Earlier this month, somewhere between the times he stopped threatening to annihilate his own attorney general and the time he started threatening to annihilate North Korea, President Donald Trump embraced a proposal to cut legal immigration to the U.S. in half.
A bill introduced by Republican senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia would junk a 50-year-old immigration policy that favours applicants with family ties in the U.S. and replace it with a points-based system that rewards those who speak English, boast desirable degrees and job skills, and have good-paying jobs waiting for them in this country.
o critics who complain such a change would be a betrayal of American principles, Cotton and Perdue protest that their RAISE Act (Reforming American Immigration for a Stronger Economy) would only replicate the merit-based immigration system other English-speaking countries have been using for years.
“What we’re introducing today is modelled on the current Canadian and Australian systems,” Perdue said after following Trump to the podium at a news conference earlier this month. “It has been proven to work.”
In contrast with the many dubious assertions made by the Trump White House, the assertion that the RAISE Act borrows some best immigration practices that have worked well for Canada has a grain of truth.
But unlike Canada’s strategic approach, the points system Trump & Co. propose camouflages an initiative whose primary intent is to slash immigration rates and perpetuate the myth that many of America’s problems can be traced to an unprecedented tidal wave of shiftless cousins and desperate refugees.
Streams that form a torrent
Before we explore the ugly xenophobia lurking behind the RAISE Act’s glossy surface, let’s take a closer look at the Canadian immigration system its backers say they want to imitate.
It’s undeniably true that Canada has been successful in recruiting skilled, well-educated workers. Economic analysis and public opinion polling both support the Canadian government’s assertion that maintaining a robust inflow of foreign workers is vital to Canada’s economic vitality.
But the merit-based system that awards points to applicants bearing advanced degrees and sophisticated work skills is just one of the three streams that generate a steady supply of new Canadians, as the country prefers to recall those who emigrate from outside its borders.
Skilled workers account for about two-thirds of the foreigners to whom Canada awards permanent residency every year. The remaining third is divided between those with family ties in Canada and refugees seeking relief from war or persecution.
Jennifer Elrick, an assistant sociology professor at McGill University in Montreal who studies immigration patterns, says the sustained balance among those three streams — skilled workers, reuniting family members, and refugees admitted for humanitarian reasons — is among the most noteworthy features of her country’s immigration policy since the end of World War II.
But the more striking thing — and the quality that most distinguishes Canada’s immigrant population from most other countries, including ours — is its sheer size.
Canada currently admits about 280,000 immigrants annually — less than a third of the 1.1 million immigrants granted legal residency in the U.S. each year.
But in a country with a population, roughly one-tenth the size of America’s — 36 million to about 306 million — the economic, political and cultural impact of Canada’s foreign-born residents dramatically outweighs that of their U.S. counterparts.
A multicultural landscape
Canada’s 21st-Century demography betrays the outsize role immigrants play in every facet of Canadian life: About one in five Canadian citizens was born outside the country. In large cities like Toronto and Vancouver, the proportion born elsewhere is closer to half.
To match Canada’s commitment to immigration — or approach its economic dependence on immigrants — the U.S. would have to welcome about three times as many new Americans as it does now.
Instead, the Trump administration and its nativist allies in Congress want to cut legal immigration to this country in half. The wary paranoia underlying the Raise Act is the mirror opposite of the optimism that pervades Canada’s ambitious immigration policy, which seeks to boost that country’s population by up to 1% a year with its robust campaign to recruit skilled workers, reunify families and provide sanctuary to refugees,
Besides lagging Canada’s per capita effort, America’s current immigration rate is about 30% below its own historical average, when adjusted for population. Absorbing a million or so immigrants today is a much easier lift than it was a century ago when the U.S. boasted about one-fourth of its current population of 325 million.
The reductions the RAISE Act proposes would bring the immigration rate 60% below the historical average, reducing U.S. immigration to a trickle the country hasn’t witnessed since World War II and the Great Depression.
Confidence vs. paranoia
Besides the vigour with which it courts foreigners, the most striking thing about Canada’s immigration policy is how little political controversy it has provoked among the country’s native-born citizens.
So how do policymakers in Ottawa navigate an issue that has polarized their Washington counterparts for half a century?
One of Canada’s most obvious advantages is the accident of geography, which has kept illegal immigration to a minor annoyance. The minimal presence of undocumented workers, coupled with Canada’s relatively expeditious path to citizenship for those who enter the country legally, has given Canadian immigrants one of the highest naturalization rates in the world. About 85% of Canadian immigrants who acquire permanent residence ultimately become citizens, compared with about 46% in the U.S.
Phil Triadafilopoulos, a political scientist who studies attitudes toward immigration at the University of Toronto, says immigrants’ tendency to settle in urban centers where most of Canada’s political representation is concentrated makes it difficult for anti-immigration politicians to get much traction in Ottawa.
Stephen Harper, the prime minister who led Canada from 2006 to 2015, made some tentative efforts to harness the nativist resentment that helped propel Trump to the American presidency, tightening restrictions that limited the number of extended family members permitted to immigrate. But Harper’s Conservative Party was defeated in Canada’s most recent parliamentary elections, and his Liberal Party successor, Justin Trudeau, has been an advocate for family reunification and refugee assistance.
Which elements of Canada’s comprehensive immigration policy Americans find most attractive depends on where they reside on the political spectrum. Conservatives admire Canada’s strategic campaign to attract a workforce tailored to its economic needs; liberals envy Ottawa’s first-in-class generosity toward Syrian refugees and others fleeing political and religious persecution or economic hardship. At the fringes of these competing factions are the xenophobic nativists who see all immigration as a threat and the radical libertarians who regard any restriction on the number or qualification of immigrants as racist and un-American.
A reasonable American response would be to apply the most salient lessons of Canada’s immigration experience, adjusted for the economic, political, and security needs unique to the U.S.
It’s hard to contest the logic of matching America’s diverse economic needs more rigorously to the supply of foreign-born talent eager to relocate here (although a realistic assessment would acknowledge a need for entry-level workers as well as those with advanced engineering degrees). At the same time, Canada’s experience offers scant support for those who argue that a generous attitude toward refugees fleeing war and poverty is incompatible with national security.
Conservatives like Trump and Perdue aren’t wrong when they assert that Canada’s merit-based points system is a best practice worth emulating. But they’re being willfully myopic when they fail to acknowledge that system is but one feature of a comprehensive immigration policy that celebrates openness, diversity, and inclusion as well as economic utility.
What really makes Canadian immigration policy different isn’t just its selectivity, but Canadians’ confidence in their country’s ability to profit from an ever-expanding pool of newcomers. If American policymakers seek best practices to emulate, that confidence might be the most enviable of them all.