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CIFAR Scholar Irene Bloemraad explains why Canadians are optimistic about immigration

by CIFAR Aug 3 / 12

Immigration expert and CIFAR Scholar Irene Bloemraad (UC Berkeley) recently authored a report exploring why Canadians are by far the most open to and optimistic about immigration, compared to citizens in other developed and immigrant-receiving nations.

The report, commissioned by the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, DC, was published in July 2012 and coincided with Dr. Bloemraad’s appointment to the Thomas Garden Barnes Chair of Canadian Studies at the University of California.

According to the report, the Canadian public has been supportive of immigration for decades. And, as more and more immigrants have come to Canada, this support has increased, even during times of economic uncertainty.

Marshaling opinion poll results and national statistics, Dr. Bloemraad explored the reasons for this ‘Canadian exceptionalism’ in public opinion and went beyond conventional wisdom. This wisdom notes that most Canadians view immigration as good for the economy, particularly because of Canada’s use of a points system to select immigrants based on their skills. In addition, Canada’s geography makes it difficult for illegal migrants to enter, and therefore illegal immigration is not as much of a public or political issue in Canada as compared to in the United States or Europe.

Yet Dr. Bloemraad points to several other features critical for shaping Canadians’ positive perception of immigration. Canadians feel that immigration helps with nation building, and this is rooted in the policies and institutions that encourage permanent settlement and integration into society. Temporary workers and foreign students can also transition from temporary to permanent residence. Due to this, Canadians see foreign-born residents as future members of society, and migrants feel a sense of inclusion and investment in the community. Dr. Bloemraad points out, however, that temporary visas to Canada are on the rise, and this has the potential of creating a more significant number of undocumented people without status, which could compromise Canadian public support for migration.

Dr. Bloemraad argues that U.S. policy-makers should take note of the benefits of permanent settlement policies. “In the US, they should avoid establishing a new temporary worker program to deal with undocumented migration, as some have suggested,” says Dr. Bloemraad. “Rather, they need to provide a path to permanent residence so that immigrants can invest in their host society and those in the receiving society can realize that migrants are there for the long haul.”

Policies that encourage integration and inclusive citizenship are also responsible for shaping Canadians’ support for immigration and diversity. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms not only supports diversity and equality, but today Canadians view it as one the most important foundations of Canadian identity. “Institutions that facilitate immigrants’ inclusion, such as the Charter, are thus both a source of national pride and a resource that minorities can use to combat unequal treatment,” writes Dr. Bloemraad in her report.

Multiculturalism is also a key part of Canadian identity, and support for multiculturalism goes hand in hand with support for immigration. In a 2010 poll, more Canadians reported that multiculturalism was “very important” to their identity than hockey (56 per cent versus 47 per cent). And among those Canadians who stressed multiculturalism, their support for existing immigration was also higher.

Positive Canadian attitudes are further buttressed by immigrant settlement and integration policies that help newcomers enter the labor market as well as their local community. These policies help frame messages to Canadians and to newcomers that culture and diversity are valued, and that integration, not assimilation, is preferred. Public funding for community-based initiatives plays a large role in fostering feelings of membership and political engagement among immigrants and immigrant communities. Statistics show that most migrants, 85 per cent, end up getting Canadian citizenship. This means that most immigrants eventually vote and shape politics. “High immigration and high levels of citizenship have created feedback loops that make it difficult for anti-immigrant politicians to gain a foothold in Canadian politics,” writes Dr. Bloemraad in her report. She encourages Canada governments to continue investing in settlement and integration programming, as they have wide-ranging reach and impact.

Dr. Bloemraad believes that Canada’s successful integration policies and programs can inform other countries in improving support for immigration and multiculturalism. “When developing integration programming, policy makers in Europe need to emphasize labor market access and communication skills, rather than cultural or religious values. In the U.S., immigration should not just be about border control. A key need is greater English language training for adult immigrants, made accessible to a wide range of people, ideally through local schools and community-based organizations.”

Dr. Bloemraad was commissioned to write the report by the Migration Policy Institute, for the Transatlantic Council on Migration and its November 2011 meeting in Berlin on “Rethinking National Identity in the Age of Migration.” The meeting was attended by various high level government officials in Europe and North America working on immigration and integration policy. The final report was published in July 2012.