Patrick Grady
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney on the Right Track, but Has Long Way to Go
April 10, 2012

Frustration over the poor performance of recent immigrants has precipitated a whirlwind of activity from Immigration Minister Jason Kenney. This has generated a wide-ranging, and innovative, set of proposals for reforms to Canada’s dysfunctional immigration system that has sent shockwaves through Canada's immigration lobby. Most fundamentally, these proposals include the elimination of the backlog of Federal Skilled Workers (FSW) that has been preventing the selection of immigrants most likely to succeed in Canada’s labour market; and tying the selection of economic class immigrants to pre-approved credentials and job offers.

Both of these proposed reforms are major steps in the right direction, but, as for many things, the devil is in the details. And there are many questions about how the proposed new system might eventually work.

Take the requirement of a pre-arranged job offer for instance, while it is clearly the best way to make sure that newcomers are quickly integrated in the labour market, it is no guarantee by itself that new immigrants will do well economically. This, of course, depends on the earnings of the immigrant in the specific job offered. If employers are given the opportunity, there is every reason to expect that they will bring in low-wage foreign workers to fill unskilled jobs that could be done by Canadians, but at higher wages. This is why even in a system based on job offers, it will still be necessary to adopt the requirement that the employer get a Labour Market Opinion (LMO) from the Government certifying that “there is a need for the foreign worker to fill the job you offer and that there is no Canadian worker available to do the job.” This requirement for a positive LMO is currently imposed on employers seeking to bring in workers under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. It is supposed to protect Canadian workers from having their wages undercut by foreign competition.

If immigrants are going to make a real economic contribution to Canada, they must be capable of filling good high-paying job where they will earn enough to pay taxes sufficient to cover the government benefits they receive. That is why Herbert Grubel and I proposed in our paper that immigrants admitted should have a job offer with a minimum level of earnings at least equal to the average in the region. Otherwise even though the immigrant may be employed, it may be in a job that pays so low the Canadian taxpayer will have to pick up his/her health and welfare benefits. Moreover, it is more likely that high-paying jobs are those experiencing real labour shortages of the type often cited by business groups advocating higher levels of immigration. And if only immigrants offered good, high-paying jobs are allowed in the country as economic immigrants, their numbers will be greatly reduced to be more in line with the absorptive capacity of the Canadian economy.

Another important issue that will have to be resolved is which employers can make job offers to immigrants. Equity may suggest that all employers, large and small, incorporated and unincorporated, should be eligible. However, the reality is that job offers can be exploited by unscrupulous employers desirous of short-circuiting the immigration system to bring in relatives or friends from their home countries or even to make money by accepting bribes for job offers. This is more likely to be a problem with small family businesses, which generally pay low wages. In contrast, large firms are more likely to recruit based on objective job qualifications and have more to lose from corrupt practices.

It will thus be important to set restrictions on the employers eligible to participate in the proposed new economic immigration program based on job offers. Any employers caught abusing the program should be subject to severe penalties including fines and imprisonment for those implicated. And firms implicated in unethical or illegal activities like SNC-Lavalin was recently should be banned from participating in the program.

Employers should also be required to take responsibility for a certain period of time for the social benefits of the immigrants they bring in if those immigrants don’t work out on the job and are let go. This would cause the employers to be much more careful in recruiting if they cannot slough their mistakes off on the Government.

Concerning foreign credential recognition, it is laudable that the Government wants to establish national groups to assess immigrants’ credentials before they are admitted. However, federal-provincial efforts have been ongoing for many years and national and provincial agencies have been established to facilitate the recognition of foreign credentials and yet the issue remains unresolved. This suggests that there are fundamental questions of equivalency that are not going to be answered satisfactorily soon in favour of the recognition of foreign credentials.

The elimination of the FSW backlog will also probably face serious legal challenges. It is thus still not yet in the bag. If it is disallowed by the courts on Charter grounds, the Government will have to invoke the “notwithstanding clause” to make it stick. This may require more political determination than the Government is willing to exercise.

There are also questions about the health, criminality, or security status of the prospective immigrant that will have to be considered. These are inherently the responsibility of the state and cannot be delegated to employers.

Critics are saying that the Minister is proposing to turn over the administration of Canada’s immigration system to the private sector. And his rhetoric often feeds their concerns. But the reality is that all he is doing is proposing to give employers a larger say in the selection of immigrants as the Government will have to make the final decision on the admissibility of an immigrant itself taking into account all factors, and not just whether or not the immigrant has a job offer.

In conclusion, Minister Kenney is proposing to go down the right path to transform Canada’s badly broken immigration system. But the road will be rocky and filled with many large holes. He is going to have to overcome a lot of obstacles and make many hard decisions before he arrives at his intended destination. And if he isn’t careful, he can actually end up making the system even more costly for Canada than it already is if he establishes a “job offer requirement for immigration” that allows employers to bring in as many low-wage employees into the country as they want.