November 2008: Let's Not Pull the Welcome Mat

It’s time we had a good national debate on immigration
November 1, 2008

Why wasn't immigration an issue in the recent election campaign, Lawrence Martin asked rather peevishly in his Globe & Mail column a few weeks before the campaign ended.

Perhaps he answered his own question. Martin spent much of his column citing the former executive director of the Canadian Immigration Service, James Bissett, who, in the Ottawa Citizen, recently predicted the usual doom and gloom that some associate with “ethnic” immigration.

For some reason Martin felt it necessary to give Bissett a pass on a possible charge of racism, because his son married a black woman and his daughter married a Cuban. But in any case, here is Bissett himself: “Either our political leaders do not know that Canada is facing an immigration crisis or they care more about gaining a few more so-called ethnic voters than they do about telling the truth about immigration.

He is, to be sure, somewhat more guarded on this matter than some. But the message is the same, however encoded it might be: Immigration is being encouraged for crassly political reasons--to secure the existing “ethnic” vote, and to import some more Xs for political parties at election time. This is the end of Canada as we know it: nothing less than a crisis is looming.

Bissett cites loads of studies that purportedly prove this or that, but he provides no details or citations. The occasional straw man wanders into the room as well: “Our politicians justify their desire for more immigrants by raising the spectre of an aging population and tell us immigration is the only answer to this dilemma, and yet there is not a shred of truth to this argument. Immigration does not provide the answer to population aging and there is a multiplicity of studies done in Canada and elsewhere that proves this.”

No one I am aware of argues that immigration is "the only answer" to the problem of the aging population. Indeed, immigration levels would have to rise astronomically if this were the case. But immigration is one offset among many, and shouldn't be so misleadingly dismissed in an all-or-nothing manner.

Immigrants, he goes on, also lay waste to the environment: “We have already experienced the impact mass migration has had on the health, education, traffic, social services and crime rates of our three major urban centres. It may be that cutting the immigration flow in half would do more than any gas tax to help reduce our environmental pollution.”

And then we have what has become an almost obligatory reference in some quarters to a paper that Fraser Institute economist Herbert Grubel wrote in 2005: “[A] study published this year [sic] by professor Herbert Grubel of Simon Fraser University revealed that the 2.5 million immigrants who came to Canada between 1990 and 2002 received $18.3 billion more in government services and benefits in 2002 than they paid in taxes. As Prof. Grubel points out, this amount is more than the federal government spent on health care and twice what was spent on defence in the fiscal year of 2000/2001. Isn't it time our party leaders were made aware of this study?”

Grubel's article, “Immigration and the Welfare State in Canada: Growing Conflicts, Constructive Solutions,” is worth ploughing through. Not all of it is nonsense, although he has a rather evident ideological axe to grind, bemoaning multiculturalism, high minimum wages, over-regulation, social insurance, and other Great Satans. Moreover, he makes too-easy comparisons between Canada and the U.S., citing American authorities on welfare dependency and then hedging with this kind of language: “It may well be that the more pervasive social welfare programs and an educational system financed differently in Canada will prevent the development of the conditions found by Borjas and Sueyoshi, but since there is no empirical evidence, this outcome is merely a possibility.”

He does raise the credential issue, however, which has been rightly critiqued from all quarters: “The economic problems faced by recent immigrants with high levels of education have given rise to the stereotype of taxi drivers in Canada who are foreign-trained science graduates, PhDs, engineers, and lawyers. This stereotype is not far off the mark. Recently, the Consul General for India in Vancouver told me that the inability to find jobs commensurate with their formal education is one of the main complaints immigrants from India have voiced with him. Promises allegedly made by Canadian officials issuing immigrant visas to the highly educated simply are not being kept.”

But the $18.3 billion dollar figure, the one that the anti-immigrant folks are waving around like a banner these days, does seem a very odd measure of the alleged “failure” of liberal immigration policies.

Briefly stated, that amount is the difference between the costs of social services for immigrants and the taxes they pay--a 2002 snapshot of the net annual transfers to the cohort of immigrants who arrived between 1990-2002. The implication here, of course, is that immigrants are a net drain on society, a huge community of communities on the public dole.

