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Platform Primer: Immigration

In the run-up to the federal election on May 2, we’ll be comparing the major parties’ platforms on issues that matter to urban voters.

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Each party’s key messages, according their respective colours. Image by Michael Chrisman/Torontoist.


Tired as you may be of hearing it, Canada is a country of immigrants, many of whom vote. For this and less cynical reasons, politicians have a keen interest in how we select, welcome, and integrate newcomers. Issues around new Canadianism are particularly germane in Toronto, the destination for about a quarter of all immigrants to Canada, and a city where almost half of us were born outside the country ourselves.

Conservatives

The Conservatives have got bridges to mend after slashing $53 million from Settlement Services budgets back in 2010, a move that was devastating to a number of organizations that help new immigrants resettle in Canada. Moreover, as with many of their other policies, the Tories’ stated goals on immigration lean to the prescriptive, concentrating on what they’re going to prevent, eliminate, or crack down on, rather than what they’re going to improve.
Following last year’s controversy over the Sun Sea, the ship that turned up in BC with a cargo hold full of Tamil refugee claimants, the Conservatives introduced the descriptively titled Preventing Human Smugglers from Abusing Canada’s Immigration System Act. Among other things, the bill would allow easier prosecution of those who smuggle illegal migrants as well as permit up to a year of detention for the migrants themselves. Opposition parties were against the bill and it didn’t pass prior to the election being called, but the Conservatives have vowed to reintroduce it. Stephen Harper has highlighted this as a campaign issue, promoting it to different cultural groups as a way of preventing “queue jumpers” from using illegal means to enter the country ahead of other immigrants.
Another priority would be easier deportation of foreign criminals, particularly crooks connected with terrorist organizations or organized crime.
The Tories also promise to introduce legislation to “to protect vulnerable foreign workers—for example, women entering Canada to work as exotic dancers.” This would involve giving immigration officers greater power to refuse work permits in cases where women may be sent to Canada to “work in humiliating or degrading situations,” which to be fair might keep the problem out of Canada but doesn’t much seem to benefit the trafficked women themselves.
On a more upbeat note, the Conservatives want to make it easier for overseas professional credentials to be recognized in Canada so immigrants can begin working in their fields of expertise more quickly. They’re proposing a program of loans for immigrants to upgrade their qualifications with skills training and accreditation courses.
Proposed Tory policies are stricter than what we’ve had in the past, but they’re not so draconian as they’re sometimes painted by the other parties and may even find support among new Canadians.

Liberals

No surprises from the Liberals, who follow the standard CBC documentary series–style boilerplate (“Immigrant stories are Canadian stories, woven into the fabric of our identity”) with a knee-jerk castigation of the Tories for their insensitivity and an assertion that a Grit government would do better.
Specifically, the Liberals commit to streamlining immigration and refugee determination processes with an eye to reducing wait times for those looking to enter or remain in Canada. This is an admirable goal (especially considering the Liberals created many of the processes), but the means to achieve it remain nebulous, except that they will involve “consult[ing] with new Canadians, immigration stakeholders and experts to develop solutions.”
The Liberals slam the Tories for reducing the number of family visas and favouring economic migrants over family reunification, and they promise to reverse the trend. This can be viewed as the Grits having their hearts in the right place, or low-level fear-mongering aimed at new Canadians (“Vote Liberal or Grandma stays in China!”). It is likely a bit of both.
Like the Tories, the Liberals recognize that allowing immigrants to work in their chosen fields as soon as possible is a benefit to both the individual and the country, and they feel that “federal government must do a better job screening and advising prospective immigrants on credential recognition before they leave their countries of origin,” a statement that could use further elaboration. They would also provide more money for language training to encourage integration of immigrants into the workforce.
Traditionally the party of new Canadians, the Liberals promote a warm and fuzzy approach to complex immigration issues, but they need to put some meat on the bone here.

