Welcome to Canada, not

By: on August 30, 2018 |

There is a widespread urban myth, propagandized by Canada’s political leaders, noddingly approved of in coffee shop conversations, and broadcast as truth by much of the media, that our country is a more welcoming place than the United States for immigrants in general and asylum seekers in particular.

A good example of our presumed greater generosity is Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s January 2017 tweet in response to U.S. President Donald Trump’s so-called Islamophobic ban on immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries: “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada.” To thousands of non-U.S. citizens living in that country, legally and illegally,  and looking for a more accommodating refuge than Trump’s America, Trudeau’s tweet sounded like an open invitation to come on up. So far, more than 30,000 have accepted by illegally crossing the border at unofficial entry points to make legal refugee claims.

The prime minister again demonstrated our allegedly superior compassion for immigrants in his June 20 response to a flurry of stories about the U.S. taking thousands of children of illegal migrants from their parents and holding them in separate detention facilities. “What’s going on in the United States is wrong,” Trudeau said. “I cannot imagine what the families are going through. This is not how we do things in Canada.”

The most recent example of Canadian immigration altruism was the July 22 announcement  that Canada is offering to accept dozens of “White Helmet” Syrian volunteer rescue workers as refugees. The White Helmets, who are said to have saved over 100,000 lives during Syria’s long and brutal civil war, apparently fear persecution by the victorious Russian-backed Assad regime. Only two other countries have made the same offer, and America isn’t one of them.

In the wake of these three highly-publicized events, you might think it’s time for the Statue of Liberty to quit her pedestal in New York harbour and take up residence on Toronto Island. But she shouldn’t, because the idea that the world’s “tired, poor, huddled masses” breathe freer in Canada than America is not supported by the facts.

Most of the people who initially accepted Trudeau’s tweet-vitation were Haitians welcomed into the U.S. after the 2010 Haitian earthquake that killed as many as 316,000 people and displaced 1.5 million more. America admitted some 60,000 of these displaced persons under its Temporary Protected Status refugee programme. In late 2017, the Trump administration decided it was safe for them to return home and set a deadline for their departure. Understandably, a lot of them were not anxious to return to the poorest country in the western hemisphere.

Initially Canada had only taken about 3,000 Haitian quake refugees, just five percent of the U.S. total. Many if not most of those were fast-tracked for citizenship through the family reunification process. But after thousands more Haitians and others started pouring into Canada from the U.S. after Trudeau’s welcome tweet (which triggered over 420,000 retweets and glowing news coverage around the world), the prime minister belatedly tried to slam the door: “For someone to successfully seek asylum it’s not about economic migration,” he said. “It’s about vulnerability, exposure to torture or death, or being stateless people. If they are seeking asylum we’ll evaluate them on the basis of what it is to be a refugee or asylum seeker…. Canada is an opening and welcoming society…. But let me be clear. We are also a country of laws…. Entering Canada irregularly is not an advantage. There are rigorous immigration and customs rules that will be followed, make no mistake.”

This is an understatement if there ever was one: the overwhelming majority of asylum seekers who have entered Canada outside official border points since the beginning of last year will eventually be rejected and deported, even if it takes years (and hundreds of millions of tax dollars) to do it.

Not so welcoming of true refugees

Many of the illegal border crossers are opportunistic economic migrants. As for genuine refugees, Canada has admitted far fewer proven war refugees from Syria, the current leading global source of involuntarily displaced persons, than many other countries. Trudeau and his party promised during the 2015 election to bring in 50,000 Syrian refugees. It was more than the Conservatives were willing to accept, but far fewer than the millions taken by Turkey, Germany, and other European countries. Moreover, as of last December, 20,000 sponsored Syrian refugees to Canada were still stuck in the application process.

