What the United States could learn from Canada on immigration policy

There are many countries around the world that have screwed up their immigration policy, in one way or another, creating the unfortunate combination of marginalized ethnic populations and nativist backlash. This can easily generate a vicious circle, in which the marginalization produces various social pathologies (e.g. unemployment, crime), which serve to rationalize many of the discriminatory attitudes driving the backlash, which in turn increases marginalization and exclusion, exacerbating the pathologies, and so on. There are lots of problems in Canada, but the one thing we have not done is screw up our immigration policy in this way. (Compare that to relations with First Nations, which we have screwed up, generating almost precisely the dynamic described above – with a few complicating factors).

Anyhow, whenever one of the countries out there who have screwed up their immigration policy look to Canada for some ideas about how to improve, the thing that they pick up on almost immediately is the points system that Canada uses to screen immigrants in certain classes. By contrast, most experts think that the points system is actually not that big of a deal, and is not the most important aspect of the success of Canadian policy. But there is something about it that obviously appeals to people, particularly those of a nativist persuasion, perhaps because it seems like a way of “keeping out the undesirables.” Thus it was not much of a surprise to hear Donald Trump the other day, in his speech to Congress, mentioning Canada’s points system as a desirable model for the United States.

This is silly, given how many other aspects of the American system are so obviously broken. Unfortunately, many Americans don’t see this, because they just don’t realize how unusual American immigration policy is, compared to other countries, or because they just take for granted the way that things are done. So what follows are two things that I, as a foreigner, see as major mistakes being made in the United States in the area of immigration policy.

Both of these suggestions, I should note, may strike American readers as extremely right-wing. In Canada, however, they are not considered right-wing views. The reason that they get coded as right-wing in the United States is that Americans see immigration issues through the lens of race (where “race,” of course, does not actually mean race, but rather black-white race relations), and therefore tend to blur or confuse a number of issues that should be kept distinct. Thus a lot of sensible policies toward immigrants get rejected by the left, on the grounds that they sound like the sort of thing that, if directed toward African-Americans, would be unfriendly or unjustified.


1. Stop treating Spanish as a national language

There are multiple points on which there is complete unanimity among Canadians, and among all Canadian political parties. One of them is that immigrants are expected to learn to speak, and to operate in, the language of the “local” majority (French in Quebec, English elsewhere). Much of this clarity comes from the fact that Canada is a bilingual country, with one of its two official languages having minority status, and being under constant threat of attrition. Thus it is absolutely clear that the willingness (at least professed) to learn French is a sine qua non of immigration to Quebec. At the same time, Canada’s linguistic duality has been such an enormous source of internal division (two secession referenda, etc.) that a sine qua non of immigration policy in English Canada is that “allophone” immigrants cannot expect their native language to be granted the same type of minority-language status that French enjoys. (The force of Will Kymlicka’s work in this area, and the importance of his distinction between ethnic groups/languages and national groups/languages, is that it provides a principled justification for this policy.) In other words, English Canadians would not tolerate immigration from China or India or Iran, at the levels we have been accepting, if they thought that they would have to made the same accommodations for Chinese, Hindi, or Persian, that they have made for French.

So the “deal” that is being offered to immigrants to Canada on language is crystal clear – you come here, you learn to speak the language of the majority, and even if you don’t get very good at it, you make sure that your children learn it. Now, one way that the Government of Canada communicates this “deal” to immigrants is by providing extensive support and funding for English-language education (and French-language education in Quebec), in cooperation with ethnic community groups. So when someone from, say, Russia arrives in Canada, they get put in touch with the local Russian community association, and the first thing the community association does is hook them up with a language course.

The United States government, by contrast, offers basically zero support for English-language education for immigrants. And as usual, Americans get what they are willing to pay for – immigrants to the United States do much worse when it comes to majority-language acquisition than in many other countries. In practice, what this means is that the U.S. winds up with a large population of unilingual Spanish-speakers. The natural response to this, one might think, among those who are friendly to immigration, would be to push for more resources to be directed toward English-language education for immigrants. Instead, however, American liberals have treated the failure of U.S. policy in this domain as though it were a virtue, and have begun to treat Spanish as though it were a minority national language, with all the same rights and entitlements as English. This is terrible, and from a Canadian perspective, totally unjustifiable.

