The United States government is gearing up for an election year by promoting a controversial amnesty program directed at providing status for between 8-11 Million illegal aliens currently living in the United States. Described as major immigration reform, this temporary worker program proposes to offer three-year work visas to undocumented aliens who have illegally entered the United States, the majority from Mexico, on the condition that they currently have jobs or obtain a job offer. The Hispanic vote is said to be crucial in the hopes of the Bush Administration getting re-elected in 2004.
There are many critics of this initiative. Some argue that the program will result in price increases for many consumer goods as most of the affected workers are currently employed illegally as seasonal workers in agriculture and other low wage industries where employers prey on their illegal status to pay below market wage rates. Legalizing their status it is argued, will result in consumer price increases or at the least, will reinforce a falling wage rate for labour in affected industries. Critics also argue that the program rewards immigration lawbreakers and encourages the continued contempt for the country’s stringent immigration rules. If temporary workers are required it is argued, a fairer alternative is to recruit the required manpower from outside the United States under a guest worker program.
Yet, despite the apparent criticism over the US program, Canadian policy makers have been considering the merits of implementing a similar amnesty program for which some estimates currently place at more than 200,000 illegal immigrants in Canada predominantly living and working in Toronto. Many illegal immigrants are economic migrants who are currently employed but who cannot get legal status within current selection models.
Canadian immigration policies for the most part differ from the United States, which is one of the only countries in the Western world where natural population growth occurs without the need to rely on immigration to ensure labour market growth. Unlike the United States which requires family or employer sponsorship as a condition for long term admission, Canada admits some 150,000 economic class immigrants each year with minimal emphasis on employer arranged employment. Canada also admits some 100,000 temporary workers under a number of employer sponsored industry specific agreements (favouring the building trades, information technology, caregivers, students and spouses) with other sectors being considered as well. Together, these two programs are the centrepieces of Canadian immigration policy.
But despite the criticisms and the policy differences, a Canadian amnesty program offering temporary worker status to individuals who are already employed could go a long way in freeing up resources which are currently being used to deal with our illegal immigrant problem not the least of which is trying to track them down. Moreover, illegal immigrants are not tax payers and do consume government services. Offering them legal status will increase our tax base and will also address the problem of employers who hire illegals and avoid paying employer contributions. The effects of this economic problem although unproven in Canada, are no doubt significant.
Once we have a grasp on our illegal immigration problem including the industries involved, our policy makers can identify solutions and introduce programs that offer long term legal status to an important group of skilled workers who are employable and for whom economic integration will not be in doubt. This is the raison d’etre of our immigration programs. And with a Federal Election on the horizon, the timing to take action could not be better.
(Colin R. Singer is an immigration attorney in Montreal).