But is this the case? Presumably, despite the higher unemployment rate among recent immigrants (12.7% as opposed to 7.4% of native-born Canadians), working immigrants build wealth in the community by participating in the labour force, by creating jobs of their own, and in the role of consumers, through the multiplier effect of their spending. And this doesn't include the intangibles: cultural contributions, new ideas, and the countless acts of ordinary citizenship that immigrants offer.

What's more, although Grubel notes a slowing in the progress of immigrants towards wage parity with native-born Canadians, he doesn't mention their children. Indeed, whether immigrant children or children born here to immigrants, the new kids do well in school, well in college, and well afterwards.

A newly-released study by Miles Corak of the Institute for Research on Public Policy provides some valuable and timely information about second-generation Canadians—the children of immigrants, or what he refers to as the “immigrant baby bonus.”

These children have more education than their counterparts, the children of Canadian-born parents. About one-third of them have at least 16 years of education, while more than 20% of men and almost one-quarter of the women have at least one university degree. At the other end, 16% of second-generation Canadian men and 14% of the women have less than 12 years of education—compared to 30% of those whose parents were native-born Canadians.

In the labour market, these remarkable children of immigrants do no worse, and sometimes better, than the children of Canadian-born parents. Average annual incomes tend to be higher for both foreign-born and second-generation males, and significantly higher for women. Second-generation Canadians are no more likely than their counterparts to receive income assistance.

Surprisingly, perhaps, immigrants with low education are more likely to have highly-educated children than Canadian-born parents. Those children outperform the children of native-born Canadians in both mathematics and reading.

This is not to say that all is sweetness and light, however, and there are indeed serious problems to be tackled. Since 1991, the overall economic prospects of immigrants have declined, and recent arrivals have seen no improvement since 2001. Corak suggests that the sheer numbers of new immigrants in this context might indeed raise public policy issues. Nevertheless, 42% of immigrants arriving in the period 1995-2000 held university degrees, and close to 55% of new immigrants are now admitted under the economic class.

What Corak calls a “tremendous variation” in socioeconomic outcomes among the various immigrant communities, however, needs to be addressed. When immigrants have above-average education but below-average earnings, for example, this tends to be replicated in the next generation. We simply do not have enough information at present to understand these variations.

But when we look at the over-all success of second-generation Canadians, we can see how misleading Grubel’s $18.3 billion figure really is. What it indicates is not the feeding of a chronic dependency, which is what those who quote it invariably maintain, but a rolling investment that pays considerable dividends over time. Not only is the labour of immigrants and their participation in the economy as consumers left out of this figure, not to mention the positive externalities that immigrants contribute, but also the long-term benefits: the gradual rise in their own wage levels (if currently slowing)—an indicator of their integration into society and the economy—and the eventual productivity of their children.

Given the ease, however, with which antipathy to the Other can be whipped up by so-called “experts”--former immigration officials and the Fraser Institute--and the journalists and ideologues who boil their anti-immigrant message down for popular consumption, it is just as well, perhaps, that we didn’t have an immigration debate during the campaign. We avoided the inevitable ugliness that continues to plague it—from crude hérouxvillisme to more sophisticated attempts by commentators such as Martin Loney and Martin Collacott to drive home the same kind of message.

While this sort of thing is relatively marginalized in federal politics, since even the Conservative party welcomes more immigration, it does tend to erupt when immigration is publicly brought up, as last year’s Bouchard-Taylor hearings in Quebec on reasonable accommodation demonstrated. The challenge for those who see room for a serious public debate on immigration, a bona fide socioeconomic one shorn of ethnocentric and sometimes racist overtones, is to find ways of setting the terms of such a debate and keeping it on track.

We do need to address the differing success patterns of various groups, and their access to the wider society, its economy and its public institutions (including an examination of issues such as discrimination and foreign credentials). We might profitably review current immigration guidelines and regulations, and even the vexed question of official multiculturalism. These and other related questions, however, require much prudence, thought and deliberation. And, as we just have seen, those qualities rarely come to the fore during an election campaign.

(John Baglow is an Ottawa writer and consultant on public and social policy.)