Consider, for instance, that after Donald Trump’s same speech to Congress, the Democrats arranged for two responses, one in English and one in Spanish. Why one in Spanish? The Spanish language has no official status in the U.S. After the Speech from the Throne in Canada, political parties may arrange to have an official response in both English and French. But imagine that a party decided to have an official response in Mandarin as well. It’s one thing to narrow-cast to a particular set of voters, but it’s important not to let this sow confusion about the status of the official languages. (Similarly, if Chinese-language signs started showing up all over Toronto, in the subway, in buildings, and so on, Canadians would also freak out – but that is what Americans have been seeing with Spanish now for decades. In fact, the ubiquity of Spanish was one of the things that surprised me most when I lived in the U.S. There are, of course, many circumstances in which it is good to have multilingual signs, where the pragmatic need to communicate outweighs other concerns. At the same time, it is important as a matter of principle not to blur the distinction between the official language of a country and the various immigrant languages.)

I suppose one could make the case that, having militarily seized the current states of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, as well as parts of Wyoming, Kansas and Colorado, from Mexico, Spanish-speakers are actually a national minority group within the United States, and so should have rights comparable to those enjoyed by French in Canada. But if that is so, it should be legislatively recognized. To the extent that the U.S. does have language legislation, it has all gone in the direction of entrenching English as the sole official language. In that context, it creates huge problems, not to mention a great deal of resentment toward immigrants, treating Spanish as a quasi-official language.


2. Stop letting immigrants benefit from affirmative action programs

Arlie Hochschild made some waves earlier in the year, with her book Strangers in their Own Land, which was one of many “red state” ethnographies. In it, she describes what she calls the “deep story” underlying much white resentment:

You are patiently standing in the middle of a long line stretching toward the horizon, where the American Dream awaits. But as you wait, you see people cutting in line ahead of you. Many of these line-cutters are black—beneficiaries of affirmative action or welfare. Some are career-driven women pushing into jobs they never had before. Then you see immigrants, Mexicans, Somalis, the Syrian refugees yet to come. As you wait in this unmoving line, you’re being asked to feel sorry for them all.

This story, she suggests, is not true: “The deep story was a feels-as-if-it’s-true story, stripped of facts and judgments, that reflected the feelings underpinning opinions and votes.” The bit about immigrants, however, is kind-of-true. One of the most perverse features of American immigration policy is that it lets certain immigrants – viz. those who belong to specific racial minorities, or else the absurd racial category of “Hispanic” – to take advantage of affirmative action policies that were obviously intended to address the issues faced by the domestic population.

Consider, for instance, affirmative action in university admissions. The goal of this policy is clearly aimed at redressing a specific historical injustice perpetrated against African-Americans, on the grounds that the legacy of past discrimination, along with ongoing discrimination, constitute a barrier to advancement that can only be redressed through affirmative action. The policy has given rise to enormous bitterness, and remains extremely controversial even in this canonical instance of its application. Nevertheless, it seems to me that one can make an argument for it in the specific case of African-Americans. But once you move beyond that core group, what is the argument for allowing Hispanics to benefit from that same policy? Why should Mexican migrants be given preferential admission to U.S. universities (e.g. with lower SAT scores than comparable whites or Asians?), much less elites from Argentina or Columbia (but not Brazil!).

More generally, why should an immigrant from Britain, like Kwame Anthony Appiah, be appointed Charles H. Carswell Professor of Afro-American Studies and of Philosophy at Harvard? It’s like a university in Canada taking a chair in First Nations studies, and instead of promoting someone to it domestically, bringing in an Australian Aborigine or a Polynesian Islander to fill it. People would be outraged. I think that a lot of progressive Americans don’t realize how weird it is to be importing people from abroad, then counting them as increasing the “diversity” of the university. They do increase the diversity, in the way that immigrants do, but not in the sense in which affirmative action policies and faculty diversity initiatives were intended to promote.

Anyhow, the bottom line is that people are extremely sensitive about the whole queue-jumping issue. There are enough false accusations of queue-jumping made against immigrants that societies would do well to ensure that immigrants are treated in a completely even-handed manner, and are not in fact being allowed to jump any queues. The U.S. violates this simple counsel. Many societies have a number of what we might think of as “special arrangements” for minority groups, that arose as solutions to specific forms of injustice and conflict in the past. The existence of English and French language schools in Quebec, for instance, is a concession to the English-language minority in that province, the product of a long and complicated history of conflict. When immigrants started arriving in Quebec, and began enrolling in English language schools, the French majority quite rightly perceived that as taking advantage of a special arrangement to which they were not entitled. So they passed a law saying that immigrants had to send their children to French schools. I think they were well within their rights to do so. Similarly, affirmation action in the U.S. is clearly a special arrangement intended to cope with the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow segregation, and Americans would be well within their rights to insist that immigrants not be allowed to take advantage of it.

