With his sudden declaration on Monday that, “I will be signing an Executive Order to temporarily suspend immigration into the United States!”, Donald Trump distilled his presidency, and his brand, into a single tweet.
On Wednesday, Mr. Trump signed that executive order. For the next two months, and maybe longer, the process of accepting new permanent U.S. residents, people who can become citizens, will be suspended. But the border will remain open for many temporary foreign workers – people who do not enjoy the same rights as Americans, and who won’t become citizens.
During the Trump era, Canadians have been allowed to feel superior on a host of issues, immigration not least among them. Our self-image is accurate – to an extent.
Under the Harper Conservative government, Canada regularly accepted around a quarter of a million immigrants a year – far above the American immigration rate. The Trudeau Liberal government has been steadily boosting that level, to more than 300,000 a year, the most since the 1910s.
The COVID-19 pandemic, and the shutdown of international travel, will slow the flow this year. For decades, Canada has been considerably more comfortable with immigration – the welcome of new citizens – than the U.S. Once the crisis passes, that reality will remain. But like the U.S., albeit to a lesser extent, Canada does have a system for importing in an underclass of low-wage, temporary, non-citizen workers. And employers’ reliance on that system exploded over the past decade.
In some areas, such as certain types of labour-intensive agriculture, the use of temporary foreign workers has become so ingrained as to have become necessary. Elsewhere in the job market, from fast food to retail, there is no reason for employers to be allowed to import low-wage, temporary workers. There may be shortages of trained people in some highly skilled and often highly remunerated fields, but Canada has no lack of people capable of working a drive-thru.
The abuse of Canada’s official Temporary Foreign Worker program peaked in 2012, when employers brought in 200,000 people. Fast food restaurants appear to have used the program to deflate wages, the opposite of what should have happened in a tight labour market. If there’s high demand for lower-wage workers, then their wages should rise – and in a labour market marked by a high degree of inequality, that’s desirable. Instead, the TFW program was used to tamp down wages at the bottom of the income scale.
The Harper government recognized the problem, and by 2015 the TFW program was significantly cut back to 73,000 new temporary work visas. It has risen slightly under the Trudeau government, to about 84,000.
However, even as the official program for temporary, non-citizen labour was being trimmed, an unofficial program was sprouting. In 2018, more than 350,000 permits were issued to foreign students to study in Canada. These students are mostly coming to attend a legitimate university or college program. But as The Globe and Mail reported last year, some are being recruited to work in fields such as fast food and trucking, with paid attendance at a questionable career college as their legal route into the domestic job market.
The student visa system is in effect being abused by businesses, private schools and recruiters to bring in temporary, low-wage workers. These workers are even forced to pay for their temporary, minimum-wage employment.
In an ideal world, everyone working in Canada would be either a citizen or on a clear path to becoming a citizen, as landed immigrants and refugee claimants are. This page has repeatedly argued that a widespread reliance on guest workers with lesser rights represses low-end wages, and is un-Canadian.
The bottom line is that Mr. Trump got things backward. He is shutting down immigration, while leaving the door open for temporary non-immigrants. Canada should be doing something closer to the opposite.
There are legitimate debates about exactly how many immigrants is the right number – whether the high rate of immigration under the Harper Conservatives, or the slightly higher and rising rate under the Trudeau Liberals. Either way, the path to the creation of new Canadians must remain open, and will. As for the temporary importation of non-permanent, low-wage, never-to-be-Canadians? Beyond agriculture, that path should be narrowed, and rarely trod.
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