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On immigration, Liberals and Conservatives agree on targets but not on how to get there

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In the months leading up to the federal election, many political observers in Ottawa thought immigration issues would figure prominently in the campaign.

The Conservative opposition had spent months between 2017 and 2019 hammering the Liberal government on their handling of a spike in asylum claimants crossing into Canada, mostly at a single point on Quebec’s southern border.

The Liberals, for their part, continued to trumpet Canada’s openness to immigrants and refugees — something Justin Trudeau had highlighted since the 2015 campaign with his party’s commitment to take in more refugees fleeing war-torn Syria.

But over the course of the campaign, including the two official leaders’ debates last week, immigration has taken a back seat to issues like climate change, or how the various leaders would save you a buck if they formed government.

That might be because, in spite of the rhetoric and the politicking, Canada’s mainstream political parties have a broad consensus on immigration being key to the country’s continued economic and social well-being.

But there are important differences in both tone and policy between the Liberals and the Conservatives — the two parties which have the most realistic shot of governing. How would the first six months of a Conservative or a Liberal government differ?

The Star looks ahead at what this election could mean for Canada’s immigration policies — and for people hoping to make it to Canadian shores.

Naturally, a Liberal majority would represent the least change from Canada’s current immigration levels. The Liberals have been steadily increasing planned immigration levels since taking office in 2015, and would continue to do so if they were re-elected.

The number of refugees admitted into Canada fluctuates year-to-year, although irregular migration at the Canada-U.S. border — where asylum claimants have been crossing outside recognized ports of entry in hopes of securing refugee status — decreased in 2019 compared to previous years.

Conservative majority

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer largely agrees with the Liberal government’s proposed immigration targets of 350,000 newcomers in 2021. Scheer told the CBC this month that immigration levels should not be “politicized.”

According to the federal government’s immigration levels plan, Canada would aim to grow the number of immigrants from 330,800 in 2019, to 350,000 in 2021. Most of these, around 60 per cent, come through Canada’s economic stream for immigration — skilled workers to fill needs in the economy.

The Liberal party says it will enact “modest and responsible” increases in immigration, with a focus on attracting “highly skilled workers.”

A Liberal government would introduce a municipal nominee program that would allow local communities to directly sponsor permanent immigrants and it would make permanent a separate program to encourage immigration to Atlantic Canada. A minimum of 5,000 spaces would be earmarked for each program. The Liberals say they would also waive citizenship fees for permanent residents.

“This should be a number that Statistics Canada and experts in various fields say ‘we need this many people to come’ to fill the gaps in the workplace, or to ensure we have a growing population, combined with a humanitarian component for family reunification and refugees,” Scheer said.

So don’t expect a new Conservative government to drastically change course on the top-level numbers. The Conservatives main point of difference with the Liberals is the situation at Roxham Road in Quebec.

Since 2017, more than 50,000 people have crossed the Canada-U.S. border outside of a border services checkpoint. Once they reach Canadian soil, Canada has an obligation — under both domestic and international law — to give their asylum claims a fair hearing.

While the numbers have decreased year-over-year since 2017, when U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration started threatening specific groups with deportation, the Conservatives have continued to heap criticism on the Liberals’ handling of the file.

Last week, Scheer announced that a Conservative government would attempt to “renegotiate” the Safe Third Country Agreement with the Trump administration. The bilateral agreement requires those seeking asylum to make their claim in either the U.S. or Canada, whichever they arrive in first. But convincing the hardline Trump administration to take in more refugees would be an uphill battle — particularly as Trump seeks re-election.

Scheer said there are “other options” if the U.S. is unwilling to renegotiate the agreement — although declined in his news conference to say what those options were. A Scheer government would also hire an additional 250 officers for the Canada Border Services Agency, a significant increase in the agency’s inland enforcement workforce.

The Conservatives would also prioritize funding to immigration services like language training and credential recognition, in addition to emphasizing services to vulnerable newcomers.

Minority government

All the parties recognize the importance of immigration to Canada’s economy at a time when the country’s workforce is aging and concerns mount about labour shortages. This could open the door to more economic immigration as well as increased efforts to recognize the credentials of professionals trained abroad. And three parties want changes to Canada’s Safe Third Country Agreement with the United States — although in very different ways.

The Green party wants it terminated, the NDP says suspend it and the Conservatives want changes, to prevent asylum seekers from the U.S. from making claims when they arrive at unofficial border crossings. The Liberals said only that it would work with the U.S. to “modernize” the agreement.

But a Liberal minority government could come under opposition pressure for more drastic changes.

The NDP say that Canada has an important role to play taking in refugees. New Democrats and Green party members want to speed family reunification. Both want to crack down on “unscrupulous” immigration consultants.

The Green party wants the accreditation of foreign professionals expedited to speed their entry into the workforce. It would eliminate the temporary foreign workers program by increasing immigration levels and working with employers to assist with permanent residency. And it says that Canada must be ready to take in “environmental” refugees, those who have been displaced by the impacts of climate change.

First appeared at the Toronto Star