Immigration a Hot Political Issue on Both Sides of the Border

As our summer heats up here in Vancouver, it seems like you can’t open a newspaper without reading news related to immigration whether it is coming from here in Canada or across the border in the United States. As an issue of political debate, clearly immigration has never been hotter.

In the U.S., President Bush, moderate Republicans and the Democrats have more or less agreed on a series of reforms that are meant to accomplish a number of things: tighten up the border with Mexico to prevent future illegal immigration; create a guest worker program to allow for a steady stream of cheap labour for American businesses; and establish a path to permanent legal residence for the millions of illegals already in the country.

Unfortunately for the President and the supporters of the U.S. Senate bill described above, the U.S. has a very cumbersome system of government which requires two separate, and very different, bodies of the legislature, i.e., Congress, to pass laws before they can be signed by the president. In the other half of Congress, the U.S. House of Representatives, the majority Republicans are using immigration to rally support for themselves and their views – which are much more enforcement-minded and, some would say, anti-immigrant — as they begin to look toward their re-election campaigns this fall.

As a result, instead of trying to develop a compromise piece of legislation somewhere between what has been passed by the House and the Senate, the House Republicans are going to hold summer hearings on the Senate version of the legislation across the country. No doubt they will use these hearings to discuss the merits of some other, rather extreme ideas like building a massive wall along the Mexico-U.S. border. And this means it is very likely that nothing will be accomplished by the federal government to repair America’s immigration system this year.

Ultimately, the problem lies in the conflicted views of the American people on this issue. While U.S. businesses are in dire need of immigrant workers, specifically those who will work for low pay, the American public is clearly concerned about a flow of immigration, especially the illegal variety, that appears to be out of control and ever more threatening to their security. The political class is more or less reflecting this tension with Mr. Bush and the moderates in his party, as well as Democrats, trying to find a way to legitimize the status of the many immigrant workers who will come to the U.S. regardless of the legal or physical hurdles put in their way. While House Republicans are representing the views of those who would rather try to close the doors completely rather than face the true complexity of the problem.

In Canada, we are not immune to the tension surrounding the issue of immigration. A poll released on the same day Prime Minister Harper issued an apology on behalf of the Canadian people for the head tax charged to Chinese Canadians from the 1880’s until 1923 showed that more people are now expressing dissatisfaction with our immigration policy than satisfaction. While the margin is slight (33 per cent dissatisfied compared to 29 per cent who are satisfied) this reflects a change from previous polls that have consistently shown majority support for our immigration policy. No doubt this change is a reflection of concerns that exist as a result of the arrest of the 17 individuals charged with terrorist activity in the Toronto area earlier in the month. (This despite the fact that, as I pointed out in my column last week, those individuals are all either Canadian-born or long-time legal residents.)

Our current federal government appears, for its own reasons, to be trying to paint immigration in a positive light. Realizing that it needs votes from new Canadians concentrated in our major urban centres if it is ever going to be re-elected with a majority, the Conservatives are using symbolism and incremental changes to try to project an image of being pro-immigration. This reflects some pragmatism on their part given that their core supporters are probably among those registering dissatisfaction with our current immigration policy.

Things like the apology for the Chinese head tax, the reduction of the Right of Permanent Residence fee by 50 per cent, and changes to our immigration laws to allow children adopted abroad to claim citizenship more quickly are all designed to give immigrants and new citizens a reason to take a second look at the Conservatives and what they stand for in time for the next election.

Whatever their motivations, let’s hope our leaders in both Canada and the U.S. find a way to make real progress on the issue of immigration in the coming months. Because both of our economies are ever more in need of new workers, whether they be the well-trained and highly skilled variety or those that will do the jobs and work for the wages that North Americans will no longer accept. And this means both countries need immigration systems that work — and work well – to the benefit of all of us.