Tough selection, soft landing: Is Canada’s immigration policy as good as its image?

Canada opened its borders to people of all nationalities in the 1960s, provided they had the right qualifications. The German government is discussing whether this could be a model for them. But critics say Canada’s often idealized immigration system is classist and encourages exploitation.

Translation of my German-language radio documentary (19mn), broadcast by Deutschlandfunk (German public radio) on Nov 23, 2021 >>

–Radio script–

Vox pops/statements of people in the street:

“We have the space, we have the jobs. And I believe we need immigrants for the country to grow.”

“I came to Canada myself as an immigrant from England. The system is known to be complicated, but my family and I had it easy.”

“The more diverse our population is, the better. Because the more we know about something, the less afraid we are of it.”

No other country in the world regularly accepts as many immigrants per capita as Canada: one percent of the population this year alone, 400,000 people. According to polls, most Canadians are happy with this policy. The only right-wing populist party in the country, the People’s Party of Canada, founded in 2018, has not made it into parliament. Multiculturalism is the official policy and social consensus in Canada. This is another reason why the Canadian model awakes interest in Germany: Politicians from the possible future governing parties SPD, FDP, and Greens have repeatedly stated that they want to align German immigration policy with it – starting with the points system for highly skilled workers, which the CDU and CSU have so far blocked.

Scoring system since 1967

Monika Sievers-Redekop’s office is located in downtown Vancouver, on the 15th floor of a high-rise building, overlooking the Pacific Ocean and cloud-covered mountains. Born in Hamburg, she works here as an immigration lawyer. Every day, she gets calls from people who want to immigrate to Canada through the scoring system. But they must meet strict criteria; Redekop lists who the government is looking for:

“Young people if possible, a Ph.D. if possible, a master’s or maybe two master’s would be very helpful, and just a very good English score. And hopefully knowledge of French as well. It would also be good if they had a relative here and if possible a year of work experience in Canada. Then I would immediately say, “Okay, we can start right away, here we go.”

Those who score at least 67 out of 100 points according to these criteria get into the so-called Express Entry pool. There, you can get a maximum of 1,200 points in a second round. The government also pays attention to who has a concrete job offer. The best candidates are invited to apply every two weeks – and always exactly as many as the economy needs at the time. They receive permanent visas for themselves, their partners, and their children, and can become naturalized citizens after three years. In the past, Canada almost exclusively let Europeans immigrate. That changed with the introduction of the scoring system in 1967.

“At that time, Canada faced fundamental challenges in society and the national economy that are not entirely dissimilar to the situation in Germany: widespread demographic change, declining birth rates, labor shortages, and pressure to increase the national economy’s capacity for innovation.”

Oliver Schmidtke, a native of Bremen, Germany, is a professor of politics and history at the University of Victoria on Vancouver Island on Canada’s west coast; he has studied this paradigm shift.

“Canada decided to practically reinvent itself, away from the white settler society to a globally oriented and cosmopolitan immigration society. That’s when the government said, ‘From now on, we’re going to try to attract immigrants from all over the world based only on their qualifications, not their background.’ And that led to a narrative being set up that focuses quite strongly on the social and economic benefits of immigration.”

Canada and immigration have been closely linked for many decades. By means of a scoring system, the huge country wants to ensure that above all well-educated people settle there. However, the Canadian labor market is problematic, even for immigrants with academic education.

As precisely as the scoring system is meant to fill the gap of skilled workers, the labor market is unprepared in many respects. In a survey of new Canadians, more than 50 percent said they had to take a job for which they were overqualified, or that they were even working outside their profession. Economists speak of brain drain and brain waste: while the countries of origin have to do without bright minds, their potential is not even fully utilized in Canada. This is what happened to Vahid Nilforushan. He gave up a longtime job as an anesthesiologist and an assistant professorship in Tehran to move from Iran to Canada. Immigration officials scored him 80 out of 100 – he was a desirable candidate and was allowed to immigrate with his family within a short time. For his license to practice medicine in Canada, he had to repeat the clinical internship.

“For five years, I applied to all available internship positions in Canada – in the north, in the country, in other provinces – but I was rejected every time. To this day, I don’t know what the reason was.”

