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New Canadian citizens and their flags during a citizenship ceremony at the ISS of BC Welcome Centre in Vancouver, March 29, 2017.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

If you are studying or working in Canada on a visa, if you are here as an asylum claimant, even if your visa has expired and you are an undocumented resident, the odds have never been better that you could soon be on the path to citizenship.

In order to maintain immigration targets, the federal government is aggressively courting non-Canadians who are living here to apply to become permanent residents.

This may stoke resentment among some old-stock Canadians who don’t like the change, literally, in the complexion of the population. But there is no alternative, if Canada is to grow and prosper.

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Because borders were closed by the pandemic, we accepted only 184,000 new permanent residents last year, rather than the target of 341,000. Most of those granted status were already in the country when the pandemic hit.

To make up the loss, the Liberal government has set goals of 401,000 new permanent residents this year. But with borders still closed, a recent Royal Bank report predicted we’ll be lucky to get to 275,000 in 2021.

“With the effects of the pandemic looking more likely to remain into the spring and summer, the headwinds ... will keep immigration into Canada low throughout most of 2021,” wrote senior economist Andrew Agopsowicz.

There are between a million and a million and a half people in Canada who are here on work or student visas, who are seeking asylum, or who are undocumented because their visa expired or for some other reason.

To show it’s serious about converting as many as possible to permanent residents, the federal government greatly lowered the entrance requirement in its most recent call for applications under the Express Entry system, which fast-tracks economic-class applicants.

“It’s a catch-all draw, meant to transition many of those who are eligible to be permanent residents and who are currently residing in Canada,” explained Kareem El-Assal, director of policy at Canadavisa.com, the website of an immigration law firm.

Mr. El-Assal believes that Canada can meet the target of 401,000 new permanent residents this year by drawing on the pool of people already here and by bringing in family-class immigrants, who are permitted to enter Canada under pandemic rules.

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I would argue that Ottawa and the provinces should also look for qualified workers from the pool of asylum claimants and undocumented workers as well, subject to the appropriate background checks. Right now we need workers more than we need to enforce bureaucratic rules.

The government’s determination to meet its immigration targets coincides with a lesson many have learned about the value of so-called low-skilled work in areas such as agrifood and health care.

“The pandemic revealed that many people who were described as low-skilled were really essential workers,” said Usha George, director of the Centre for Immigration and Settlement at Ryerson University. When many Canadians were forced out of work or had to work from home because of lockdowns, “they contributed to keeping us all going,” she said.

Our immigration system is geared to attracting high-skilled workers in the professions and trades. But our economy also depends on people whose work we undervalue, and they too should be welcomed to Canada as permanent residents.

Surveys show a significant minority of Canadians believe that immigration levels are too high. There is plenty of evidence on social media that some Canadians of European background resent high levels of non-European immigration.

But Canada’s fertility rate has been declining since the 1970s, and is now more than half a baby shy of replacement rate. Without immigrants, our population would soon start to decline.

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Meanwhile, India and the Philippines, two major source countries of immigrants to Canada, have brought their fertility rates down to replacement rate, or very close to it. And factoring in the robust economic growth they were enjoying before the pandemic, there could soon be fewer people available – or interested – in coming.

Aging societies across the developed world need immigrants to fill vacant jobs and to pay taxes to support the elderly, whatever nativist know-nothings may think.

In the not-too-distant future, rather than the federal and provincial governments choosing which applicants get to come to Canada, we will be begging potential newcomers to pick us over the American and European competition. The sooner we get used to that idea, the better.

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