Advice for the New Immigration Minister

This week’s column is addressed to the new Conservative Minister of Citizenship and Immigration. It is meant to give him or her (at press time the Cabinet had not been announced) a few tips on how to improve our immigration system quickly and relatively easily.

Dear Minister:
Congratulations on your new position. You have a big job ahead of you and one that has proven to be a bigger challenge than many of your predecessors could handle. To help you get started, I have taken the liberty of providing you with some unsolicited advice. So here it goes:

1. Open up the decision-making process.
Currently, Canadian divides up the immigration pie through a secretive bureaucratic process that does not allow for democratic input or debate. As noted immigration lawyer and policy expert (and my good friend) Richard Kurland has tirelessly pointed out, each year the bureaucrats in the federal immigration department decide how many immigrant visas will be processed by each visa office. They also determine what portion of a visa office’s target — in effect, its quota — will be allotted to the economic classes (skilled workers and business immigrants) and what portion will be devoted to spouses, parents and grandparents.

These decisions have huge consequences and directly affect the lives of thousands of Canadians and permanent residents as well as future immigrants themselves. If people are wondering why it is now taking several more years than before to sponsor your parents, this is why. Ottawa decided a while back to tilt the quota system in favour of economic class immigrants, with good reason in my view. But it did this without engaging in any real public debate or consultation. Why not give the responsibility for making these hard choices to the people we elect to make hard choices, our members of Parliament? The Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration is a perfect forum to have these issues debated with full public input. That way, in the future, when sponsors are wondering why the Canadian visa office in Hong Kong or Beijing is telling them they cannot process their parents’ or grandparents’ visa this year because they have already met their annual “target”, they can know where to go to vent their displeasure.

2. Properly staff your visa offices or limit intake of applications.
This issue is very much related to the first one. Right now, there is nothing in place to stop thousands more applicants from applying for immigration each year than can be processed within a reasonable period. This has resulted in lengthy backlogs and enormous waiting times for prospective immigrants. To attract the proverbial “best and brightest” we need a system that can respond to applicants within a reasonable time. If the resources to add staff to overseas offices cannot be obtained – and there is no indication that a Conservative Cabinet will be any more generous than the Liberal one was — then let’s limit the number of applications those offices accept each year so they are in proportion to how the offices are staffed. Otherwise, we are only giving out false hope by encouraging people to put their lives on hold unnecessarily.

3. Support and encourage the growth of Provincial Nominee Programs (PNPs).
I may be biased here because of my past work experience (I used to manage the BC PNP), by I truly believe – and I am not the only one – that the provinces are better placed than Ottawa to select the skilled workers and business immigrants our economy needs. The provinces are better connected to the growing businesses in their jurisdiction and better able to determine how to address their skill shortages. They can also engage in a dialogue with local governments to determine the kind of investment and entrepreneurship they should be attracting from overseas. To expand the provincial role, Ottawa really only needs to get out of the way and start to view the provinces as equal partners in the immigrant selection process.

So there, Mister or Madam Minister, are a few things to get started with. Tackling just these three things will bring about a much more accountable, effective and responsive immigrant selection system. No doubt your bureaucracy will have a whole host of other things they will try to focus your attention on. But don’t lose sight of the bigger picture. After all, you have been elected to make the hard choices!