Todd: What Canada can learn from the U.S. migration crisis

Opinion: Whether it’s chaotic borders or a housing crisis, voters are realizing innocent people can suffer when migration policy is poorly drafted or unenforced.

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Innocent people suffer when migration policy is poorly drafted or unenforced.

Witness the southern border of the U.S., where in the month of November alone 230,000 undocumented migrants attempted to cross the arid international boundary, either surreptitiously or by asking for asylum.

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U.S. border chaos is the No.1 threat to Democrat President Joe Biden winning re-election in November, paving the way for a second term for likely candidate Donald Trump. Polls show the American public trusts Republicans to deal with border security by a huge margin of 30 percentage points.

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The absence of an orderly border is creating tragedy for many of the frantic undocumented migrants themselves, plus indirect misery for the millions of other earnest people striving to start a new life in the U.S. through regular channels.

With migration arguably the top domestic issue in the U.S., the Senate this week has been locked in an all-out war over how to tighten the southern border, where in the last three years 6.3 million migrants have been detained. As the Republican-Democrat deal-making goes on in the Senate, billions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine and Israel are also at stake.

Before getting to Canada, and why migration issues are getting far more attention here than in the past, I’ll recount a recent experience we had of some of the downsides of the U.S.’s failed border system.

During a trip to Mexico we came to know a hard-working, conscientious young man who is trying to immigrate through formal channels to the U.S., where his new wife was raised and continues to work.

Daniel (not his real name) has solid English, in part since he once studied the language in Vancouver. He is doing everything by the book as he applies for a U.S. visa and eventual citizenship. But it seems to be taking forever. And it’s costing him a great deal of pesos.

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Daniel knows the U.S. migration system is bogged down with millions of asylum seekers and illegal migrants adopting desperate measures at the southern border, trying to get in from Mexico, South America and increasingly Russia, India and China.

And Daniel also knows that border crisis is creating broader suspicions about the motives of people like him, who are trying to do everything above board. Daniel is potential collateral damage of a failing migration system in the U.S.

In Canada the big migration issues are different. Because of our relatively secure sea and land borders we’re not overwhelmed by would-be refugees, even though increasing numbers, now about 140,000, are showing up annually.

Unlike in the U.S., Canada’s worst example of policy failure is entirely self-made.

It relates to how a record number of new permanent and non-permanent residents, 1.25 million, were brought into Canada in a recent one-year period. And to how the average Canadian is realizing the heightened demand is placing intense pressure on home prices and rents.

Newcomers themselves are among those suffering, especially the record number of almost one million international students admitted in 2023, who arrived in Canada at a per capita rate six times higher than in the U.S.

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Many are squeezing into overpriced apartments. A story emerged out of Brampton this week of 25 foreign students living in one basement. Many are also paying exorbitant fees to often marginal private schools, while being exploited by employers seeking not only low-wage employees, but meek ones. A report this week found 91 students from India had died in the past five years in Canada, some by suicide.

And while nine of 10 foreign students arrive with the dream of becoming permanent residents, according to Statistics Canada, experts say most will never win the immigration prize, which ends up being a kind of lottery.

It is only last month that the Liberal government said it would put a cap on study visas.

Migrants wait to be processed at a US border transit centre after they crossed from Mexico into Texas on December 20, 2023. Photo by FRANCOIS PICARD /AFP via Getty Images

There are huge political implications to migration policy. And, for different reasons, Canada’s Liberals and America’s Democrats are losing votes over it.

In Canada it’s looking like Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government, which since 2015 has championed ever-rising migration levels as the key to national prosperity, is finally realizing their ways are hurting them electorally. Trudeau’s Liberals have welcomed a record number of migrants and pushed the narrative that Canada’s French and English populations are rife with bigotry.

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Within the span of just eight months last year the number of Canadians saying there are too many refugees coming to the country almost doubled, to 46 per cent, according to surveys by Jack Jedwab of the Metropolis Institute. Half of Canadians also now think there are too many immigrants, with that figure rising to 61 per cent among those with lower incomes.

Source: Metropolis, Jack Jedwab.

The Liberals, as a result, are scrambling to turn around a decade of messaging.

This week immigration minister Marc Miller said he would curb the country’s dependence on the “cheap labour” supplied by foreign workers and international students. Last month he introduced a limit on foreign student visas, cutting them by 35 per cent for this year.

Miller will announce further changes soon to restrict students’ off-campus work hours and he’s also reviewing the country’s temporary foreign worker program. That’s on top of the Liberals this month declaring they would extend their ban — which is full of loopholes — on foreign home ownership.

It remains to be seen if anything actually comes of Ottawa’s announcements. But the hard reality is the polls are making the Liberals, and the Democrats, open their eyes to how more balanced migration policy, and a more orderly system, are key to electoral success.

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What does that mean for the U.S.? It points to the need for Biden to move to the middle — to tighten border security, and streamline the official immigration process.

For Canada it means the minority Liberal government, propped up by the NDP, has to learn, as economists have long warned, to stop claiming that having the highest migration rates in the world will be an economic panacea.

Achieving prosperity for all, including newcomers, is far more complex than that.

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