EDITOR’S NOTE: The opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Latino USA.
American anti-immigration advocates in and around the Trump administration have frequently cited the Canadian points system as an exemplary immigration system they seek to implement south of the border in order to limit immigration to the United States. While they are correct in that Canada’s immigration system provides a great example for U.S. immigration reform, their aim to use it to restrict immigration to the U.S. at best demonstrates their complete misunderstanding of Canadian immigration policy.
Canada accepts about 250,000 legal immigrants per year, and the Guardian reported that in 2017, that number was up to 300,000. In contrast, the United States accepts approximately one million legal immigrants a year.
However, these numbers need to be put in context: The United States population is about 320 million, where as Canada’s was approximately 36 million in 2017, about a tenth of the U.S. population. This means that, per capita, Canada accepted about twice as many legal immigrants as the United States in 2017, giving it one of the highest immigrant to citizen ratios in the world, with yearly immigration being about 1% of Canada’s total population.
President Trump announced last week that he seeks to halve the number of legal immigrants admitted to the United States, noting that the United States currently accepts too many unskilled immigrants. At the same time, the Trump administration has frequently cited Canada’s point-based immigration system as an example for reforming the United States’ current immigration system.
However, Canada’s immigration system is, in fact, less restrictive than that of the United States.
When the United States’ immigration system underwent its last great reform in 1965, it built in an automatic mechanism for uniting U.S. citizens and permanent residents with their foreign kin, and thus gave preference to a path to citizenship that has also been called “family reunification.” This is reflected in current immigration statistics: In 2015, the Migration Policy Institute reported that, of those who obtained permanent resident status that year, 44% did so as immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, 20% through other family-sponsored preferences, 14% through employment-based preferences, 14% as refugees or asylum seekers who adjusted their status, and 5% as winners of the green card lottery.
While the United States’ immigration preferences are comparatively “biased” towards family reunification, the U.S. system remains fairly restrictive towards employment-based immigration. By contrast, the Canadian-based immigration system is, in fact, more inclusive in all immigration preferences across the board. The points system is not merely based on skills: it strongly takes into consideration family ties with Canadian citizens and permanent residents.
Canada may use a points system to attract highly-skilled immigrants from abroad, aiming to compensate for the Canadian “brain-drain,” mainly toward the United States. However, Canada’s family-sponsored preferences are actually more inclusive than the United States’.
For instance, Canada allows for domestic partners to sponsor a non-citizen partner, while the United States requires marriage as a condition for sponsorship of life partners. Yet, despite this, the majority of legal immigrants admitted to Canada each year are economic immigrants (more than 65%), while only around 20% are so-called family-class immigrants.
This is also due to the fact that Canada’s system simply offers more legal routes to permanent residency than the United States’. In the United States, economic immigrants have to be employer-sponsored, and the road to legal permanent residency is costly and requires around $7,000-10,000 in legal fees. Not many U.S.-based employers even sponsor green cards anymore, even for highly skilled immigrants, because the process is simply to burdensome. Canada’s points system, on the other hand, allows immigrants to apply for permanent residency directly, without employer sponsorship. They are attributed “points” based on their education, job experience, language skills, and any personal or family connections with Canadian citizens or permanent residents. Canada’s new “Express Entry” program, implemented in 2015, allows for an additional employer-sponsored path to permanent residency, and, eventually, citizenship, based on economic need.
Canada’s immigration system has been continuously adjusted over the decades, to fit the changing social and economic needs of the country and its citizens. Because it is so much more inclusive, and allows potential immigrants a certain amount of autonomy in the process, Canada has a comparatively insignificant amount of undocumented immigrants (under 150,000, in comparison to the about 11 million in the United States), and a much stronger national consensus that immigration, on the whole, is good for the country.
The White House certainly is correct in this: Canada’s immigration system sets a positive example for comprehensive immigration reform in the United States.
But the implementation of a Canadian-style system is unlikely to serve President Trump’s goal of cutting legal immigration to the United States in half. What it would (and should) to is broaden the legal path to citizenship, and lead to a cheaper, more positive, and socio-economically viable immigration policy.
Annika Hinze is assistant professor of political science and director of the Urban Studies program at Fordham University.