Improving Canada’s Selection of Economic Immigrants

  • Robert Vineberg


Immigrants coming to Canada over the last two decades have been doing considerably worse in terms of economic outcomes than in previous decades and observers could be missing the real reason why. Until now, we have heard suggestions that it has to do with the changing economy, systemic racism or barriers to getting foreign work credentials recognized. But one likely possibility has not yet been seriously considered: that changes in the early 1990s to the way economic immigrants are processed may have resulted in a system that is poorer at selecting those immigrants likeliest to succeed in Canada. The good news is that this problem is fixable. There is no question that the decline in wages and labour-force participation among immigrants, and their rise in poverty rates, is striking. While, in 1980, employed immigrant men earned 85 cents for every dollar earned by employed Canadian men, that had fallen by 2005 to 63 cents. For employed immigrant women, earnings fell from 85 cents of every dollar earned by Canadian-born women in 1980 to 65 cents in 2005. While Canadian-born people saw entry-level earnings rise by 20 per cent between 1981 and 2007, wages for immigrants classified under the Federal Skilled Worker program went the opposite direction, actually falling by more than 20 per cent over the same period. In addition, the number of immigrants who live below Statistics Canada’s low-income cut off grew by more than a third since 1991, even as the number of Canadian-born people below the cut off shrank by a third over the same period. It is hard not to notice that the declines in outcomes began right after changes were made to the way these immigrants were evaluated for entry into Canada. Most significant was replacing in-person interviews with so-called “perfected applications” submitted by mail, and later, online. Under the previous procedure, an interview with an immigration officer would often flesh out important information concealed by an impersonal application. For example, the policy was to interview those applicants who fell just short of qualifying under Canada’s 1 points-based system. This was in case something was discovered during the in-person interview that gave the officer reason to add extra points or recommend admission anyway. Likewise, those applicants who looked good on paper were sometimes deemed by an officer to be less qualified than their application suggested. Today, applicants typically hire lawyers or consultants to fill out their application and those professionals know how to make an application look good. If the government wants to improve outcomes for immigrants, it should run a pilot program with two streams of applicants in one or more intake offices: assess half of them using the current procedure and the other half using the old interview method, then measure their outcomes over the years. That should be done alongside other improvements to the immigration system, including: lifting the caps on provincial nominees, who have a stronger record of success; providing Canadian Experience Class applicants a shorter route to immigration, so they don’t abandon their attempts; reintroducing a limited version of the Assisted Relative Class; and reducing larger immigration offices in overseas capitals in favour of smaller, more regional offices nearer newer immigrant pools. As the government moves to increase immigration levels, these changes could make Canada’s already highly successful immigration system even more successful.
Briefing Papers