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Who gets to come to Canada? And, who gets to decide? These two questions have fuelled political debates since Clifford Sifton first encouraged select American and European settlers to inhabit the lands of the Canadian West, calling for "good quality" immigrants whose "forefathers have been farmers for 10 generations."

As we have seen of late, these same issues continue to dominate discussions because they go to the very heart of our national identity. Conversations about immigration are never just about numbers or absorptive capacity. Witness the debate in Quebec on reasonable accommodation - immigration decisions reverberate across decades. Immigration shapes societies and their past, present and future incarnations. The decision to admit a particular individual or group, followed by an investment in settling and accommodating the chosen migrant, is imbued with cultural and symbolic capital. As Canadian scholar Howard Adelman once said, "refugee policy is the litmus test of the concept of justice in a society." Admitting any immigrant or refugee is a big deal.

Canada's recently announced decision to double the number of Iraqi refugees accepted this year, up to 2,000, seems at first glance to be an important sign of the government's commitment to humanitarian efforts in the Middle East.

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Until now, the international community had put the emphasis on returning displaced Iraqi refugees back home, but after five years of war, that possibility has become increasingly faint. And so the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has started calling on foreign governments to resettle those Iraqis who are most at risk. Ottawa responded to this call for help by increasing the number of admissions, with Immigration Minister Diane Finley declaring, "We can hold our heads proudly on the world stage for what we are doing now."

But can we really? Current estimates put the number of displaced Iraqis within their homeland at 2.5 million, with an estimated two million more in neighbouring countries - so taking in a couple of thousand Iraqi refugees is, numerically, not all that significant. Also, this is a fraction of the 250,000 migrants Canada has admitted annually over the past few years.

What is noteworthy, however, is the government's emphasis on admitting refugees from Jordan and Syria. The large numbers who have been fleeing across the border from Iraq have prompted both Syria and Jordan to close their doors to a number of would-be refugees, fearing the economic drain and social strains that too many refugees represent. Clearly, the federal government is worried about the danger that continued insecurity in the region represents.

Similar thinking guided policy after the Second World War, when Canadian politicians looked to Europe and saw millions of displaced people living in makeshift camps. When the Soviets invaded Hungary in 1956, 200,000 refugees fled to Austria and Yugoslavia, exacerbating an already extremely volatile situation. Concerned, Canada admitted 37,000 refugees - immigration policy as an instrument of foreign policy.

Another factor that reveals why the federal government's feel-good announcement is of more political than practical value can be found in the fine print: Iraqi refugees will be absorbed into the maximum cap for this year, which essentially means they are taking the place of another group. In the past, the Canadian government provided humanitarian assistance above and beyond established quotas: A prime example was the large population movements from Hungary and Czechoslovakia (when the government also provided free transportation and covered settlement costs). By allowing other refugees to be replaced, the federal government is effectively declaring the Iraqi refugees to be more deserving than others, regardless of their actual qualifications as refugees under international law. This is a very political decision.

Combined with the Conservative government's recently proposed legislation that would grant immigration ministers tremendous power in selecting future immigrants and shaping policy, the case of the Iraqi refugees serves as a timely reminder of the great influence politicians already wield in crafting immigration policies that can serve a variety of purposes - from foreign-policy goals to domestic labour-market needs.

During the Cold War, Canadian politicians used immigration policy as a means of embarrassing the Soviet Union, scoring propaganda points on the backs of refugees fleeing from behind the Iron Curtain. Historically, immigration regulations could be transformed by a mere order-in-council, meaning all it took was a cabinet decision to prevent entire groups from coming to Canada - as was the case with Chinese migrants from 1923 to 1947. Discussions around immigration that centre on numerical quotas or qualifications ignore the reality of migration policy as one of the most powerful political tools any government can wield.

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Concentrating greater decision-making in the hands of a single minister represents this government's obvious comfort with using public policy for political ends. Given that decisions on admitting immigrants reverberate across generations, the question all Canadians must ask themselves is: Are we comfortable with our country's migration policy being the equivalent of political platform? One would hope the answer is an unequivocal no.

Laura Madokoro is completing her PhD in migration history at the University of British Columbia.

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