Of course, if one thinks of affirmative action programs in purely outcome-oriented terms, as trying to achieve a certain benchmark level of “diversity” in the university, then it might not matter that U.S. universities are importing large numbers of foreign students and academics to meet their targets. I don’t think, however, that this sort of consequentialism provides a coherent way of thinking about these policies. One can see that just by looking at the targets they are seeking to meet, which are typically ones that “mirror” that U.S. population. This shows that the real concern is to combat discrimination and to achieve equal access. And if that is the goal, then it is perfectly coherent to limit such programs to those who are judged to have suffered the relevant forms of discrimination.


What the United States could learn from Canada on immigration policy — 5 Comments

  1. President, uh, Barlet’s administration was against making English as a national language. The admin was worried that Republicans might push for it in response to some FCC appointments. Anyhoo, here is the counsel that was given to the president: “Mr. President, 72% of Hispanics are strongly opposed to such a law. The Republicans will never put it on the table because they’ll risk losing the second largest ethnic block of voters in the country. But if you need a counter argument, then I’d mention to Monsieur de Tocqueville, over here, that aside from it being bigoted and unconstitutional, it’s ludicrous to think that laws need to be created to help protect the language of Shakespeare.” Behold the argumentation of Aaron Sorkin!

  2. the marginalization produces various social pathologies

    This is kinda dumb.

    When you take people from societies that are low in productivity and high in social dysfunction, and then these same people end up low in productivity and high in social dysfunction in Canada, the most logical thing in the world is to blame marginalization by Canadian society!

    In actual fact, cultural patterns tend to persist for a long time among diaspora peoples, so blaming Canadian society for this stuff is one of the more ridiculous things you can do.

  3. By contrast, most experts think that the points system is actually not that big of a deal, and is not the most important aspect of the success of Canadian policy.

    Economic disparities are actually a huge source of group conflict, so I’m wondering who exactly these experts are. One of the major cause of resentment among blacks (and to a lesser extent among Central Americans) in the U.S. is that they don’t perform as well economically as a group. If Canada let in a bunch of uneducated peasants, of which there are many in the world, to do unskilled labour, I highly doubt that we would escape the kinds of tensions that are roiling other parts of the Western world.

  4. It’s worth keeping in mind that Spanish isn’t only an immigrant language; Puerto Ricans are natural born citizens, many of whom speak Spanish as a first language. This may be small (though in many cities, the Puerto Rican community is quite large and culturally/politically significant). But it speaks to the larger disanalogy between Canada and the US in terms of the latter’s presence in the world and its role in destabilizing other countries’ affairs, stimulating emigration from places like DR, central America, etc. I think many have the intuition that those factors (plus the point about former Mexican territories) suggest that migrants could have more of a claim on the US to have their cultures accommodated, than migrants would have in Canada. That seems at least plausible to be me, though I’m likely predisposed to think that…

  5. > 2. Stop letting immigrants benefit from affirmative action programs

    When exactly has Canada implemented this one? As far as I am aware, the equivalent Canadian institution to affirmative action is a preference for equity-seeking groups, and part of that equity-seeking designation is visible minority status.

    > Unfortunately, many Americans don’t see this, because they just don’t realize how unusual American immigration policy is, compared to other countries, or because they just take for granted the way that things are done.

    I think you understate just how economically focused Canada’s immigration program is. In 2015, Canada accepted 170k people (80k applications, since the applicant plus spouse and children immigrate at the same time) under economic categories, but only 65k people (52k applications, mostly spouses) under family categories.

    For the United States, those numbers more than reverse: 64% of new American green cards went to family categories, with 13.7% attributable to employment preferences.

    I feel that immigration to Canada would be a hell of a lot more controversial if Canada only accepted slightly more workers than refugees (11.3% for the US). In fact, Canada admitted almost as many people under economic categories as the United States, in raw terms! (170k versus about 200k).

    As a share of population, Canada admitted 1.85 people per thousand under the family class and 4.85 under an economic class; the US admitted 2.1 per thousand under a family class and only 0.45 under an economic class.