By: McConnell Bristol & Kate Choi
Immigration is one of the most divisive political issues of the twenty-first century. Voters around the world are routinely dissatisfied with their countries’ immigration systems, with starkly different criticisms coming from opposite sides of the aisle. In the United States and Canada, the two subjects of our analysis, the policies are different in numerous ways—reflecting different political systems and changing social attitudes. This article will examine key similarities and differences between the two systems, explore the political and social factors that contribute to these policies, and evaluate current public opinion surrounding immigration—concluding with a discussion of potential next steps for changing this perception for the better.
Immigration Policy In the US
The primary focus of the US immigration system is family reunification, accounting for 69% of all visas granted in the 2019 fiscal year. This is followed by employment-based visas, at 14%, and visas for refugees, at 8%. The Diversity Visa program, which randomly distributes additional visas among countries with historically low rates of immigration to the US, makes up 4%. 6% of visas belonged to no established category (Gonzalez-Barrera and Krogstad, 2022).
At first glance, the US immigration system may seem generous with its visas, ensuring provisions for families, workers, refugees, and boosting diversity. Furthermore, the total cap on yearly US visas, 675,000, is high compared to other countries (How the United States Immigration System Works, 2021). But this number is rarely reached for various reasons, ranging from executive decisions limiting immigration to logistical challenges satisfying visa requests. These have resulted in significant backlogs of potential immigrants seeking visas, with applications taking as long as several years to process (Bier, 2022). In many cases, these are highly skilled workers that would make significant contributions to the US economy, but policy actively discourages these potential migrants from seeking citizenship.
Despite these challenges, however, the US remains a nation of immigrants. Immigrants make up 14% of its population today, and that number jumps to 26% when including their US-born children. Their economic impact cannot be overstated, with immigrants representing 17% of the civilian workforce. A 2017 report from the Pew Research Center projected that the US workforce would decline by 10 million without immigration, accompanied by an unacceptable decline in economic output (Klobucista, Cheatham, and Roy, 2022).
Current immigration debates primarily center around illegal immigration. Many call for increased security along the southern border with Mexico to stop migrants from Central and South America from migrating illegally. It’s worth noting that the majority of undocumented immigrants enter the country legally and then overstay their visas, but migrants at the border continue to be a humanitarian concern given the dangerous conditions faced by immigrants: including vulnerability to trafficking and exploitation, unsafe traveling conditions, and the arid desert surrounding much of the border (McMinn and Klahr, 2019). Another policy often debated is the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which defers the deportation of undocumented individuals brought to the United States as children. Estimates put the current number of illegal immigrants in the US at around 11.4 million, representing just under a quarter of the total US immigrant population (Klobucista, Cheatham, and Roy, 2022). Polls show that most Americans support DACA and a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants currently in the country, but a majority view illegal immigration as a security threat (Immigration, 2022).
Current Canadian Immigration Policy
Canada, by contrast, admits the majority of its visa-seekers on the basis of economic need, namely through “federal high-skilled worker programs,” giving “preference to younger candidates with job offers and high levels of education, experience, and language proficiency” (Cheatham, 2022). Largely driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, jobs in technology and nursing are some of the highest in demand in the country.
Another category of immigrants is Protected Persons and Refugees, contributing to Canada’s distinction in 2018 as the top refugee resettlement country in the world. Refugees can be privately sponsored or government-assisted, arriving either through “government-approved citizens and organizations that assume legal and financial responsibility for them” (Cheatham, 2022) or with the help of public organizations like the UN High Commission for Refugees.
By far the smallest percentage of visas granted, the Humanitarian and Compassionate category of immigrants, can be granted permanent residency for varying reasons. Applications are reviewed on a discretionary basis, and the grounds for admittance are broadly defined—including reasons like family violence, challenges they may face if forced to return to their home country, physical/mental health, and more. Because of Canada’s emphasis on care for children, applications that may affect a child have a better chance of getting reviewed in the applicant’s favor.
In 2001, Canada replaced the 1976 Immigration Act with the current Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. This act provided the government with a broader range of authority “to detain and deport landed immigrants suspected of being a security threat” (Pier 21, 2020), highly influenced by political and public responses following the September 11th terrorist attacks.
US and Canadian immigration differs in several key areas. First, Canada faces little in the way of illegal immigration, primarily due to its geography: Canada is surrounded by the ocean on three sides, and the United States, a developmentally similar nation, to its south. While the US has to contend with Mexico as a gateway to Latin America, where economic opportunity is far more scarce, illegal immigration to Canada from the US is rare (Sanders, 2021). The perception of opportunity and immigrant history is also different, contributing to a greater desire for immigrants to choose the US as their destination. In terms of policy, the US favors family reunification, while Canada favors economic utility and qualifications, employing what’s been called a “merit-based” system to identify and attract talent (Kwong, 2019). A final distinction is the flexibility of immigration policy. Canada, a functionally unicameral parliamentary democracy, has more agency to change its immigration policy, while a change in the US, with its bicameral Congress and extensive checks and balances, as well as a bitterly divided political atmosphere, is far rarer.
Challenges of Public Perception in the US and Canada
As stated before, Canada’s most popular immigration policy attracts educated and skilled newcomers in high-demand sectors. Most of Canada’s merit-based immigration comes from China, India, or Pakistan. Even with most of these newcomers entering the country with at least a Bachelor’s degree, “recent immigrants face an unemployment rate that is almost twice as high as Canadian-born workers of the same age” (Oreopoulos, 2011). In addition, they “earn 48 percent lower wages than similarly-aged non-immigrants with equivalent degrees” (Oreopoulos, 2011). A variety of factors lead to these results, such as employers valuing a Canadian degree or work experience and not believing in an immigrant’s ability to communicate clearly in the official language. Unfortunately, they “may also make assumptions about cultural or language differences and categorically discriminate against immigrants applicants, whether consciously or subconsciously” (Oreopoulos, 2011). Although the United States has “disproportionately higher shares of family-based immigration” (Oreopoulos, 2011), the factors leading to low employment rates among immigrants in the US are often similar to those for Canadian immigrants.
So, what actually contributes to the public’s perception of immigrants? History shows that health threats often result in xenophobia—such as Italian immigration during the polio epidemic and Irish immigration amid high cholera transmission. This was recently exemplified by the COVID-19 pandemic when anti-Asian hate crimes spiked, and the rapid spread of misinformation systemically rooted in white-dominant countries led to violence targeting vulnerable populations. Another important factor in public perception is the proliferation of negative stereotypes about immigrant populations. In both Canada and the US, Asian immigrants have been historically stereotyped as speaking “broken English,” a derogatory term used to refer to non-native English speakers who are not fluent in the language. In the media, Hispanic and Latino actors are often “typecast in roles that involve criminality, poverty or immigration” (Bowman, 2021), which contributes to assumptions of such immigrants being lazy, violent, and having illegally crossed the border.
Changing Negative Views of Immigration
How can negative opinions on immigration be changed? As social media, news outlets, and media, in general, have a massive impact on public perception, it is paramount for governments of both the US and Canada to ensure their digital resources are being utilized to the fullest extent. Allocating more resources to control misinformation on the internet could help limit the proliferation of negative stereotypes and fear-mongering. To improve the future perception of immigration, governments can take the vital step of restructuring the public education system to include classes on the history of systemic racism, the harmful consequences of stereotypes, and the importance of diversity, inclusivity, and equity. Education has an undeniable impact on the way that individuals think and voice their opinions. Such action is necessary to positively change the next generation of policymakers and future voters’ views of immigration.
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