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The Best and Brightest?

Constantine Passaris suggests an agenda for North American immigration reform.

By: /
25 February, 2014
By: Constantine Passaris
Professor of Economics at the University of New Brunswick

The year 2014 will likely turn out to be a watershed year for immigration reform in both Canada and the United States. The Harper government is determined to revamp and realign the immigration system in Canada. In the United States, the Obama administration has signaled a renewed effort to embark upon another attempt at immigration reform.

The Canadian government has set its sights on streamlining the immigration application and selection process, increasing fees and reducing operational costs. On the other hand, the American immigration landscape is a veritable political minefield with the Obama administration clashing with a Republican Congress with regard to who will get the political credit for immigration reform.

A comparison of the United States and Canada and their respective immigration policies reveals distinct similarities and differences as well as unique challenges and opportunities. At the outset, it should be noted that both countries share a common demographic heritage. Apart from their native peoples, these two countries have been populated exclusively by immigrants and the descendants of immigrants.

Both countries also share the longest undefended border in the world. This has resulted in a strong record of bilateral cooperation with respect to immigration, refugee, and asylum issues. This is in sharp contrast to America’s southern border with Mexico, which has become increasingly porous with respect to illegal immigration and transnational crime.

Moreover, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 precipitated enhanced security precautions and elevated the requirements for security screening in both the United States and Canada.  This has meant a more thorough and protracted security clearance process for prospective immigrants to both countries.

There is also no denying that both countries face a disproportionate threat with respect to illegal immigration. Canada has little reason to worry about illegal immigration. Its geographical location with the United States to the south, two oceans in the east and the west and the vast wilderness of the Arctic in the north serve as a natural buffer against illegal immigration.

Unlike the United States, however, Canada is positioned to face the consequences of the perfect demographic storm. Indeed, Canada’s declining birth rate, shrinking population, the swelling of its retiring Baby Boomers (those born between the years 1946 and 1966), a contracting work force, significant labour shortages, and an ageing population spell a demographic challenge of Herculean proportions. By consequence, the only recourse from Canada’s demographic deficit is to open the gates of immigration wider than they have ever been opened before.

On the other hand, the United States has a healthy birth rate driving population growth and does not require immigration to grow its population. Specifically, the United States’ demographic has benefitted from the high birth rate among its domestic Hispanic population.

In 2013, the total fertility rate in Canada was 1.59. The United States’ rate was significantly higher at 2.06—a figure much closer to the desired population replacement level of 2.1. It is not surprising, therefore, that Canada’s net migration rate per 1,000 of the domestic population last year was 5.65, significantly higher than that of the United States at 3.62. In short, there is a clear and present difference between the two countries with respect to the role of immigration as a contributor to population growth. In this regard, Canada needs immigration significantly more than the United States in order to sustain and grow its population.


The demographic face of both the United States and Canada is also changing as a result of the new source countries for recent waves of immigration. The historical plurality of European immigrants has been replaced by contemporary immigration flows from Mexico and Asia in the United States and primarily from Asia and the Caribbean for Canada.

It is in this shift of source area composition of immigrants, away from the European continent, that the demographic profile of the United States and Canada has changed. The top three source countries of legal immigration to the United States in 2010 were Mexico, China, and India. For Canada, the top three source countries of legal immigrants in 2010 were from the Philippines, India, and China. It is by no means a matter of coincidence that the world’s most populated countries exceeding one billion inhabitants each, China and India, appear on both lists.  

The contemporary numerical importance of ethnic communities in both countries has made immigration issues a political football and a political target to be exploited for electoral success. Clearly, the significant increase in the last two decades of the percentage of ethnic voters in the United States and Canada contributes to the political attention that is directed towards those communities.

Native Born

The most recent example of this trend in the United States was President Barack Obama’s executive order to block the deportation of about 800,000 undocumented young Hispanics who were brought to America as children. Immediately following this announcement his popularity soared among Latino voters, an important electoral community, contributing to his successful re-election in November 2012.

The same political manoeuvring takes place in Canada as political parties woo the ethnic vote with policies favouring increased immigration levels, family re-unification programs, and support for new arrivals to secure their vote towards forming the next government. Traditionally, the Liberal Party in Canada was the favourite electoral designation for multicultural immigrant communities. During the past few years, however, the governing Conservative Party has successfully attracted the votes of the ethnic communities leading to a majority Conservative government in May 2011.

The New Global Economy

The advent of the new global economy of the 21st century has underlined the importance of human resources. Indeed the signature mark of the new economy is human capital. In this context the mobility of labour through international migration has become a central feature of the modern global landscape.

This new global economy is composed of a trilogy of interactive forces that include globalization, trade liberalization, and the information technology and communications revolution. Globalization has melted national borders. Free trade has enhanced economic integration. The information and communications revolution has made geography and time irrelevant.

