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In Defence of Immigration

by | Apr 2, 2024 | Economic Development

I came across this quote the other day: “Canada’s future prosperity depends on immigration.”

And this one: “Immigrants are saving the U.S. economy.”

The first quote comes from Stefan Fournier, an Executive Director at the Conference Board of Canada. The second, from New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. I just want to say that I agree wholeheartedly with both writers.

As Fournier goes on to say: “Our research in this area shows that immigration leads to economic growth, improves the worker-to-retiree ratio and eases labour shortages that add to inflation.” And Krugman says this about a recent resurgence in immigration: “A rational political system, one that wasn’t being misled by false claims about immigration and crime, would welcome a sustained immigration revival.”

Current Dynamics

These are from articles written last year but they are certainly not out of date today.

Our economic future does indeed depend on immigration and I am dismayed, to say the least, at how immigration has become such a divisive and not only misunderstood but at times a weaponized issue.

The irony is that Canada and the United States are nations of immigrants. Unless you are an Indigenous person you are either an immigrant yourself or a descendant of immigrants.

Canada’s population hit a record 40 million last summer when the country became one of the fastest growing nations in the world as part of the federal government’s policy to build a dynamic young workforce to, among other things, counteract the record number of Canadians entering retirement.

However, as we have seen from history, immigrants too often become scapegoats when a society is under stress. And these days one of the major stress factors is the lack of affordable housing. Unfortunately, because of the housing crisis, Canada has seen a sudden and drastic drop in the number of people who support the country’s immigration levels. In 2022, one survey indicated that seven in ten Canadians supported the levels of immigration, the highest approval ever recorded by the Environics polling firm. But a poll by Abacus Data just one year later indicated a reversal with almost 70 percent saying the immigration numbers were too high.

Political Landscape

In the US, immigration has become a lightning rod in the upcoming presidential election race where some notable politicians have been using misinformation and scare tactics to whip up anger and resentment toward immigrants.

I’m not going to delve into the details of immigration policy in either country or the particular policies of political parties or politicians. I am here to underline a basic truth: immigration helps drive our economy. And we must be careful not to think that slashing immigration will somehow solve problems facing housing, health care and education. Oh, slashing might help ease in the short term but will hobble the economy in the long run.

These problems are too complex to find a simple solution. And it is worth pointing out that pressures in areas such as health care and education have been festering for years as governments struggled to deal with them – and are not the fault of immigration.

On Jan. 17, the Business Council of Alberta issued a report on the need to support immigration that said cutting immigration to deal with issues like housing and health care would only slow the pace of the problems while, “at worst, they will actually magnify those problems since a significant portion of our health care and construction workers, for example, are immigrants.”

Rural Impact

The simple immutable fact is that immigration helps drive our economy, no matter where you live. That is as true for rural areas as it is for large urban centres. In fact, it’s probably more true for rural communities that have seen their populations decline in recent decades.

In August of 2023, an immigration-reform organization in the US called “fwd.us,” issued a report that pointed out: “The majority of rural counties have fewer working-age people than 20 years ago. As populations decline and economies shrink, rural communities have to get by with fewer services and fewer resources. But in several counties, increased immigration by just a couple of hundred people each year has erased population losses.”

Integration Challenges

The report doesn’t dance around sensitive topics. It offers examples of how some rural communities, such as Sioux County, Iowa, moved forward by overcoming prejudices of the past.

“Welcoming new immigrants with different languages and cultures can present some challenges,” said the report.  “But as summarized by a longtime Sioux Center business owner: “We’ve gone from ‘We tolerate them,’ to ‘We can’t do without them,’ to ‘We love them.’ Nonprofits supporting immigrants, largely begun by longtime county residents, have been key to integrating newcomers.”

The same is true for Canada where an influx of immigrants has helped reverse a population decline in Nova Scotia where the provincial government has set a goal to double its one-million population by 2060, saying the growth will mean more tax revenue, more jobs, more new business and improved infrastructure. And will provide a prosperous working population to support an increasing number of retirees.

At the federal level in Canada, a lobby group called the Century Initiative wants to greatly increase Canada’s population that currently stands at 40 million. Its mission statement: “Growing our population to 100 million by 2100 would reduce the burden on government revenues to fund health care, old age security, and other services.”

Policy Matters

It’s all about how governments handle immigration. Carolyn Whitzman, a housing policy researcher at the University of Ottawa, was interviewed by Maclean’s Magazine last September where she asked and answered an important question: “Why has the focus of the housing crisis conversation shifted so abruptly to immigration? It appears to me to be a sign of desperation. Immigrants have always been blamed for the housing crisis. Look back 100 years and people were against building boarding houses because they were scared of foreigners moving in and endangering their families. Nowadays, politicians are blaming foreign investors for housing shortages, too. I’m very impatient about people pointing fingers at immigrants for the housing crisis, because it has very little to do with immigration and a lot to do with government policy.”

The Business Council of Alberta suggests the federal government should revamp the system to better match immigrant skills to available jobs that need to be filled, especially if they have skills in the construction industry to help build more housing.

Although there is pressure on federal and state/provincial governments to handle the issue better, there is growing pressure on municipal governments to cut red tape that delays the issuing of building permits. But I fear I am heading down a rabbit hole that I wanted to avoid. The bottom line is this: Our future prosperity depends on immigration.