The disloyalty is shocking. Waves of migrants arrive at a country’s shores seeking economic opportunity, a higher quality of life for themselves and their children, or refuge from political uncertainty — only to return to their home countries or move on to other ones while retaining open-ended rights of return and access to social benefits.
Sound like a resumé of woes afflicting Canada’s immigration policy? Actually, it’s a partial slice of New Zealand’s experience with Chinese migrants during the past two decades, topped with a gloss of public reaction to those trends. As a 2012 report from the U.S.-based Migration Policy Institute outlines, Chinese migrants to New Zealand are presenting researchers with a striking new phenomenon to study: migrant families that “move and relocate according to the specific needs of their members at various stages of their life cycle.” Families from Hong Kong, Taiwan and now mainland China are coming and going from the country as dictated by the needs of career, childcare, education, elder care and retirement. In so doing, they are provoking outraged charges of disloyalty from longer-established Kiwis.
What if the new minister decided to carry out his mandate with the same grip on international comparisons and evidence that he surely had in his former career as a Canadian diplomat and UN official?
As followers of citizenship matters in Canada well know, those migration patterns, and the alarm they can cause, are much the same here. Like New Zealand and Australia, we have the luxury of not having to face the crises of human trafficking and criminal smuggling that European countries are grappling with, particularly in the wake of recent high-casualty migrant shipwrecks on the Italian coast. For that reason, migration angst in our three countries comes almost entirely from people we let enter and then accuse of opportunism and disloyalty based on their subsequent actions.
It may be that some migrants to Canada, though their subsequent international movements, end up drawing on social benefits and protections that seem disproportionate to their commitment and contributions.
It may also be, however, that worries about disloyalty and freeloading among globally mobile immigrants are vastly overstated by politicians and talk-show ranters. Embracing the opportunities that come from globally connected diasporas may prove a more valuable — not to mention realistic — tack for Canadian citizens and politicians to take. It’s time to rethink ideas of national loyalty and assimilation formed during the relatively brief period when states were paramount and migration was expected to be a one-way, one-time journey.
It would be a truly excellent thing if Canada’s government, and its new Citizenship and Immigration minister Chris Alexander, decided to figure out where the facts lie with respect to these matters, and then fix any glaring problems that need fixing. The government could even talk to New Zealand and Australia about their approach to resolving dilemmas of citizenship in a new globally mobile era.
But there’s not great reason for optimism on that front. As former Privy Council clerk Mel Cappe noted in a recent interview, last week’s Throne Speech — as with the government’s general track record — was devoid of bold evidence-led ideas. Amid all the consumer-friendly measures dangled before voters, the speech said little about Canada’s citizenship policy. While reaffirming some now-standard Conservative lines about the intrinsic value and commitments of citizenship, it left the government’s commitment to action wholly vague: “To strengthen and protect the value of Canadian citizenship, our government will introduce the first comprehensive reforms to the Citizenship Act in more than a generation.”
Judging from past ministerial rhetoric, what that probably means is some tinkering with Canada’s jus soli citizenship policy, which permits much-maligned “birth tourists” to deliver babies here in order to reap Canadian benefits and protections down the road. To date the government has offered only anecdotes about the pervasiveness of this phenomenon. It will probably proceed to bring forward legislation similarly unhampered by evidentiary backing.
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Things could be different, though. What if the new minister decided to carry out his mandate with the same grip on international comparisons and evidence that he surely had in his former career as a Canadian diplomat and UN official? What if he decided that “comprehensive reforms” meant a set of idea-driven policies reflecting current global facts, trends and systematic reflection on the nature of 21st-century citizenship?
Such an approach would constitute a display of ministerial boldness thus far unseen in the Harper government. Don’t hold your breath waiting to see it happen. But let’s not forget, either, what a once-in-a-generation rethinking of a vital piece of federal policy ought to look like, and hold the government accountable to meet that standard.