The contemporary mobility of immigrant labour in a globalized world is both a challenge and an opportunity. The United States serves as a global magnet for immigrant labour with a large amount of human capital that tends to stay in America. On the other hand, Canada has experienced the syndrome of “here today gone tomorrow” migration with related challenges in its efforts to sustain its share of highly educated and skilled immigrants. Indeed, Canada’s proximity to the United States and the attraction of higher salaries and better career opportunities in America is posing a serious challenge to Canada’s efforts to hold on to its highly educated and skilled immigrants.

There is no denying the pivotal role of human resources for both the United States and Canada in the new global economy of the 21st century. Human capital has become a necessary pre-requisite for achieving economic growth, international competitiveness, and innovation.  The contemporary, knowledge-based economy is fuelled by technology, human capital, and research and development. In short, the fuel of the new economy is technology and its currency is human capital.

The role of immigration as a contributor to economic growth has been more direct and pervasive in Canada than in the United States. Indeed, Canada’s immigration policy has attributed considerable importance on economic integration and employability through its selection process known as the “points system” and actively recruits immigrant entrepreneurs and investors. That is not the case in the United States.

For both countries, immigration takes on added significance in the context of the structural changes that we have witnessed to the contemporary economic landscape. There is no denying that the economic landscape has changed dramatically in the 21st century placing a higher premium on highly educated and skilled immigrants. Indeed, the Canada’s economy of the 20th century was about physical capital and the natural resources under our feet. The contemporary knowledge economy is human capital intensive. In this context, immigrants that possess the required human capital in the form of educational attainment, specialized skills and technological competencies are a valuable addition to the composite of the domestic workforce.

The recent changing dynamics associated with the structural changes on the economic landscape have precipitated new challenges with respect to the transfer of human capital in the context of the diverse ethnic composition of contemporary immigration streams for both the United States and Canada. Canada is acutely aware that the economic integration of new immigrants possessing high levels of human capital is fraught with difficulties and challenges. In Canada, new immigrants are facing significant barriers with respect to the accreditation of their academic credentials, the recognition of their international work experience and their acceptance to the professional organizations of their adopted country.

Another distinctive difference between immigration patterns in the United States and Canada is the distribution of immigrants after their arrival. In the United, immigrants tend to be evenly distributed across the country. In Canada, on the other hand, they are attracted to three major metropolitan centers: Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. 

During the last few decades, immigrant arrivals to both the United States and Canada have had a pronounced multi-ethnic composition. This has endowed both countries with a unique and strategic economic resource. In the context of the new global economy this pool of multicultural human talent positions both countries for competitive advantage in terms of building economic bridges with the rest of the world.


The United States and Canada have a unique economic opportunity in the strategic deployment of their multicultural human resources to successfully navigate the new global economy of the 21st century. Their multicultural human assets empower both countries with an economic advantage and a gateway to the world.

Heritage languages and an intimate knowledge of customs, traditions, and religions would contribute to a more prosperous domestic socioeconomic and geopolitical landscape as well as affirm the United States’ and Canada’s purposeful engagement with the rest of the world.

The increased globalization of the world’s economy, internationalization of production, development of global business strategies, and importance of direct foreign investment have underlined the  economic importance of cross-cultural awareness, geopolitical navigational abilities, multilingual capabilities, and business experience in foreign markets.

Multiculturalism vs. Assimilation

Public opinion in Canada is more favourably disposed towards immigration than in the United States. There are three reasons for this sharp divide. First, Canadians are convinced of the positive economic benefits of immigration. Second, Canadians view multiculturalism as an important component of their national identity. Third, Canada has little reason to worry about illegal immigration. Conversely, in the United States concerns over national security and illegal immigration have soured public attitudes towards immigration.

One of the most significant policymaking differences between the United States and Canada is their public policy approach toward immigrants after their arrival. Canada’s multicultural policy is a template for integration while the United States encourages assimilation. Canadian multiculturalism has been used as a tool for enhancing social cohesion, economic integration and democratic participation. It is founded upon the premise of respecting and celebrating diverse cultural identities, linguistic plurality and religious freedom.

Indeed, Canada has been internationally acclaimed as a leader in the adoption of a universal immigration program and in the promotion of a multicultural policy. Canada’s multicultural policy also launched in the 1970’s at a time when new immigrant arrivals had already started to enhance the cultural, linguistic, and religious diversity of Canada’s population profile. Furthermore, Canada was the first country in the world to elevate its multicultural policy to the status of a Multiculturalism Act in 1988, the highest form of parliamentary legislation.

Canada’s multicultural policy was born from the social discord and historical military conflict that existed between Canada’s two historically European communities. Social, political, and economic tension permeated inter-communal relations between Canadians of French heritage and those of British heritage. Canadian multiculturalism was conceived of as a model for healing the rift between both communities and ending their respective cultural isolation.

