Why our immigrant assumptions are off

17. Actualité archives 2007

Immigration changes the face of Canada every day. It scares some people in Quebec who haven't seen an immigrant in decades, if ever, but adopt codes alerting anyone who might arrive what to expect. It bothers people who don't like "others." It cheers businesses that get labour, legally or illegally. It provides politicians with clichés about diversity. It offers the economy more growth. It does a multitude of things for, and to, Canada.
And, by the way, it isn't working as well as it should - for immigrants or Canada.
Last week, Statistics Canada provided yet another report - the sixth in the past four years by different institutions - showing what's going wrong. Why things are going wrong is a bit of a puzzle. In 1993, the immigration criteria were changed to give more importance to the educational qualification of immigrants. The results were dramatic. According to Statscan, among immigrants 15 years and older, the share of those with university degrees jumped to 45 per cent in 2004 from 17 per cent in 1992. Those in the skilled class rose to 51 per cent from 29 per cent.
The reasoning for the change was simple: more skilled people would do better for themselves and the country. Alas, low-income rates for immigrants during their first year in Canada were 3.2 times higher in 2004 than for Canadian-born people - higher than at any time during the 1990s.
Maybe, speculates Statscan, the decline is explained by problems of the high-technology sector in the first few years of this century. Maybe, but the other studies of immigrants pointed to something more systemic.
Those studies, including one in 2004 from Statscan, found that immigrants have been falling more frequently into poverty and taking longer to reach average Canadian incomes than immigrants in previous decades.
The shocker in the latest Statscan study is the relative first-year success of family-class and skilled immigrants. Previous thinking suggested family-class immigrants had less education, earned less and stayed in low-income categories longer. Maybe that's still correct, but Statscan found that, by the 2000s, skilled immigrants were "more likely to enter low income than their family-class counterpoints." Improving economic conditions were more important than the immigrant's educational qualifications in lifting people from low-income categories.
Here are some basic facts that demonstrate the scale of the immigration policy problem. In 2000, 52 per cent of those in chronic low-income categories were skilled immigrants. Those who changed the immigration policy in 1993 never dreamed of this result. Moreover, 41 per cent of those in chronic low-income categories had university degrees, compared with 13 per cent in 1993, when the policy changed.
So we have the law of unintended consequences. Although stabs have been made at figuring out what happened, governments are still groping for definitive answers. Yet, governments keep driving up the number of immigrants: 262,000 in 2005, 235,000 in 2004, 221,000 in 2003 - with all political parties committed to admitting more.
Obviously, a huge gap exists for immigrants between what they thought their educational qualifications would produce in Canada and what actually happens. There would seem to be a widespread mismatch between what the economy needs (more skilled workers) and the educational backgrounds of many immigrants.
Then there's the recognition-of-foreign-credentials problem that various governments have repeatedly pledged to solve. It's easier to talk about this problem than solving it, not for reasons of incompetence but because striking a balance between ensuring the immigrants' credentials and language skills are up to Canadian standards while being fair to the immigrants is not always clear.
Could it be that the source countries of immigrants are making integration and economic success harder? A few researchers have posed the question; no one has given a serious answer. Perhaps none can be given, since talented people come from everywhere.
It's just that the talented people, defined by their educational accomplishments overseas, have never been more numerous among immigrants, but fewer of them are succeeding quickly.
Canada has been cherry-picking immigrants assuming that good economic things would ensue. That assumption now is apparently questionable.

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