Canada is in a period of fast and furious changes to the immigration system. Yet this is much more than a Canadian story. Immigration has shaped the world news of 2014: the largest refugee crisis since the Second World War; over 3,000 migrant deaths on the Mediterranean last year; and foreign fighters moving from all corners to fight both with and against extremist groups in Syria and Iraq.
These and other global forces, along with domestic needs and politics, will continue to shape Canadian immigration policy in 2015. Here is a look ahead to ten immigration stories to watch this year.
1. Employers take central role selecting immigrants
Called “a game-changer for Canadian immigration” by the immigration minister, a new selection model begins stress testing in January. Express entry is a competitive system wherein a pool of skilled immigrants compete for fast-tracked permanent residency based on points for age, work experience, education, language, job offer, etc. There are big questions about implementation and uptake, because the devil is in the details. They have power over points, but will employers use the system? Employers might decide the six-month processing period cannot fill urgent job needs and use temporary programs instead. There is also the question of unintended consequences. Over the course of the year, we will find out how a competitive system changes the immigrant profile and the share of source countries.
2. Resettlement of Syrian and Iraqi refugees
In its initial July 2013 pledge, Canada offered resettlement for 200 government-assisted and 1,100 privately-sponsored Syrian refugees by the end of 2014. Last month saw the announcement that only 703 had so far arrived in Canada. This story will continue to be important and controversial in 2015. On Wednesday, Canada announced an additional 13,000 spots over three years for Syrians and Iraqis. The controversy will be in the division of labour between private sponsors and government, the processing speed, and in any restrictions the government attaches to its pledge, like a proposal to accept religious minorities only, which critics are calling religious discrimination.
3. New powers to the Canadian immigration minister
As Australia goes, so goes Canada. This has been a trend in Canadian immigration for several years. Express entry is just one Canadian policy first introduced Down Under. It follows that other major changes with political resonance in Canada could travel too. An important change to watch is a suite of new powers granted to the Australian immigration minister earlier in December. These enable the minister to bypass the UN refugee convention and Australia’s obligations under it when dealing with “boat people.” Canada receives a fraction of the boats Australia does, but the issue has drawn an impassioned political response on our shores nonetheless. Reaction from two boats that landed on the coast of British Columbia in 2009 and 2010 is still clear in new policies, and more changes may come.
4. Changes to citizenship
Earlier this year saw the revelation, in a report prepared for the immigration minister, that the government is studying removal of citizenship by birth. Canada is in a minority of countries with a “birth on soil” policy, alongside the United States and New Zealand. The removal discussion comes in answer to the perceived problem of “birth tourism,” which is quite small in scale: Fewer than 500 cases are known to the government. Yet the proposal remains under review.
5. New security measures in response to attacks that left two soldiers dead
Following attacks that left Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent and Cpl. Nathan Cirillo dead on separate days in October, the government tabled anti-terrorism bill C-44, first scheduled to be introduced on the day of the Ottawa attack. It was subsequently amended, and one change is an earlier timeline for provisions of the Citizenship Act to come into effect which grant the immigration minister power to revoke citizenship from dual citizens convicted of terrorism, treason or spying. “We do not want to share our Canadian passport with anyone who wants to cut off our heads,” said Steven Blaney, the public safety minister, making clear that Canada’s counterterrorism strategy will be linked to citizenship, entry and removal. Revoking citizenship is a highly contested solution and will entail human rights and practical challenges. This is likely not the end of new measures as the government is reviewing additional changes to the Criminal Code.
6. Reduced benefits for refugees and refugee claimants
As it probably wished, the government did not get a quick death of the interim federal health program when it reduced provision of healthcare to refugees and refugee claimants in June 2012. Rights groups took the government to Federal Court over the changes and in a July 2014 decision, Justice Anne Mactavish called the cuts unconstitutional and “cruel and unusual,” ordering the government to reinstate the IFHP. This was done, but with changes to the original that result in lower levels of coverage. And so the parties are going back to court. The complexity and limits of the new health policy are a headache for patients, healthcare providers, and others working on behalf of refugee claimants. Stories of damage done will continue to come. Also in 2015, if the omnibus budget bill is passed as is, Canada will lose its national standard on providing social assistance to refugees, and the move to watch will be how provinces respond.
7. Successors to the immigrant investor program
Among the unintended consequences of the immigrant investor program was a perception that Canada was selling citizenship, and selling it for quite a bargain – a loan of $800,000 (Malta charges $1.57 million). The government ended the troubled program in June 2014 and is testing two replacements, the venture capital pilot and start-up visa programs. The goal of the first pilot is to raise at least $1 million per applicant in a venture capital fund. The start-up visa program targets immigrant entrepreneurs whose business idea is backed by Canadian funding. Announcing the end to the investor program, then finance minister Jim Flaherty cited a lack of evidence that investors in this stream maintained ties to Canada or made a positive economic contribution. These benchmarks will be the focus of scrutiny over the successors.
8. Extra travel screening to come to Canada
Travelers to Canada can expect a new layer of screening in 2015. Electronic travel authorization (eTA), part of the perimeter pact with the United States, will require certain travelers to apply for authorization to travel to Canada before departure. Canada plans to work with airlines to screen for the new requirement at airports, ensuring that passengers without the green light cannot board a plane. According to the government, in the majority of cases, an electronic approval will be granted within minutes. But questions still remain. It is unclear what the criteria will be for requiring certain groups to obtain an eTA, exactly what information will be screened, if the public will have access to eTA data, if individuals will have access to detailed results of an individual screening, or if there will be recourse to challenge a refusal.
9. Permits expire for TFWs
Will they stay or will they go? On April 1, 2015, the four-year work permits of a large cohort of temporary foreign workers brought in under the overhauled TFW program will expire. This is the first group affected by the April 2011 rule imposing a four-year limit plus a ban from reapplying within four years after expiry. An expert panel at a city committee in Toronto predicted that in Toronto alone, thousands of permits could expire and, instead of leave, the workers may go underground.
10. The immigrant vote
Every federal election is a data mine for analysts of voter behaviour. Watch for the stories about the immigrant vote (shorthand for immigrants and visible minorities): Who’s courting the vote, how they’re courting it, prominence (or not) of immigration issues, and who actually gets picked in ridings with a significant visible minority population. Data from the 2003, 2006 and 2010 municipal elections in Toronto show that neighbourhoods dense in immigrant and visible minority residents see low voter turnout. This finding hints that candidates may not be representative of these communities, giving residents less incentive to vote at all, said the study’s author Myer Siemiatycki of Ryerson University. Is the same true for the federal race? As visible minorities comprise a growing proportion of Canada’s 35.5 million, the stakes for parties and for democracy get higher.
Ratna Omidvar is the Executive Director of the Global Diversity Exchange (GDX) at the Ted Rogers School of Management, Ryerson University