. Some argue that hikes to citizenship fees in recent years have made it unaffordable for some permanent residents to go ahead with their citizenship applications.
Canada has a leading immigration system due to its continuous desire to modernize and foster improvements. The country has made great strides in recent years such as through the launch of Express Entry and a multi-year immigration levels plan. Express Entry has expedited economic class application processing while a multi-year levels plan gives stakeholders across the country more time to prepare for a larger influx of newcomers. In addition, IRCC does deserve tremendous credit for their work in managing the immigration system under difficult pandemic circumstances. At the same time, the immigration system is not without its flaws, and there are many ways to make it better. The ongoing election campaign and the new federal mandate gives us a significant window of opportunity to put our best immigration ideas into practice.