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Adults needed for debate on immigration

Immigration policy is back on the public agenda. Maybe this time we can have a rational discussion about the shortcomings and what has to be changed.

The failures are obvious. Economically, new immigrants cost us far more than they add to the economy – about $16 billion a year. Yet we continue to hear that unsustainably high immigration levels are needed to offset an aging population or to counter declining birthrates or to provide skilled workers or to provide people to do work Canadians don’t want to do … and the list goes on.

Few of the economic arguments stand up to scrutiny.

Worst still are the impacts to our culture and social cohesion. That topic, however, is a political hot potato, rife with accusations of racism, which stifles debate.

In announcing some changes to immigration policy this week, the Harper government is walking a fine line. It wants to reduce the number of family-class immigrants slightly, focusing on those in the economic class. Cracking down on illegals is also part of the plan. Its stance attempts to mollify the majority of Canadians increasingly worried about immigration’s negative impact on the country while continuing to pander to immigrant votes, a mainstay with all political parties. (The idea being that immigrants are grateful to the government that brought them into the country.)

At the heart of the latest tweaks is the realization that the majority of immigrants don’t meet the already-weak economic rationale for immigrants in the first place: the need for skilled workers who already speak one of our two official languages.

In fact, only 17 per cent of immigrants fit that bill. Another 26 per cent are the immediate family members – spouse and children – of those immigrants, although they, too, are lumped into the economic class, which officially makes up about 60 per cent of immigrants. That class also includes “business” immigrants, the kind that come here to open businesses, typically small ones that pay
poorly rather than the occasional splashy ones governments like to trot out for public consumption.

The numbers are obviously padded to hide the fact that more than four-fifths of immigrants – including the 13 per cent who come as refugees – don’t contribute to the economy, but in fact draw far more social services than they provide in tax revenue.

Immigration has long been detached from Canada’s economic needs, argues the Ottawa-based Centre for Immigration Policy Reform.

In 2010, for instance, the government allowed in 280,000 immigrants, the largest number in 57 years, despite a recession, growing unemployment, increasing demand for social services and a record-high deficit.

“We’re paying an arm and a leg to bring immigrants to Canada. The research shows that it’s costing us a fortune without any benefits,” says CIPR board member Martin Collacott, a former ambassador and currently senior fellow at the Fraser Institute where he studies immigration and refugee policy, national identity and multiculturalism, as well as related national security issues.

The organization says immigration numbers should be cut dramatically. Drawing on British studies about its immigrant problems, the number here should be somewhere around 70,000, centered on skilled, ready-for-the-workplace immigrants and their immediate families.

The family-class programs – parents, grandparents, siblings – just doesn’t work, and runs counter to the way immigration occurred historically. In my own family’s case, one set of great-grandparents made a one-way trip to Canada, never again seeing any of those they left behind. Of my immigrant grandparents, there was the occasional trans-Atlantic trip in later years, but that was about it.

Today, with cheap travel, e-mail and phone service, immigrants have ample ways to stay in touch. But apparently that’s not good enough: many want to bring the entire extended family over with them.

“The older immigrants knew there was a price to pay for immigration and the opportunities it provide. New people want it both ways,” says Collacott.

“Immigration is supposed to be about what is good for Canadians. And bringing in parents isn’t good for us.”

An immediate drop in numbers should be the first step, the rationale response to current economic conditions. Perhaps even a freeze is in order, providing time for exiting immigrants to integrate into our society, both economically and culturally.

Changes are needed on both fronts.

Economically, where immigrants once assumed a comparable standard of living after about 10 years in the country, that trend stopped almost three decades ago. Today, immigrants now earn considerably less – as little as half of native-born Canadians – with little prospect of improvement. That in turn leads to some of the societal problems increasingly associated with immigration.

Record numbers streaming in add to overall GDP and taxation levels, but that does not translate into
greater prosperity for all. Just the opposite, as quality of life takes a hit, particularly in larger cities.

There are plenty of reasons to discuss immigration policy and the attendant and equally-flawed multiculturalism programs. We just have to get past the politically correct nonsense and be adults about if for the sake of the country.

“We have to figure out how you can have an informed and engaged debate without descending into name-calling,” says Collacott, hitting the nail on the head.

A little more local for your inbox.

Seven days. One newsletter. Local reporting about people and places you
won't find anywhere else. Stay caught up with The Observer This Week.

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