Immigration: The United States v Canada
As a matter of national policy, Canada actively solicits immigrants and has done so for years. The public supports this and the default political assumption is in support of continued immigration. According to a recent poll, only a third of Canadians believe immigration is more of a problem than an opportunity, far fewer than any other country included in the survey. Rather, Canadians are concerned about “brain waste” and ensuring that foreign credentials are appropriately recognised and rewarded in the job market? Being an immigrant is also no barrier to being a proper Canadian; in parliamentary elections earlier this month, 11% of the people elected were not native. This warm embrace isn’t just a liberal abstraction; 20% of Canadians are foreign-born.
It’s well-known that Canada is an outlier among immigrant nations, but it is nonetheless interesting to consider in reference to the ongoing and heated debate about immigration in the United States. Why is Canadian public opinion so different from views in United States?
At a conference yesterday, Jeffrey Reitz, a sociologist at the University of Toronto, cited two big explanations for the difference. The first was that Canadians are convinced of the positive economic benefits of immigration—to the extent that towns under economic duress are especially keen to promote immigration, because they believe immigrants will create jobs. Even unemployed Canadians will stoutly insist that immigrants do not take work away from the native born. This makes sense, as most immigrants to Canada are authorised under a “points” system tied to their credentials and employment potential. About half of Canadian immigrants have bachelor’s degrees. They may have a higher unemployment rate than native-born workers, Mr Reitz said, and they benefit from programmes and services created specially for immigrants, such as language training. But the preponderance of evidence suggests that Canada’s immigrants, being high-skilled, are net contributors.
Mr Reitz’s second explanation was that Canadians see multiculturalism as an important component of national identity. In one public opinion poll, Mr Reitz said, multiculturalism was deemed less important than national health care but more important than the flag, the Mounties, and hockey. Irene Bloemraad, a sociologist at the University of California at Berkeley, picked up this theme. There wasn’t such a thing as a purely Canadian passport, she said, until 1947. Canada was, psychosocially, very much a part of the British commonwealth until quite recently. When it came time to create a distinctively Canadian identity, the country included a large and vocal Francophone minority (as well as a considerable number of first peoples). The necessity of bilingualism contributed to a broader public commitment to multiculturalism, which persists today.
Other factors allow Canada to be more inviting. The country has little reason to worry about illegal immigration. Like the United States, it shares a long southern border with a country suffering from high levels of crime, unemployment and income inequality. But there aren’t millions of Americans yearning to get into Canada. To put it another way, the United States’s buffer zone from the eager masses is a shallow river. Canada’s is the United States. That reduces unauthorised migration to Canada and eases public anxiety about it. Canada also has a smaller population and lower birth rate than the United States—it needs immigrants for population growth.
Incidentally, the emphasis on multiculturalism points to an interesting normative distinction between the United States and Canada. The United States supports pluralism and in some respect this leads to similar structures in the two countries. (Ms Bloemraad mentioned that both the United States and Canada have unusually robust legal protections against discrimination, for example.) But in the United States, you rarely hear somebody advocate for immigration on the grounds that it adds to the social fabric of the country. When the normative argument arises here, it has a humanitarian dimension. I would posit that in the United States, identity is a right, not a value.
Still, looking at Canada, we can extrapolate a few things for the United States. The first is that, as we’ve previously discussed here, the United States really should be more open to high-skilled immigrants. They’re good for the economy, and an uptick in demonstrably uncontroversial immigrants might mitigate anxiety about the group as a whole. Another is that while there may be benefits to the tacit acceptance of undocumented immigration—the United States acquires an immigrant labour force without making any accommodations for the population—there are also foregone opportunities. One of these, compared to the Canadian approach, is in the United States’s ability to foster integration through language training or other settlement programmes.