Should Canadian Immigration Policy Be Synchronized with U.S. Immigration Policy? Lessons Learned at the Start of Two Centuries

By Woroby, Tamara M. | American Review of Canadian Studies, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Should Canadian Immigration Policy Be Synchronized with U.S. Immigration Policy? Lessons Learned at the Start of Two Centuries


Woroby, Tamara M., American Review of Canadian Studies


The turn of both this century and the twentieth century have been accompanied by high levels of immigration into Canada and the United States. Around 1900, as the last century began, there occurred a sharp rise in the number of people arriving from abroad and these high levels did not diminish until the 1930s. Similarly, today, immigration to both Canada and the U.S. has increased to record highs, along with the impression that immigration may somehow be "out-of-control." (1) Historically, Canada and the U.S. have implemented independent immigration policies, each establishing its own set of preferred immigrant characteristics and entrance procedures. More recently, after the introduction of the NAFTA, and most certainly since 9/11, a question that has been posed with increasing frequency is: should Canada synchronize its immigration policy with that of the U.S., and if so, to what extent?

With the above question in mind, this paper compares and contrasts economic aspects of the Canadian and U.S. immigration experiences, both at the present time and at the turn of the twentieth century. We include the historical perspective so as to see what lessons--relevant for today--might be learned by comparing the present situation with a past high-immigration period. We add to the existing literature by incorporating income inequality data to estimate Canadian inequality for the period at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Defining Immigration

It is useful to establish what is meant by the word "immigrant," because it has become a common error in public discussion to apply this term to describe anyone who crosses a border. In actuality, people move from one country to another for a variety of reasons, and it is on the basis of these reasons and the permanence of their stay, that they are classified into one of two groups: immigrants and non-immigrants.

The people who become the immigrants of a country move to take up permanent residence in the new country. This may be for the purposes of a new job, to reunify with family already permanently residing there, or to seek asylum or safe haven as refugees. Immigrants may enter legally or illegally. Over the past two decades, illegal immigration has emerged as an important factor in the U.S., but does not appear to be significant in Canada. Based on an average of the past five years, the annual inflow of legal immigrants to the U.S. has been about 900,000, and the annual inflow of illegal immigrants has been about 350,000 (official estimates). (2) In comparison, the average annual inflow of immigrants to Canada (almost all of them legal) has been about 220,000. (3)

The second group of people who move consists of non-immigrants, those who do not intend to become permanent residents and will instead reside in the new country for a temporary period of time. This period may be longer or shorter, depending upon the motive. This group consists of foreign students, temporary workers, business visitors, and tourists. It is this group that dominates when looking at the number of people who cross a border. For example, in a recent year, approximately 1.4 million immigrants (including legal and illegal) and 33 million non-immigrants entered the U.S. For Canada, these numbers were 250,000 for immigrants and 6.2 million for non-immigrants. (4) When we examine a country's immigration policy, we therefore limit ourselves to a very small portion of the actual number of people who cross a border.

Focusing on border issues and immigration issues is not the same thing. This is an especially important point to note in light of the fact that the U.S. has become, and will continue to be (into the foreseeable future), preoccupied with border security, which requires examining factors far beyond immigration per se. In light of the tremendous imbalance between immigrant and non-immigrant flows, coordinating immigration policies between Canada and the U. …

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