Change is the new normal in Canada’s immigration system, by Sandra Lopes, Maytree

Originally published on September 19, 2012, as an op-ed in Embassy.

Like it or not, Canada’s immigration system will be front and centre in the fall agenda. We are in the middle of one of the most transformative periods in Canada’s immigration history.

The federal government is changing who we select to immigrate, the supports newcomers have when they arrive, and how they can become citizens. However, it is unclear whether these changes will help to improve the immigration program – and some may create new problems.

Not only has the federal government put a number of restrictions on the Federal Skilled Worker Program, which historically has been the largest and most successful of the immigration categories, it has made it easier to arrive as a temporary foreign worker by accelerating the timelines for the required documentation. As a result,Canada welcomes more temporary workers than economic immigrants, at a time when it returned many unprocessed skilled worker applications and put a temporary moratorium on new applications pending a revised point system.

This is problematic because temporary foreign workers are often filling permanent positions, are not eligible for federally-funded settlement services, and many of those who are working in occupations requiring lower levels of education and training are not eligible for permanent residence. These workers may live in Canada for up to four years with no chance to become citizens. When their work permits expire, some may choose to remain in Canada without legal status.

But the most significant changes made to Canada’s immigration system to date were those to the refugee determination system. Refugees are now treated differently depending on their country of origin and on how they have arrived in Canada.

For example, refugee claimants who arrive from a country identified by the Minister as “safe” will no longer get a work permit for six months or until they get a positive decision, and will no longer have access to many medical benefits provided to refugees who are selected by government abroad.

In addition, refugee claimants over the age of 16 who are “irregular arrivals” (who arrive by boat, for example) will be automatically detained. They will have a hearing to determine if they are in need of protection, but not an appeal if the decision is negative. If the decision is positive, unlike all other refugees, they will need to wait five years before applying for permanent residence and reuniting with their families abroad.

Expect more changes this fall

We can expect that the government will continue to pursue an aggressive agenda of immigration reform.

Further changes to the Federal Skilled Worker Program have been proposed and are expected to be implemented in early 2013. These include higher minimum standards for official language ability, more points for younger applicants, and a new stream for skilled tradespersons.

In addition we can expect new guidelines for the sponsorship of parents and grandparents as well as the Immigrant Investor Program – both these programs are currently suspended while the government undertakes a review.

We are also likely to see changes to the way Canadian citizenship is acquired. The government has mused about making the acquisition of Canadian citizenship in Canada conditional upon a parent’s legal status. In other words, it would no longer be that anyone born in Canada is automatically a Canadian citizen. This policy could lead to generations of people living in Canada without legal status, as has happened in many European countries that don’t offer citizenship to those born in their country.

While not perfect, in many ways Canada’s immigration system has been a model for the world. We effectively have welcomed and integrated hundreds of thousands of immigrants each year, while maintaining unparalleled high levels of public support.

But as Naomi Alboim, Maytree Fellow and Professor at Queen’s University will describe in more detail in a paper that will be published on October 4, the changes made to date, and which we can expect over the next few years, are fundamentally altering the nature of the immigration program and the character of our country.

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