Currently there are an estimated 70 million forcibly displaced people in the world, roughly 1,400 times the number of Syrians Canada has agreed to accept. This is not an argument for taking millions more refugees – or immigrants in general. As other countries have seen, there are profound social and economic challenges associated with trying to integrate huge numbers of newcomers. Besides, surely the equal or greater humanitarian obligation is to try to protect people from violence and privation in their homelands, where most would rather live.

Moreover, it is well established that mass migration, voluntary or not, robs the sending societies of their best, brightest, and most ambitious people. This flight of human resources can cause a socio-economic death spiral from which countries may never recover.

Viewed from this perspective, the offer to provide refuge to a few dozen White Helmet rescue workers with sanctuary seems cruel, ignorant, or cynical, and possibly all three. It takes from Syria people it needs and makes them fodder for yet another emotion-drenched and politically expedient Liberal photo op at some Canadian airport just before next year’s election.

How we do things in Canada

But still, however insincere and hypocritical Canada may be about who and how many it welcomes as refugees, at least we don’t separate immigrant children from their parents, right?

Wrong.

It’s true the Trump administration’s crackdown on illegal migrants from Central America requires the detention and referral to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution of every adult caught entering the U.S. illegally, even if they intend to claim asylum. Since children are not allowed to be held in adult jails, they are housed elsewhere. This caused a firestorm of hyperbolic media and public protest and even comparisons to the segregation of family members bound for the gas chambers in the Nazi extermination camps during World War II.

Lost in all the emotive and politically-biased hyperbole are some inconvenient facts: the policy of separating children from their parents was only in effect between April 6 and June 20; some of the “separated” children who illegally entered the country were unaccompanied or entered with non-family; many who were separated from their parents were housed with resident family members; some parents voluntarily returned or were deported to Mexico but left their children behind hoping this would enhance their chances of eventually gaining refugee status; many children were separated from parents who were incarcerated because of their criminal backgrounds; and nearly all separated children have now been reunited with their families.

How different is Canada in regard to the treatment of children of asylum-seeking parents? Few people realize that thousands of would-be migrants are routinely held in immigration detention centres. While most stay in hotels, homeless shelters or temporary camps, the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) also confines thousands of adult asylum seekers in secure Immigration Holding Centres, or even federal penitentiaries if the holding centres are full, if they are deemed a flight risk, a danger to the public, or have no identification papers. If they’re in care of children when they’re detained the kids are jailed with them, including Canadian-born children who are citizens, even if their parents are not. Between 2011 and 2015, 241 Canadian children were held at the Toronto Immigration Holding Centre alone (even though it is technically illegal to confine Canadian citizens under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act). Most such Canadian children, however, are separated from their detained non-Canadian parents and placed with caregivers on the outside, just as occurs in the U.S.

The Toronto East Detention Centre, a prison facility operated by the provincial government, off Eglinton Avenue East in Scarborough, Ontario, Canada.

But even when they are housed in the same facility as their parents they still face family separation because they are held with their mother in gender-segregated facilities and have limited visits with their father.

The three main Canadian holding centres (the other two are in Laval, Quebec and Vancouver) are surrounded by razor-wire fences and protected by armed guards. Inmates are not held in cages, as in some American detention facilities, but the centres are off limits to the public so Canadians will never see anything resembling the televised images from the U.S. that prompted Justin Trudeau to say “this is not how we do things in Canada.” Indeed. Among the ways we do things differently in Canada is that, in a few places, asylum seekers and their children are even detained in dangerous maximum-security prisons.

The confinement in America of illegal economic migrants leading to the segregation of their children has been deemed necessary mainly because most of those intercepted entering outside official border crossings are denied refugee status or go underground if released. Based on the experience of those who have preceded them, they know that their claims for asylum would be rejected by an immigration judge. A smaller number are confined because they pose a risk to public safety or refuse to prove who they are. As mentioned, exactly the same considerations underlie CBSA policies.

Unlike Canada, remanding innocent children in identical American holding facilities is seen as their de facto criminalization for the transgressions of their parents, exacerbated by the fact that confining them to penal-like institutions has adversely affected children wherever it occurs, considerations regrettably ignored in Canada.