The medical association reserves a majority of its internship positions for graduates of Canadian and U.S. universities. The 1,000 or so international doctors who immigrate to Canada each year must compete for the remaining spots. One in two never gets a spot – and thus a license. And that’s despite the fact that physician density in Canada is much lower than in Germany, for example, and millions of Canadians can’t find a family doctor.

“I know several doctors who drive cabs or deliver food”

“It hurts that I am not allowed to practice my profession. After immigration invited us, the medical association excludes us. I know several doctors who drive cabs or deliver food.”

Nilforushan, along with four other doctors, is challenging the worse treatment in the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal; the decision is still pending. Since the pandemic, he has increasingly thought about returning to Iran, where doctors are urgently needed.

The Canadian government is constantly adjusting its immigration system. One shortcoming that it is currently trying to improve is the concentration of immigrants in the big cities of the south: a good one in two settles in Toronto, Vancouver, and Montréal. Newcomers hardly ever move to small towns or even to the sparsely populated north, even though that’s precisely where they are urgently needed.

“Immigrating is so stressful that most people get stuck in urban centers. There, many have to take jobs for which they are overqualified. At the same time, good jobs go unfilled three or eight hours away by car. Most immigrants don’t even know our smaller cities exist.”

Charles Cirtwell heads the Northern Policy Institute in Thunder Bay, a 14-hour drive northwest of Toronto. His think tank just evaluated the first round of a decentralized immigration program. The Rural and Northern Immigration Program targets people whose formal qualifications are insufficient for the Express Entry scoring system.

Eleven small towns in five provinces are participating, and each has developed its own point system: Some weigh a driver’s license highly, others require experience with rural life, and still others have language skills or specific education. Thunder Bay touts itself online as a “small town of great opportunity”; nurses, truck drivers, and mechanics are wanted there.

“The program is generating a lot of interest. Sault Sainte Marie, a small town on the Great Lakes, got 2,000 inquiries in just the first two weeks. They only took 100 families but could have found more good applicants. Only one thing we don’t know yet: will they stay?”

Racism replaced by classism

If people from all over the world can apply legally as economic migrants, this also relieves the asylum system because they no longer have to apply for asylum without a chance. This is a basic idea of the Canadian model, which also interests German politicians. But the overt racism of the early years has been replaced by classism: Low-skilled people have no chance via the scoring system and rarely any luck via the small-town program. Their only option is the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. Every year, 80,000 people are hired through this program to do jobs for which Canadians are hard to find as harvest workers, nannies, or cashiers. Fay Faraday, a lawyer and law professor in Toronto, has been researching the living conditions of migrant workers and representing them in court for three decades.

“This program ties workers to a specific employer. They are usually recruited while they are still in their home countries by immigration consultants who charge a lot of money before sending them job offers – usually eight to 24 months’ worth of salary in their home countries. When they come to Canada, they are heavily in debt.”

This debt bondage puts them at the mercy of employers, Faraday says.

“By capitalist logic, the system works perfectly”

“They don’t fight back against exploitation on the job because they have to pay off their debts and aren’t allowed to take other jobs. If they do complain, they are usually fired immediately and lose their right to reside in Canada. Some employers even retaliate by reporting terminated workers to the Border Patrol, which can deport them.”

Faraday advises the Canadian government and has demanded for decades to give workers and their families permanent visas and protect them from trafficking and exploitation. The Greens and Social Democrats echo these demands, but the Liberal government has yet to do anything significant. By capitalist logic, the system works perfectly, Faraday says; she sees it as a continuation of the racist immigration policies that ended for the highly skilled in 1967.

“The guest worker programs for harvesters and caregivers were created to take advantage of black labor without giving them permanent residency status,” she says. Exploitation is often mistakenly seen as a flaw in the program; in fact, it serves one purpose: to provide companies with cheap, reliable, controllable labor.”

Strict rules apply not only to economic migrants but also to asylum seekers. Canada is so geographically isolated that refugees rarely arrive by land anyway and when they do, the government largely keeps them out through the Safe Third Country agreement with the United States. As with the European Dublin Agreement, refugees must apply for asylum in the first safe country they enter for people from Central America and the Caribbean, that’s usually the United States.