The United States, on the other hand, has adopted an assimilative approach for its new immigrants and promoted the “melting pot syndrome” as a recipe for social integration and economic success. For many generations, immigrants arriving in the United States by ship would see their first land mark in the form of the Statue of Liberty on Ellis Island at the harbour in New York City. It was a beacon of freedom, hope, compassion and opportunity.

At the base of the statue is a poem written by Emma Lazarus which reads, 

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”

This poem captured the principal thrust of American immigration policy at that time. The world has changed dramatically since then and both Canada and the United States have embarked upon devising a modern and transformative immigration policy.  They have set the wheels in motion for reform of their respective immigration priorities and programs. Maximizing the economic contributions of future immigrants to both countries will be a guiding light in the future direction of their immigration strategy.

Immigration Reform

Canada’s immigration reforms will unfold on several fronts. They will include streamlining the immigrant application and selection process; sharpening the tools for economic integration; enhancing immigrant contributions to economic growth; ensuring social cohesion; safeguarding national security; using immigration as a formula to eliminate the demographic deficit; eliminating skilled labour shortages; increasing the application and processing fees; and reducing the overall cost of the Canadian immigration system.

Canada’s immigration policy has always had a pronounced economic orientation. Moving forward we can anticipate more of the same along with a structural realignment to confront the challenges and take advantage of the opportunities in the new global economy of the 21st century. In the years ahead, Canada’s immigration policy will continue to emphasise the economic benefits of immigration while at the same time embracing the contemporary parameters of the new economy.

Canada is acutely aware that its immigration program is in a global competition for human talent and specialized skills. Canada’s forthcoming immigration reforms should adhere to the historical foundation that immigration is about nation building. In this regard, the positive social integration of immigrants is just as important as economic integration. In all of this, the acceptance of immigrants as full and equal partners in the process of nation building is a foundational prerequisite.

Starting with the decade of the 1990’s, Canada’s immigration selection process was aimed at recruiting skilled and educated immigrants.  But recent evidence suggests that while Canada has been successful at attracting educated immigrants, there is a need to increase the efficacy of their integration into the contemporary Canadian economy. Recent studies reveal that the immigrant economic success rate has been dropping significantly in the last couple of decades. In consequence, overhauling the Canadian selection process should be accompanied with the introduction of modern immigrant integration methods with special attention paid to economic vitality. 

As part of the these methods, there is an acute need to broaden the reach of the Canadian immigration settlement resources—currently confined to funding language training classes and job search workshops—to include the transition to employment opportunities and the effective utilization of their professional skills and expertise. In this regard, contemporary major hurdles exist in the accreditation of foreign credentials, the admission to professional associations, and the recognition of prior international work experience. 

Enhancing the reach of public education with respect to the social and economic benefits of immigration should become an integral part of Canadian immigration reform. Indeed, public education on the benefits of immigration is an important pre-requisite for the successful social and economic integration of immigrants in Canada. Improving public perceptions about the positive role and contributions of immigration is a perennial requirement for countries receiving immigrants.

In January of this year, during his State of the Union address, President Obama signaled his intention to make 2014 a year of action. This includes moving forward with proposed immigration reforms. With that said, immigration reform in the United States remains a veritable political minefield. Any substantive progress depends upon pragmatic cooperation with a divided and recalcitrant American Congress.

The Obama plan for immigration reform requires the Republicans in the House to join Democrats in passing a bipartisan Senate plan. At present, the process of immigration reform has stalled because of political gamesmanship between both sides. Both the Democrats and the Republicans are exercising intense political manoeuvres to lay claim to being the party that brought about immigration reforms. The Republicans, in particular, view this as a way to bolster their historically weak support among Hispanic Americans, the United States’ largest minority demographic.

Immigration reform in the United States is a complex and multifaceted endeavour. It includes finding a pathway to legalize the citizenship of some 11 million illegal immigrants who currently live and work in the country. The most significant immigration reform in the United States should be a strategic focus on maximizing the economic contributions of immigrants. The economic dimension of immigration reforms will ensure that the U.S. market continues to attract the best and brightest from around the world.

At the end of the day, immigration reforms in the United States are aimed at sharpening the economic focus of its immigration policy. This is in keeping with the elevated importance of human resources and human capital in the new global economy of the 21st century. It also aims to provide the U.S. economy with important economic spinoffs in job creation, income generation, and growth. The economic axiom for immigration reform in the United States is triggered by recent research conducted by economists who have estimated that immigration reform will grow the American economy and shrink the fiscal deficit by almost $1 trillion in the next two decades. In short, North America will continue to be the destination of choice for the vast majority of immigrants as both Canada and the United States select the best, brightest, and the most hardworking to sustain their economic recovery and meet the human capital requirements of the new economy.

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