The problem with grandma

National Post · Oct. 22, 2011 | Last Updated: Oct. 22, 2011 5:06 AM ET
Canada profits when we admit lots of skilled immigrants - blue-collar and white-collar. It also makes sense to admit their spouses and children. But we admit far too many parents and grandparents as well. It's hard for politicians to say so, though, because the instant they do, the immigration industry - immigration and refugee lawyers, immigration consultants, advocacy groups and politically correct commentators - declare them racists.
That's why it was a bold stroke for Immigration Minister Jason Kenney to tell a House of Commons committee Thursday that family-class immigration has to be scaled back. "Canada is the most generous country in the world with respect to immigration - but there have to be practical limits to our generosity," the Minister told the often-heated hearing. "We have to calibrate those limits based on our country's economic needs, our fiscal capacity. There is no doubt that the people who are coming who are senior citizens, they have much, much lower labour-market participation and much higher levels of utilization of the public health system."
That's exactly right: Skilled immigrants can usually pay their own way. The income they earn and the taxes they pay can also, usually, cover the services consumed by their spouses and children. But their moms and dads, grandmas and granddads tip the balance. Older family-class immigrants simply won't contribute enough to the economy to make up for what they will consume in social services. Nor are their children - the skilled immigrants Canada wants - likely to pay enough taxes to cover the pensions and health care their elderly relatives will need. After all, they are already on the hook for their own expenses, and the resources consumed by their nuclear family.
While many prefer to treat immigration as only good news for all involved, we need to be realistic. Everything has a cost. Admitting thousands of people who will consume without contributing, year after year, is neither fair to existing Canadian taxpayers nor wise for the nation's future.
As Mr. Kenney pointed out, just under 20% of newcomers to Canada are "primary economic immigrants" - meaning people who can be expected to actually apply their skills to paid labour upon admission. (Immigration Canada claims 55% of immigrants to this country are economic-class immigrants; but that number is misleading: Just 18% of total immigrants are skilled workers. The other 37% tranche allotted to this category represents their spouses and children.) The remaining 45% tranche, comprising "non-economic" immigrants, include the aforementioned grandmothers and grandfathers.
Counted within the non-economic section are the 11% to 13% who are admitted on humanitarian or compassionate grounds. We can debate whether our definitions of who deserves compassionate admission are too lax, but most are presumably admitted for good reasons. Even though they may not always be able to pay their own way, it is worthy of us as a caring nation to accept them regardless.
Adding the 55% of economic immigrants to the latter 11% to 13% figure yields the conclusion that about two thirds of our yearly intake consists of immigrants whose admission is relatively uncontroversial. That would account for about 170,000 of the 254,000 immigrants we admitted last year. However, that still leaves about 80,000 newcomers admitted each year. About half of this number (38,000 in 2010) are non-economic parents and grandparents of newcomers.
That is what Immigration Minister Kenney is getting at: How does it make any sense to saddle hardworking Canadian taxpayers with as much as $2-billion extra each year to pay for immigrants' parents and grandparents to move here? How is it fair to burden Canadians with these costs when the beneficiaries have never lived, worked or paid taxes in Canada?
Canadians are rightly proud to live in a nation of immigrants where all are welcome to contribute to our society. And for purely humanitarian reasons, it occasionally makes sense to admit a worker's entire extended family, rather than just his spouse and children. But too much non-economic immigration into a welfare state is a recipe for fiscal trouble. That is one of the problems Mr. Kenney is trying to solve. And he deserves applause for talking candidly about this sensitive, but important, subject.

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