BY TOBI COHEN, POSTMEDIA NEWS
OTTAWA — Trying to make sense of Canada's complicated and seemingly ever-changing immigration system can be a taxing exercise.
From legislative amendments to regulatory changes, from proposals to studies, from ministerial instructions to pilot projects, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has promised "transformational change" but has released details of the government's plan piecemeal, muddying the waters even further.
With sweeping new refugee legislation set to pass at the end of June and plans introduced in the budget to do away with a burdensome backlog of old skilled worker applications, Postmedia News has attempted to dissect just what's in store in the weeks, months and years to come for the approximately 250,000 newcomers who arrive in Canada annually, and why Canadians should care.
What kind of immigration system does the federal government want?
The government wants to implement a fast and flexible, just-in-time system that's focused on the bottom line and attracts workers with the language skills needed to hit the ground running, employment credentials the labour market demands and Canadian experience. Canada's first-come, first-served system appears to be on its way out.
Canada would remain open to those facing persecution but seeks more control over who is granted asylum and will not tolerate those who jump the queue by arriving at the border illegally, en masse and via human smuggling operations.
Family reunification remains important but there's a sense it can be achieved in a way that doesn't burden Canada's health care system.
What are the problems the Tories are trying to fix?
Without hard caps on application intake, massive backlogs arose, particularly in the economic and family streams. This has led to wait times that exceeded seven years. Furthermore, individuals in the economic steams are often being admitted based on skills Canada was looking for when they applied, but that are no longer relevant years later —which ultimately undermines their employability.
Backlogs have appeared also in the refugee stream due, in part, to a shortage of Immigration and Refugee Board adjudicators. As of April 25, 32 vacancies remained on the 164-member board, according to figures provided to Postmedia News.
During a recent speech at an immigration and settlement conference in Toronto, Kenney identified a number of other deficiencies. For one, newcomers to Canada were experiencing high unemployment and low income levels. Statistics Canada figures suggest immigrants who arrived in 2004 were three times more likely to have low incomes.
Most would settle in major cities like Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver even if there were no jobs there and they tended to have low levels of language proficiency. According to Statistics Canada, 60 per cent of newcomers scored below Level 3 on the International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey, which is "considered the desired threshold for coping with the increasing skill demands of a knowledge society."
What is the government doing about backlogs?
Budget 2012 will eliminate a backlog of about 300,000 skilled workers who applied to come to Canada before 2008. Collectively, these individuals will be refunded some $130 million and are being told to reapply under changes to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act that were introduced in 2008. Among the changes are new powers for the minister to cap application intake and fast-track more desirable applicants. A post-2008 backlog of about 160,000 applications remains but the government says wait times are generally six months to a year instead of five years. Without the changes, the government estimates the backlog would have reached 850,000 this year.
Last fall, the government announced a two-year moratorium on new parent and grandparent sponsorship applications in a bid to eliminate within five years a backlog that had grown to more than 165,000. The government receives about 40,000 of these applications a year and has estimated that wait times would exceed 10 years and the backlog would grow to 300,000 by the end of the decade nothing is changed. The government also vowed to admit 25,000 parents and grandparents this year, 10,000 more than it planned to admit in 2011. Kenney promised to maintain those acceptance levels, which he said are the highest in nearly two decades.
It's not clear what will happen to the backlog of about 88,555 immigrant investors and 10,000 would-be entrepreneurs, as both those programs are being overhauled.
The government has temporarily shelved the entrepreneur program and introduced a 700-application-a-year cap on the investor program. Caps have also been introduced for privately sponsored refugees and skilled workers without prearranged offers of employment.
What's in store for economic immigrants?
Economic immigrants — those chosen for their employment skills — account for about 62 per cent of newcomers. Changes are coming to the points-based selection system for federal skilled workers so that priority is given to young people, those with strong language proficiency and individuals that have already secured a job. The government is also giving temporary foreign workers and international students more credit for the Canadian experience they have acquired by making it easier for them to become permanent residents.
Efforts are underway to assess the credentials of newcomers before they come to Canada to prevent the sorts of job market disconnects that force doctors to drive cabs. So far, Canada can assess the credentials of architects, engineers, financial auditors and accountants, medical laboratory technologists, occupational therapists, pharmacists, physiotherapists and registered nurses. Six more occupations will be added to the list by the end of the year.
The provinces also are playing a larger role in choosing immigrants who can meet local labour market shortages. While the Provincial Nominee Program is designed to fill low-skilled jobs, Kenney has said it's also been used to address, for example, lawyer shortages in Saskatchewan. Government figures suggest about 42,000 people will be accepted through the program this year compared to just 8,000 in 2005.
Eventually the provinces, as well as employers, will be given access to the skilled worker inventory so they can cherry-pick workers to have their applications fast-tracked.
What's in store for family class immigrants?
The family class accounts for about a quarter of all admissions. In November, the government introduced a new 10-year, multiple-entry 'supervisa' that would allow parents and grandparents to visit their loved ones in Canada for up to two years at a time. Applicants must meet minimum annual income requirements, must have demonstrated they have financial support while in Canada and have medical clearance and proof of private health insurance. Meant as a backstop while the government eliminates the sponsorship backlog, questions have been raised about health care costs associated with this stream and a Commons committee has called for the supervisa to be made permanent.
Meanwhile, to crack down on marriage fraud, the government has introduced a five-year sponsorship bar to prevent newcomer spouses from sponsoring a new partner while their Canadian spouse is still financially responsible for them. A conditional permanent residency provision is also in the works to deter people in newer relationships from attempting to gain quick entry to Canada when they have no plans to remain with their sponsoring partner. The idea calls for sponsored partners in a marriage or common-law relationship of less than two years to be subject to a conditional two-year period of permanent residence.
What's in store for refugees?
Refugees account for just under 10 per cent of admissions. The government seems to favour those who apply to come to Canada from overseas refugee camps rather than those who arrive at the border seeking asylum. The new Protecting Canada's Immigration System Act is poised to become law in Canada by the end of June.
Under Bill C-31, the minister would be able to declare certain countries as "safe" — which means refugee applications from those countries would be fast-tracked and bogus claimants deported more quickly.
The move is supposed to help deal with a spike in European claims, the bulk of them by members of Hungary's Roma population. Last year, the number of claims from Hungary nearly doubled to 4,409 — though most were withdrawn, abandoned or rejected.
Noting it can take 4 1/2 years to remove a bogus claimant, Kenney has said the new bill would reduce the number of delay tactics currently available to claimants. For example, they no longer would be able to apply to stay in Canada on humanitarian and compassionate grounds so long as their refugee claim is pending. Those from so-called safe countries would also be barred from accessing the new Refuge Appeal Division.
Those who arrive in Canada en masse or via human smuggling operations would also face a tough road as so-called "irregular arrivals" would be subject to detention for at least 14 days before their case is reviewed. Successful claimants would also be barred from applying for permanent residence and sponsoring a loved one for five years.
Why should you care?
You're a stakeholder directly affected by immigration policy and immigration is what's fuelling population growth in this country. Immigration currently accounts for about two-thirds of population growth. Without it, Statistics Canada predicts growth could be close to zero within 20 years.
Some believe population growth is key to a country's success and its ability to maintain a strong labour force. Others argue population decline could actually be a good thing for the environment and the economy given the high rates of unemployment that still exist in parts of Canada.
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