The heated debate over how we deal with immigration is only getting uglier and more caustic. Perhaps, as we try to settle our problem with entrants south of the border, we should look for answers north of the border.
In recent years, Canada has taken in as many immigrants as the U.S. proportional to its population. Yet there is no Tea Party, no Minutemen, and no controversy over birthright citizenship. Rather than fear immigration, most Canadians actually support it, and there is even a widely popular government policy to woo foreigners.
The difference? Canada has made immigration policy a servant to far-sighted economic goals. Rather than the American conservative mantra that one more immigrant means one less American job, Canada has pegged immigration to economic growth and has attempted to make the nation a global magnet for talent. In fact, Canada credits its stellar economic performance during the Great Recession, in part, to its immigration policy.
By contrast, the Republican-led House Judiciary Committee has held seven hearings this year on the topic; all with the central theme that immigration costs American jobs. The debate has devolved to the point that past Republican champions of immigration reform are now running from their own records in order to save themselves from Tea Party challengers in their primaries. In one stark example, Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), an original author of the DREAM Act, abandoned his support of that measure and has now introduced a strict enforcement-only bill in the 112th Congress.
But it's not just different politics--the two nations' immigration policies are very different. In contrast to the U.S., where most immigrants are granted green cards with no regard to their skill level, Canada has focused on bringing people to their country who have crucial skills necessary to grow the economy and create jobs. In 2009, 61% of the permanent residents admitted to Canada were awarded visas for economic purposes. In the same year, only 13% of immigrants to America were granted skills-based visas.
In 2009, the Canadian government created a unified effort by the federal and provincial governments to improve the integration of immigrants so "they would have the opportunity to fully use their education, skills and work experience for their benefit and for Canada's collective prosperity." Around the same time, the American immigration debate was embroiled in the passage of Arizona's SB 1070 law, which allowed state law enforcement officers to ask any person for proof of their legal status if there is "reasonable suspicion" that the person is an illegal alien. Although the law was one of the harshest immigration measures in decades and raised real concerns about racial profiling, a majority of Americans expressed support for its provisions out of frustration with the current system.
If the U.S. is going to make progress in overcoming the persistent and escalating division in our immigration debate, we must take a page from our neighbors to the North. We should refocus reform efforts on modernizing our immigration system to benefit our 21st century economy. We should craft policy that allows us to attract and retain the global talent that immigrants can provide and capitalize on their economic and entrepreneurial contributions to maximize our own economic growth. To do so, we should increase the number of skilled workers we bring into our country, while maintaining a vibrant system of family immigration.
Rather than allowing our immigration policy to fall prey to political rhetoric, we should learn a lesson from our Maple Leaf waving allies--of which two-thirds believe immigrants help create jobs. If we focus immigration policy on maximizing a country's potential for economic growth, both the economy and public opinion will improve.
Learn more in Third Way's new report: Becoming a Magnet for Global Talent.