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Of all the issues of concern to the future of Toronto, there's one that's off limits during this mayoral election. It's so taboo that nobody will even say the word. It's I-M-M-I-G-R-A-T-I-O-N.

Immigration has helped make Toronto one of the most successful and diverse cities in the world. That's the good news. The bad news is, a lot of immigrants aren't doing well. Many of them live in what are known as "priority neighbourhoods," where unemployment is high and incomes are low. The number of people receiving social assistance has gone up. Although the city has no say in immigration policy, it pays the bills. Meantime, another 100,000 immigrants are arriving in the city every year.

This is not a rant. It's a plea for honest conversation. And that's sometimes hard to have. Just ask the people who launched the Centre for Immigration Policy Reform last week. They think our immigration policies could be better. The NDP immediately attacked them for being "un-Canadian." One immigration lawyer called the group a bunch of grumpy old white men who'd be hard to take seriously "were it not for their ability to fan the flames of intolerance."

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Who are these intolerant un-Canadians? One is James Bissett, who used to head the Canadian Immigration Service. Another is Martin Collacott, a former ambassador to Sri Lanka, Syria, Lebanon and Cambodia. A third is Derek Burney, Canada's ambassador to the U.S. during the free-trade talks.

I asked Mr. Burney why he got involved. "I fully agree that the system is broken," he says. "There's too much abuse, too much fraud, and no rhyme or reason about what we're doing. It's just a numbers game."

Canada admits 250,000 immigrants a year, a higher rate than any other country. Why? No one can say. It's not to raise the birth rate or replace our aging workers - the numbers don't work out that way. Is it to create wealth and improve our productivity? If so, it isn't working.

Mr. Burney argues that current immigration policies are dragging down our productivity, not increasing it. The two fastest-growing groups in our population are aboriginals and new immigrants. "They're also the ones with the fewest skills to perform in our economy," he says.

Our system is supposed to select for success. But only 17 per cent of new arrivals are fully assessed on the basis of their employment and language skills. Half never meet a visa officer at all. Most of the people we bring in are "family class" immigrants, including parents and grandparents. The Centre for Immigration Policy Reform estimates that recent immigrants receive billions of dollars a year more in benefits than they pay in taxes. "We're building a problem of enormous proportions," Mr. Burney says.

The prevailing narrative is that if immigrants are doing badly, the fault must be ours. They're held back by subtle discrimination, we don't recognize their credentials and so on. No doubt there's some truth in this. But the greater truth is that making a go of it in a postindustrial knowledge-based economy isn't easy. Success depends on sophisticated language and communication skills - along with knowledge of local networks - that many newer immigrants never acquire. And their kids? Their success depends largely on "ethnic capital," a culture that values education and expects kids to excel. Kids from cultures with lots of ethnic capital do vastly better than kids from cultures that have little.

No political parties, not even the Conservatives, are in any hurry to debate how many, and who, we bring in. After all, they need the ethnic votes. So the debate has been largely ceded to the immigration industry - an army of lawyers and consultants who try to shut it down by calling people nasty names.

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"That doesn't bother me," Mr. Burney says with a laugh. "During the free-trade debate, they called me a traitor." A number of people have also quietly thanked him for opening his mouth. Politicians may not welcome this debate. But plenty of Canadians think it's long overdue.

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