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Points-Based Migr"eh"tion in Canada

Canadian immigration policy and the Canadian public’s perceptions of migrants are widely touted as an honorable example of welcoming migrants and embracing multiculturalism, one that other immigrant-receiving states ought to follow. At first glance, Canada’s points-based immigration system for highly skilled and educated workers seems objective, meritocratic, and fair. Upon further examination, however, Canada’s scrupulous evaluation of immigrants is no model for equality. Creating the appearance of legitimacy through its quantitative methodology, the points-based system uses educational and professional attainment as new excuses for discrimination, creating a vulnerable, second-class tier of immigrants who enjoy far fewer rights and protections.

Canada rates prospective migrants through the Comprehensive Ranking System (CRS). Applicants receive CRS scores out of a maximum 1200 points. Candidates can receive up to 500 points for core human capital factors, including age, educational level, language proficiency, and Canadian work experience. Candidates can receive up to 100 points for skill transferability factors, including educational or professional ties to Canada or similar environments. Then, candidates can receive up to 600 additional points for other advantages like being nominated by a Canadian province or having a pre-arranged employment opportunity in Canada. The Canadian government does not publish an official figure of a minimum CRS score applicants require to stand a reasonable chance of acceptance.

When Canada’s points-based immigration system was implemented in 1967, it was applauded as a departure from the country’s previous overtly racist policies. The 1966 White Paper of Immigration that led to the points-based system stated plainly that the selection of immigrants “must involve no discrimination by reason of race, color, or religion.” Factors like education and skill were “universally applicable” ways to screen migrants, according to the White Paper. In this way, the points-based system differed from earlier policies, which used literacy tests in English and French to prevent Southern European migrants from entering the country. This system would select migrants based on supposed merit rather than on the basis of ethnic preferences.

Given that educational access and professional experience are often unequally distributed across gender, race, and class, how can Canada purport to select migrants on demographically neutral grounds? Perhaps the implementation of the points-based system is better understood as a shift from de jure to de facto discrimination rather than as a revolutionary transition to equality. Proponents of Canada’s policy would likely defend the system against this claim by highlighting that the points-based system increased migrant diversity with respect to region of origin. However, I am not disputing the fact that the points-based system expanded the range of so-called desirable migrants to include migrants outside of Western Europe. Every country has an educated and professional elite that can benefit from the Canadian points-based system. My argument is rather that the points-based system does discriminate against those who lack educational and professional resources across the globe and that this discrimination is getting more severe. Whereas the original points-based system had relatively meager educational requirements, reforms enacted through the 2002 Immigration and Refugee Protection Act put even greater emphasis on formal education and professional skills than before, making the threat of de facto discrimination even more potent.

The gender disparities that result from the points-based system are just one example of the policy’s discriminatory impact. Under the points-based system, primary applicants are those who submit themselves – and their qualifications – to scoring, whereas secondary applicants are typically the primary applicants’ spouses or long-term partners who would accompany the primary applicants into Canada. Feminist scholars highlight that “the distribution of primary applicant skilled migration visas … is skewed in favor of men,” with one study reporting that almost 75 percent of primary applicants to the points-based system were male. This reflects the unequal access of women across the globe to formal education and skilled employment. In addition to this gender disparity, it is likely that the policy also discriminates against people with other demographic characteristics, like low socioeconomic status, that impact their access to educational and professional experience.

The points-based system’s problems do not stop here. In addition to determining who succeeds as a primary applicant to the federal high-skilled worker program, the points-based system enables and legitimates comparatively poor treatment of migrants who do not enter Canada as highly educated and highly skilled members of the economy. It creates a second-class tier of migrants who are trapped in unfair relations of dependence due to Canadian migration policy.

As education expert Stuart Tannock highlights, education-based discrimination denies uneducated migrants access to civil rights and social protections. The points system legitimates Canada’s differential treatment toward “deserving” and “undeserving” migrants. Most low-skilled migrants enter Canada under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP). While the TFWP includes both high- and low-skilled migrants who share temporary status, the program’s benefits are stratified by education and skill. High-skilled workers attain work visas easily or in some cases require no work visas at all; they are permitted to bring dependents and spouses into Canada with them; they broadly enjoy more rights than low-skilled workers despite their shared temporary status. On the other hand, low-skilled workers are unable to bring spouses or dependents into Canada with them. They are bound to their Canadian employers and denied access to the general labor market. They are subject to deportation if they lose their jobs, creating an unequal, unbalanced relationship of dependence between low-skilled migrants and their employers. They are unlikely to speak out against unfair labor practices given their utter reliance on their employers for their legal authorization to remain in Canada, which leaves them vulnerable to abuse.

A similar relationship of dependence exists between primary and secondary applicants to the high-skilled worker program. When Canada permits a primary and secondary applicant pair to enter the country through the points-based migration system, Canadian authorities expect the couple to remain together for a significant period of time. From the government’s perspective, this policy prevents the use of “sham” marriages to circumvent migration restrictions. However, this policy creates a position of dependence between secondary applicants – who are commonly women – and their primary applicants – who are commonly men. Women whose legal authorization to remain in Canada depends on their continued relationship with their spouses have limited bargaining power in their relationships and experience coercion to remain with their spouses. While the policy makes some exceptions for secondary applicants suffering from domestic abuse, it is likely that many women who enter Canada as secondary applicants are stuck in relationships that are abusive or unequal in nature.

The Canadian points-based migration system has many benefits, I admit. Canada is facing a labor shortage due to the death of many skilled workers, and its points-based system to admit highly qualified workers is a significant boon to its economy, allowing Canada to benefit from other countries’ investments in these migrants' education and professional development. 85 percent of Canadians believe migration to be positive to their economy. In stark contrast, only 39 percent of Americans believe migration benefits the American economy. This gap in public opinion is almost certainly related to the different roles of merit in the two countries’ migration schemes. While the Canadian system may be good at channeling economic benefits to Canadian citizens, it is not just enough to be worthy of its international acclaim.

The model is clearly unequal – it reflects and exacerbates existing inequalities in the distribution of educational and professional resources. Not only does it accept primary applicants who have already benefited from educational and professional resources; it then grants those migrants the myriad educational and professional benefits Canada has to offer, potentially widening the gap between the global elite and the rest of the world. Furthermore, it creates dangerous relations of dependence in employer-employee relationships and romantic relationships. Canadian migration policy subjects the country’s second-class migrants to significant threats of abuse by those who wield power over them. The system’s meritocratic methodology makes the unequal treatment of different migrants seem legitimate and allows many members of the public to overlook the state’s morally reprehensible treatment of unskilled workers and secondary applicants.

The Canadian public is overwhelmingly positive about migration. It is not clear why Canada’s treatment of some migrants as second-class is a necessary condition for the public’s continued support of migration policy. To become deserving of all its international praise, Canada should leverage public support for migration to justify its advocacy for and protection of all migrants, not just those with degrees.


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