In a joint report, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International criticize the Canadian Border Services Agency for detaining immigrants indefinitely if it suspects they may abscond. As of early 2020, nearly 9,000 people were in detention, many of them for years, and many in maximum-security prisons along with felons, according to the report. It often hits people seeking territorial asylum at a national border, says attorney Hanna Gros, who interviewed affected people for the report.

“What I heard over and over again was that they can’t understand why they were in prison. They were looking for safety and a better life in Canada, she said, and weren’t prepared to be greeted with handcuffs.”

About 30,000 refugees are selected each year

But Canada is by no means completely closed off to asylum seekers. Each year, about 30,000 refugees are selected to be allowed into the country through the world’s largest resettlement program. The argument for this approach is that only the fittest can apply for territorial asylum; all others never make it to a national border and may die along the way. For resettlement, on the other hand, the government selects the people most in need of protection: families, women in critical life situations, and people persecuted because of their sexual orientation or identity. The prerequisite is that they are recognized by the United Nations refugee agency and pass security checks. Only one in three is funded by the Canadian government in the first year. For all others, private sponsors step in and bear a great deal of responsibility from the outset: for example, in selecting the refugees.

“We figured out how much money we could do without and calculated that it would be enough for a mother and a child.”

Lisa Heiberg and her husband Doug Spencer sit under a Bob Dylan poster in their Vancouver home. They were police officers for decades; as retirees, they were looking for a new mission. The idea of helping people on the run make a life in Canada convinced them. Especially since sponsorship is no more expensive than a “nice family vacation,” as Lisa Heiberg says: in her case, about 17,000 Canadian dollars, 12,000 euros.

“Choosing whose life to change  or not”

“We got a list of names of applicants and some info about them. Some needed trauma counseling, others had a child with special needs – we couldn’t provide that. In the end, we were left with two families: a Syrian woman with a toddler and a Somali woman with two teenage daughters. You look at that piece of paper and you realize that it’s about people’s lives that you’re going to change – or not. We had to make this decision, but how do you do that?”

Lisa Heiberg briefly interrupts the conversation. The thought of the other family the one she couldn’t sponsor gets to her. Syria or Somalia? She tried to decide rationally. The teenage daughters didn’t have much time left for a good education, she thought, and funding one more child wouldn’t hurt them. The doorbell rings, Heiberg disappears and comes back with three women. They wear flowered headscarves, and winter coats and carry a platter of stuffed dumplings. The Heibergs inaugurate their new house that evening, and “their” new arrivals naturally join in the celebration.

Sahara, Amina, and Asma Mohamed had fled the civil war in Somalia and lived for years in a refugee camp in Uganda. They only made it onto the United Nations resettlement list because 18-year-old Amina suffered from unexplained headaches.

“Normal, very ordinary people are changing the world”

“The hospitals in Uganda were unaffordable, so my sister never got medication. She often couldn’t go to school for months because of the pain. It was only in Canada that her head was examined – the doctors found a brain tumor. Now she’s on medication and we’re finally going back to school together.”

The Mohameds have been in Canada for a year now. A year in which Lisa Heiberg and Doug Spencer helped them organize doctor’s appointments, find an apartment, and navigate everyday life.

“I tell people about the program and they are excited. My sister’s friends have donated computers and now have even paid for the flights from Uganda to Canada that Sahara had taken out a loan for.”

Iris Challoner of the Mosaic organization coordinates the program in Vancouver. When she herself came to Canada from Germany almost forty years ago, the program was just being launched. Since then, it has given hundreds of thousands of refugees a good start and created cohesion across the country, Challoner says.

“Normal, ordinary people change the world when we get to know each other. They’re not ‘those refugees’ over there anymore. They’re my friends, my acquaintances. And when I go to my dentist now, he tells me, “I once came to Canada as a private refugee.” My son-in-law – his parents came to Canada as private refugees. It’s changing our whole society and that’s the best thing that can happen to a country.”


Listen to Deutschlandfunk radio documentary (19 mn) >> (>> written version)

photo: (cc) Devon Hawkins/Unsplash