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Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has his photo taken with a supporter following a campaign stop in Brampton, Friday September 25, 2015.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Justin Trudeau has made his biggest play to date for immigrant voters who have been key to Stephen Harper's electoral success.

Mr. Trudeau unveiled on Friday a package of policies to make it easier for immigrants to sponsor relatives abroad to join them in Canada, aimed at presenting his party as more open to newcomers than the governing Conservatives have been.

The announcement stands to give a higher profile to an ongoing debate that has been playing out largely beneath the radar of the mainstream media – but that could go a long way toward federal election results in pivotal suburban battlegrounds – about what sort of immigration the federal government should prioritize.

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To address a huge backlog in applications, the Conservatives introduced in 2011 a two-year moratorium on "family reunification" applications, which mostly involve immigrants already in Canada trying to have parents or grandparents join them. While fast-tracking some of the pre-existing applications, they have since limited new ones to 5,000 a year, offering more "super visas" that allow relatives to visit frequently. Although the Tories have argued that policy is aimed at reducing waiting times, it is widely perceived to be part of a shift toward greater emphasis on economic migration.

During the current campaign, the Liberals as well as Thomas Mulcair's New Democrats have promised a renewed focus on reunification – especially in communications with South Asian communities, where they believe there is growing unrest about most would-be sponsors not even being given the chance to apply. But until now, they offered few specifics.

Appearing Friday in the Toronto suburb of Brampton, Ont., Mr. Trudeau committed to doubling the number of family reunification applications to 10,000 annually. He also promised to double government funding for processing new and existing applications in order to speed up wait times that he said still average four years. And beyond making it easier to bring older relatives here, the Liberal Leader announced an easing of rules for bringing spouses and children to Canada.

Mr. Trudeau argued that such policies would have economic benefit as well, by helping "drive productivity." He was hinting at what the Liberals say is a strong desire, in the communities they're courting, for family supports for working parents, particularly in the form of elderly parents providing child care.

Mr. Trudeau also took aim at other aspects of the Conservatives' immigration record, reiterating his vow to reverse a controversial policy that gives the government the ability to revoke citizenship from dual nationals deemed to be threats to Canada.

But family reunification is an issue being driven really hard on the ground, and it points to a contrast in political calculations.

Conservatives believe it's not just non-immigrants who think bringing older relatives here can be an abuse of generosity, as former immigration minister Jason Kenney implied when citing health and social-assistance costs. "Amongst first– and second-generation Canadians, 66 per cent disagree with extended family reunification, including parents and grandparents," Mr. Kenney said back when he announced the new limits. (When Mr. Harper made his "old stock" comment, it was in the context of making a similar point about how both new and not-so-new Canadians oppose health care for failed refugee claimants.)

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The Tories' opponents contend the issue is undoing some of Mr. Kenney's tireless work courting immigrant votes on his party's behalf. The Liberals see the opportunity to win back the sorts of people who used to support them, felt taken for granted by the time their party lost power in 2006, and now might feel taken for granted by the Conservatives instead.

Within different communities, there may be very different reactions. A Liberal source suggested this week that boosting reunification is particularly popular among relatively recent and more working-class immigrants, longing for help at home as they work long hours. The Tories seem to be playing more to those who have already established themselves.

Which message reaps more rewards could swing plenty of ridings around Toronto and Vancouver, and even smaller cities with growing immigrant populations. It remains to be seen if Mr. Trudeau's announcement will get everyone else to pay more attention.

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