NDP

Unsurprisingly, the NDP advocate immigration policies that emphasize the rights of immigrants over the Tories’ concern with the cost-benefit ratio to the country as a whole.
They promise to “end the restrictive immigration measures based on secretive, arbitrary decisions by cabinet ministers,” which is presumably a reference to security certificates that essentially allow the government to deport people deemed risks to national security while keeping the reasons secret. They also want to put money into reducing immigration backlogs, especially where family reunification is concerned, and to implement their proposed “Once in a Lifetime Act,” which would let citizens sponsor a relative who is not a member of the family class to come to Canada. Family class immigrants from disaster areas would be prioritized, and improved procedures would be developed for people looking for Canadian visas to attend important family events.
Taking a slap at the Tory cuts, the NDP say they’d put more dollars back into the settlement of new Canadians, including literacy, community integration, and orientation programs.
The sole page they’ve taken from the Harper playbook is a commitment to cracking down on crooked immigration consultants, presumably using the laws passed by the Tories.
The NDP line up with all other parties on the importance of ensuring that immigrants aren’t underutilized in the work force due to a failure to recognize their qualifications, and they promise to accelerate the credential-recognition process. However, they don’t say how they’ll do it.
The NDP strategy is one that appeals to the heart more than the head, which may resonate with voters. However, it’s a little unsettling that none of their proposals turn up in the costing document attached to the platform, so it’s not clear how much taxpayers would have to shell out for all this.

Green Party

When it comes to immigration policy, the Greens make the NDP look like a pre-ghost Ebenezer Scrooge.
Apart from increasing the speed and accuracy with which overseas credentials can be validated (which is basically table stakes), they echo the NDP in a desire to streamline approval processes for people looking to come to Canada, also making family reunification a priority. The Greens also propose changes in immigration policy to get rid of what they term a “culture of fear and discrimination,” which they say the current Immigration and Refugee Protection Act has fostered, although it’s not clear exactly what they mean by this.
The Green Party agrees with the NDP and Liberals on the need to provide more language training to permit immigrants to assimilate more quickly into Canadian society, as well as working with other levels of government to advance integration measures.
On the punitive side of the equation, the Greens channel their inner Tory by recommending stronger enforcement of laws against dishonest immigration consultants who take advantage of would-be immigrants, and stronger penalties for those convicted
of human smuggling. However, they would oppose any new laws aimed specifically at migrants who arrive by ship, like those tabled by the Harper government amid the Sun Sea controversy.
They would “open an investigation into allegations by the United Nations Human Rights Committee of Canadian officials cooperating with foreign agencies known to use torture.”
Two Green platform planks would probably prove controversial. Firstly, they propose to designate a new category of “environmental refugee,” who would be accepted into Canada under criteria to be defined. While philosophically unassailable, it could prove an unmanageable entitlement in our globally warming world, which sees the number of eco-catastrophes snowballing with each passing year.
Secondly, the Greens would “implement the recommendation made by the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration to immediately allow those who have refused or left military service regarding a war not sanctioned by the United Nations permanent resident status.” Whatever the moral implications, the idea of Canada welcoming deserters from the American war in Iraq would be unlikely to sit well with our closest neighbour and trading partner, and it could result in serious diplomatic fallout.

The Upshot

The Tories are interested primarily in immigration policies that decrease crime and promote economic activity. While the idea doesn’t sound bad, the questions are, firstly, whether they would achieve that goal; and secondly, what do we have to give up to get there?
The Liberals are vying to keep their immigrant voting base, principally by promising to make it easier for legitimate migrants to get here, stay here, work here, and bring their families here. The NDP are similar to the Grits, with the added perk of the “Once in a Lifetime” act, which would let you bring in your third cousin who wouldn’t have otherwise made the cut. Neither are saying much about where they would get the money to pay for it.
The Greens echo the largesse of the other centre-left parties, but add a soupçon of radicalism that would have to be abandoned if they ever have a hope of forming a government.

For more on the federal election, check out our politics hub, with a complete guide to every riding in Toronto. For all the details on their policy plans, also check out the platforms of the Conservative Party, the Green Party, the Liberal Party and the New Democratic Party.

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