Memo to migrants: it’s better in the U.S.

A comparison of our overall immigration regulations with those of the United States casts even more doubt on the moral superiority of the Canadian system.

In fact it is more difficult to obtain permanent residence in Canada than in the United States. Immigrant admission numbers reveal the selective – some would say elitist and classist – nature of Canada’s immigration system, which has long favoured people whose skills and assets match the country’s needs over those with existing family here. In 2015, 24 percent of Canada’s new permanent residents were family-sponsored immigrants versus 65 percent for the United States. In Canada, immigrant admissions based on employment skills accounted for 58 percent of new immigrants in 2017; the comparable figure for the U.S. was less than 14 percent.

The emphasis on skills also means that about half of all Canadian immigrants arrive with a college degree; the figure for the United States is just 27 percent. Canadian immigrants are almost 20 percent more likely to own their own homes and seven percent are less likely to live in poverty than their American counterparts, more evidence of Canada’s more discriminating system.

In the United States, entry is also determined in part by the Diversity Immigrant Visa programme, also known as the green card lottery, that has been in place since 1990, applies to all overseas applicants, and aims to increase the diversity of the immigrant population in the United States by favouring applicants from countries with low numbers of immigrants in the previous five years. Canada introduced a partial lottery system in 2016 which applies only to those in the family reunification queue. The Liberals recently announced that they’re scrapping it next year and modestly increasing the annual number of immigrants accepted via the family reunification system.

T’was ever thus

The United States has been the top destination for international migrants for over 100 years. Fully one-fifth of the world’s 244 million migrants were living there as of 2017. In 2016, Canada welcomed more than 296,000 permanent residents; in the same year, America admitted 1.5 million new settlers. Over the course of our shared history on the North American continent, there has always been substantial cross-border immigration, but the tilt has been north-south. At least twice as many Canadians have migrated to the United States than vice versa since Confederation

Given all these differences between the two countries, it’s obvious that Emma Lazarus’ famous words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty ring truer in the U.S. than in Canada. Even in the very new, and likely temporary, anti-immigrant era of “Make America great again” policy under Donald Trump, we still subscribe to the very old “Canada first” immigration policy under the Liberal Party, a political powerhouse that has governed Canada for 67 of the last 100 years.

Knowing how important “the party of immigration” label is to the Liberal brand, the government has recently moved to release more refugee claimants safely into the community pending the determination of their immigration status. They have also proposed to increase the total number of permanent residents accepted each year from 300,000 last year to 340,000 by 2020. But that’s barely 1 percent of the total population, and proportionately much fewer than the record 400,000 set in 1913 (when the population was 7.6 million.)

And in this summer’s cabinet shuffle, the Liberals behaved true to schizophrenic form on immigration by creating a new portfolio with the formidable name “Minister of Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction,” headed by former Toronto police chief Bill Blair. The ministry will be simultaneously responsible for dealing with gangsters and persons euphemistically called “irregular border crossers,” which surely stigmatizes the latter through guilt-by-association. This is immigration tough love, Liberal-style.

Migration is surely a very complex issue with many local, regional, and international implications. In today’s world millions of migrants, both legitimate refugees and economic opportunists, are on the move, causing enormous social, economic and political disruptions. So far relatively few of them are picking Canada as their destination, compared to Europe and the U.S. That’s mainly because, notwithstanding the politically correct rhetoric and cosmetic policy changes of the current government, the vast majority of them will be detained and deported. Keep that in mind next time Prime Minister Trudeau or one of his ministers poses as the saintly humanitarian antithesis to the Trump administration. The notion that Canada has ever had a more welcoming immigration or asylum system than our American neighbours is political propaganda and Liberal myth-making at its very best.


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About Hymie Rubenstein

Hymie Rubenstein is a retired professor of anthropology at the University of Manitoba.