Thursday, July 16, 2009

Canada's immigration system: Problems, yes, but what's the fix?

I can't say I've ever closely looked at the ins-and-outs of Canada's immigration system. I have a few broad ideas of what I think it should be: open, but within reason. Welcome to those with skills and education we need that are looking to make a contribution and build a better life. Welcome to those fleeing genuine persecution and strife. Priority for family reunification. And better recognition of foreign credentialing.

But really, I think like most Canadians by birth I have little to no idea how the system actually works, beyond vague ideas and the exaggerations proffered by those on either extreme of the debates.

I bring this up, of course, because of the decision this week by citizenship and immigration minister Jason Kenney to add two countries to the list of those that we require visas from to visit Canada: the Czech Republic and Mexico. It's a significant decision, one which has generated strong reaction in all three countries and one with potentially far-reaching consequences.

Kenney's argument essentially boils down to this: the immigration system is hopelessly backlogged, immigration applications from these two countries have spiked in recent years, they make up the bulk of the application pool, and the bulk of the applications are rejected as ineligible. But it costs time and money to process them, and meanwhile other, more worthy applications are greatly delayed. Instituting visas will help to weed out the false applicants, and make the system work more quickly for genuine applicants.

In isolation, I can agree with that. If two countries are disproportionately clogging the system, that's an issue we should deal with. But I'm not convinced a visa requirement is necessarily the way to do it. Are there other options? I honestly don't know. Maybe there's not. But requiring visas has a range of spin off impacts, so its a question to consider carefully, balancing the pros and cons.

And on the wider problem of the immigration backlog, I agree again that something needs to be done to fix the system. But the system wouldn't be so badly backlogged if Kenney and his successors, Diane Finley and Monte Solberg, hadn't continually dithered so badly over the years on appointments to the Immigration and Refugee Board. The chronic under-staffing of the IRB has been a major contributor to the backlog in the system.

That's what sparked my tweet this morning that led to my Twitter exchange with Kenney, when I pondered whether Kenney was attempting to "manufacture a crisis" in the immigration system. My thinking being, let's say the Conservatives want to made substantial, philosophical changes to the immigration system. They need to build public support. There may be some systemic issues with the system, but not enough to build a mood for change. But let IRB vacancies build to create a chronic backlog and hey, the system's broke, we've got to do something! Then throw in some visa fireworks, and the mood for change becomes strong.

Conspiracy theorish? Perhaps, but it's not really that far fetched. And it worked for John Snobelen. Well, at least until he talked about it. What I'm more concerned about though is just what change they might have in mind. So far, Kenney has been vague on the details. But when I think back to the comments from the Conservatives on dual citizens, or the rescue of citizens from Lebanon, I worry.

While we wait for though, some thoughts on the Czech Republic and Mexico.

Czech Republic

Yes, there's been a spike in immigration applications from the Czech Republic. But is there a valid reason for it? The answer would seem to be quite possibly yes, with the reports of an increasingly hostile persecution by some elements in Czech society of their Roma population. Humanitarian immigration has always been a fundamental part of our immigration system, and so we do have a moral obligation if there is genuine persecution.

But at the same time, we're one country and we can't handle the entire population. And that can't be the answer alone anyways. The Czech government has a responsibility to its citizens, and if they're abdicating it we have an obligation to speak-up. And where is the European Union here? Why aren't they acting on the Roma issue? When I read about the EU threatening retaliatory measures against Canada for the visas I want to say hey, bite me EU, why don't you address the root cause here: Roma persecution in the Czech Republic.

So, I'm conflicted. I'm tempted to say let them all in, but we can't handle those numbers and at the same time, it's like we're letting the EU and the Czechs abdicate their responsibilities and just dump it on us.

And then there's the likely retaliatory measures requiring visas are likely to bring, from trade sanctions to requiring visas for Canadians to lost tourism revenue. I think just slapping visas seems like an inadequate solution. We need to find a way to weed the genuine immigration claimants from the fakers, accept those fleeing genuine persecution, and at the same time pressure the EU and the Czechs to act so the climate improves and the exodus ends.

The Harper government seems unwilling to go down this road though. The official Canadian line seems to minimize the Roma claims, and some more extreme Conservative commenters outright mock them. Instead, we seem determined to just turn a blind eye and slam the door shut, and that's reprehensible.

And usually wouldn't be tolerated by most Canadians, were there not a crisis being manufactured...

Mexico

The Roma issue has been ongoing for some time, but Mexico's inclusion caught me and, I think many causal observers, by surprise. They're our NAFTA partner. A popular vacation destination. When we hear about Mexican immigration problems its usually in the US where its a right-wing hot-button. And while they're building border fences, even they haven't considered visas.

Here the hit for us is likely to be tourism-related. I know lots of Canadians venture south and, frankly, Mexico needs the dollars so I don't see them slapping a retaliatory visa requirement on Canadians (except our diplomats, perhaps). But apparently many Mexicans vacation and study in Canada, its a large industry, and with the tourism sector already hurting because of the down economy, the visa requirement is going to cost the industry at a time it can ill afford to be taking any hits.

And its not just the visa requirement, which on some grounds you can make an argument for. But you need to have the infrastructure in place to process and issue visas without making it a huge pain in the ass for people. I read somewhere than the only place in Mexico to get a visa is in Mexico City at the Canadian embassy, and people were camping-out outside to get them. That's crazy, and most people won't suffer through that. But with the cutbacks the Conservatives have made to the foreign affairs budget over the years, its not surprising.

Wrapping-up

While I can understand the arguments for why visas may be necessary, even if I don't agree with all of them, the fact is this is just addressing the symptoms, and its not going to fix the issues in the end. We should be looking at why people are trying to flee these two countries in abnormal countries in the first place. And we should be looking at how we can reform the immigration system to better handle and process claimants, so we don't have to throw these kinds of walls up.

In today's modern world, walls aren't the answer anymore.

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3 comments:

Lizt. said...

Everyone should have a Visa to enter this Country.

ktr said...

like the policy or not, the issue is we have here another issue managed without a plan, and carelessly. Foreign diplomats were not advised, so making this kind of unilateral decision without consulting the other countries for solutions to the problem, usually won't lead to the right outcome.
And what is the plan exactly?
I mean, we heard many months ago about this huge backlog left by evil liberal governments, and what is the plan to clear that? Will this action cut the backlog by 10%? 50? 1? Just tell us the plan instead of being completely directionless and reactionary.

Kyle G. Olsen said...

I was surprised to learn we accept refugees at all from any EU member, especially one that is a member of the Schengen customs union which allows free passage and work rights across most of Europe. It makes me wonder: are Canadians ever accepted as refugees in other countries? What do other countries do if a Canadian applies?

It might make sense, to extend the idea of the safe third country agreement with the USA (once a refugee is rejected there, they cannot come and apply in Canada), to designate Europe (or at least certain advanced democracies and people who have free access to those states) a 'safe zone' from which refugee applications are not accepted.

Mexico is a harder situation. The policy that I would have implemented would have been a bilateral agreement to require all Canadians and Mexicans traveling by air to each other's country to have a return ticket. It would raise the cost of getting here which might stem the tide a bit without inconveniencing so many.