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Kellie Leitch misses the point about immigration

Vic Satzewich is a professor of sociology at McMaster University

It is gratifying to know that Kellie Leitch has read my book Points of Entry: How Canada's Visa Officers Decide Who Gets In, holding it up and referring to it in Wednesday night's Conservative leadership debate and featuring it on her website. She focuses on two of several findings from my research: that visa officers conduct very few face-to-face interviews and that they are under pressure to meet processing targets. But she missed the broader point of the book, which is pro-immigration.

Her interest in creating policy to screen immigrants for Canadian values sounds like a return to a time when visa officers assigned points for what was then called "personal suitability." But there was little consistency in how immigration officers assigned such points.

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Not surprisingly, applicants and their immigration lawyers and consultants appealed refusals because they felt those points were inappropriately assigned and, during the 1980s and 90s, the Federal Court was clogged with hundreds of appeals.

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By 2002, the difficulty of defending those appeals was so high that judgments about personal suitability were taken out of the assessment. Senior officials within the immigration department were also uncomfortable with the lack of consistency and transparency by which those points were applied. There is little reason to believe that Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada will be better positioned to standardize what they look for when it comes to screening for conformity with "Canadian values."

Even if it were practical to screen for "Canadian values," coming up with a universal set of our nation's values would be impossible.

The French had considerable difficulty doing this in 2009 when Nicholas Sarkozy launched a "national identity" debate. After three months of divisive debate that involved more than 100 townhall-style meetings, no consensus emerged. The only concrete policy recommendation that resulted from the debate was that the French flag ought to be flown in schools.

Likewise, interviewing every applicant for a visa would bring our immigration system to a grinding halt because interviews take time and resources. The immigration processing system is already slow, and to interview the 1.3 million people who apply every year for a visa to test for Canadian values would be a logistical nightmare.

Do I think we need more and better screening of immigrants and should we do more interviews with visa applicants?

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In my research I did find it surprising that we do not interview many visa applicants any more. In some cases, more interviews would be useful, but not as a blanket policy, and not as a way to screen for Canadian values.

One place where interviews might be useful is with language assessment. The immigration department has yet to find the perfect mechanism to assess language skills. Today, it uses standardized language tests administered by third parties. Whether a passing grade on such a test gives a true indication of English or French language abilities is of some debate. Language skills make an obvious difference in terms of how successfully individuals make out in the job market and in school. Can interviews with applicants be used to help inform decisions about an individual's language abilities? Perhaps, but even that has its pitfalls when it comes to transparency and consistency of decision-making.

One thing that the immigration department does not do very well, however, is to prepare newcomers for life in Canada, particularly in terms of how difficult the first few years will be.

We select immigrants for high levels of education and training and they come already prepared to work hard to achieve their dreams, but we do a woefully bad job telling them how difficult it will be to get a job that they are trained to do once in Canada.

Interviews with skilled worker applicants could have value if those interviews focused on giving detailed and practical advice and directions about how to negotiate the credential recognition process and the vagaries of the Canadian job market.

What Ms. Leitch is proposing is a solution in search of a problem. I would encourage her to read more academic research by social scientists, and even "commit sociology." If she does, she will find that there is considerable evidence that immigrants do actually integrate into Canadian society.

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