The Harper government has taken fire for its decision to deport thousands of undocumented workers, with critics especially accusing the federal government of disregard for the needs of the Toronto economy and pandering to anti-immigrant sentiment.
The critics would be better advised to aim their fire at the government of Ontario, where most of Canada’s illegal migrants reside. Immigration is a matter of joint responsibility and has been since Confederation, under the Constitution Act of 1867. Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty has it entirely within his government’s powers to keep in Ontario most of the workers who are now under threat of deportation.
Every province except Ontario has implemented its own provincial immigration program, in order to obtain immigration policies suited to each province’s particular needs. Yet Ontario, which receives more than half of Canada’s annual 150,000 economic immigrants, chiefly in the Greater Toronto Area, continues to give the federal government sole responsibility to set immigration policies of future Ontarians.
With Ontario refusing to take action in its own interests but happy to passively accept millions in annual federal transfer payments for immigration-related settlement infrastructure, and with the GTA having elected not a single Conservative MP, it is no wonder that Immigration Minister Monte Solberg has not jumped into action. There is no excuse for McGuinty’s failure, especially since Canada’s current undocumented worker problem is primarily an Ontario issue.
The way out of this morass is clear. Ontario’s Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration should immediately get on with the task of implementing a made-in-Ontario provincial nominee program. Indeed, the province of Ontario, following an agreement signed on Nov. 21, 2005, with the then-Federal minister of citizenship and immigration, Joe Volpe, pledged to develop its own immigration program, providing for the selection of newcomers to meet its own economic and labour market objectives. Under such a program, thousands of undocumented Toronto workers who otherwise do not qualify for permanent admission under the federal skilled worker program, along with many of other skilled trade’s workers that Ontario badly needs, would be able to qualify for permanent residence to Canada.
Here’s how provincial nominee programs typically work.
Qualified employers nominate a prospective worker under an expedited process which, once approved by the province, enables an application for permanent residence that completely bypasses the lengthy federal immigration selection process. In this way, applicants who have no prospect of qualifying under the federal model would be likely to receive timely approval under a provincial program. At the initial stages, qualified employer-sponsored applicants could receive temporary, renewable work permits, processed at missions outside Canada, or in certain cases, at ports of entry, while their applications for permanent admission are processed by the provincial authorities and thereafter by the federal authorities for medical and security screening. In many instances, applicants can conclude these formalities without ever having to actually return to their former place of habitual residence.
How large can an Ontario program be? This year, some 45,000 newcomers will be admitted under the Quebec program alone, which has been selecting its own immigrants since 1978. In Ontario, which receives a larger share of Canada’s immigrants, a provincial nominee program could well be larger.
The need for action in protecting the GTA economy is so clear that the previous Liberal government decided to create a “made for Toronto” construction trades labour market opinion exemption work program providing for one-year non-renewable work visas. The federal Liberal government, during its 2005 election campaign, also advocated an amnesty program for the estimated 200,000 illegal immigrants in Canada, predominantly living and working in the greater Toronto area. Many illegal immigrants are economic migrants who are currently employed in Southern Ontario’s booming construction, and related industries yet cannot qualify under current federal immigration selection models, which favour university-educated and language-proficient applicants.
The amnesty program is now dead but the need for the workers is not. Ontario should now solve its own immigration problems by introducing a long overdue provincial nominee program. Then, federal policy-makers along with their Ontario provincial counterparts can co-operatively identify processing and procedural solutions that offer legal status to these provincial nominees, without the need to implement a controversial amnesty program and without the need to deport a large and important group of undocumented skilled workers who are already employed and for whom economic integration is not in any doubt. This strategy will go a long way in addressing the critical skilled labour shortage requirements of industry in Ontario, which is the raison d’etre of good immigration policy.