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Stricter border control, more immigration
Learning the right lessons from Maximum Canada
Canada has long had a high rate of immigration relative to its population, but lately the country has been experimenting with a significant expansion that has pushed its population growth rate up. This comes at a time when other countries are seeing their growth rates crater due to falling fertility, a contrast that is illustrated quite strikingly in this chart from Brent Donnelly.
This shift seems like a good idea for a number of reasons.
Canada is massively underpopulated relative to its vast land area and natural resources; it’s a place that’s becoming generally more desirable to live as a result of climate change; and whatever its policy problems, it has by global standards a very sound set of social and political institutions. It’s also worth saying that base rates matter. Canada achieving a vastly higher growth rate than the United States through immigration does not entail that many actual individual human beings — Canada starts with a far smaller population, so a modest influx leads to a huge change to the growth rate.
The surge is interesting, though, because Canada’s growth rate was already higher than America’s back during the Obama and Trump administrations. Justin Trudeau is supercharging the already fairly aggressive immigration strategy that he inherited from Stephen Harper, which reflects an all-around different politics of immigration from what you see in the United States.
That, of course, raises the question of why immigration politics in Canada is so different. Derek Thompson attributes this mostly to provincial politics and Canada’s ideological commitment to multiculturalism, while Noah Smith cites, among other things, the high skill profile of Canadian immigrants.
I think there’s something to that. I also think the focus on “skills” is a little bit misleading when it comes to explaining the difference.
The other country that’s maintained a very high rate of immigration with muted popular backlash is Australia, and what those two countries have in common is that they are geographically isolated. In Australia’s case, isolated by oceans, and in Canada’s case, isolated by the existence of the United States of America. Neither country has much illegal immigration of the sort that was common in the late-20th century United States, and neither country is dealing with the large influx of people making asylum claims that we see in the contemporary United States and Europe. Both places do maintain a high immigrant skill mix, but I think that’s secondary to the paucity of asylum claims — migration to Canada is orderly and controlled, with the government able to manipulate the mix as circumstances change rather than being driven by push factors.
When backlash happens
Causal attribution is challenging, and of course we can’t run controlled social science experiments to test these hypotheses. But we can look for exceptions that prove the rule.
Normally, Americans do not flee to Canada and attempt to breach our neighbor’s southern border, because the United States is richer and warmer than Canada. But in 2017, fears that the Trump administration would start deporting Haitians residing in the United States on Temporary Protected Status did stimulate an irregular flow of asylum-seekers into Canada. The Canadian government — the very same Trudeau government that has expanded immigration so much — did not welcome them with open arms, rejecting 90% of asylum claims and discouraging people from making the effort.
The fact that the number of successful Haitian claims is “very low” should serve as a cautionary tale for those still contemplating crossing into Canada illegally from the U.S. to seek asylum, said Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen.
“Coming to Canada first of all has to be done through regular channels, and secondly the asylum system is only for people who are in genuine need of protection,” Hussen said.
“It's not for everyone.”
This whole saga has been broadly reminiscent of the U.S. handling of asylum issues, complete with investigative journalists revealing that the government has been making factually inaccurate claims about conditions in Haiti to justify removals and that Canada is seeking diplomatic agreements with the United States that make it legally easier to block asylum claims.
In Australia, they used to pair a high level of immigration with some of the world’s harshest treatment of asylum-seekers, including interning people who arrived in boats on various islands outside of Australia. Kevin Rudd’s government tried to move to a more humane approach, saw an increase in asylum-seeking arrivals, did face political backlash, and a new Liberal (which in Australia is the name of the conservative party) government came in on a promise to “stop the boats.” I’m not going to pretend to fully understand what Anthony Albanese’s newer Labor government has done on asylum policy, but it seems like he pushed back against claims that he was making it easier to settle in Australia, faced political backlash when the number of asylum seekers rose, and is facing criticism from advocates who say he hasn’t gone far enough in breaking with his conservative predecessors.
In other words, there are basically two ways of thinking about this:
There’s an “immigration” issue that plays very differently in the United States than in Australia and Canada.
There’s an “asylum” issue that plays very similarly in Australia, Canada, and the United States.
To me, the story here is more (2) than (1). Or, rather, to the extent that (1) is true, it’s because (2) looms larger in the United States — Democrats have not been as willing as Australian Labor or Canadian Liberals to agree with the political right that it’s undesirable for people to make asylum claims.
Legalism vs. policy outcomes
I thought what Dara Lind had to say in her Slow Boring interview about the evolution of asylum policy in the United States was very enlightening. But I did not find it very persuasive as an argument that the progressive position makes sense.
To deliberately abstract away from the details, the broad situation is that a legal right to asylum is enshrined in international law with various stated criteria. Anyone physically present in the United States and subject to deportation has the right, procedurally, to claim that they fit those criteria and should be granted asylum. If there were just one person making that claim, you could adjudicate it relatively quickly, but in practice, large numbers of people are making asylum claims and limited resources are available for adjudicating them. As a result, at any given time, a large number of people are bouncing around with various forms of pending claims.
Then there are lots and lots of policy choices that are downstream of this — try to detain people or let them go with court dates? Give them work permits or give them social support? — but the bedrock fact is the right to asylum and the need to make procedurally fair individualized assessments of these claims.
That whole conceptual apparatus is at odds with what I think is the normal way of thinking about immigration, which is that the government should decide how many people are going to be let into the country and under which circumstances, and then those people (but not other people!) can come in. Note that this is how Trudeau’s immigration spike is working. It’s not that people started showing up and he didn’t kick them out so more and more and more people started showing up and the population growth rate accelerated. There was an affirmative choice to issue more visas, people applied for the visas and got them, and then they came to Canada.
Note that affirmative choice can include refugees. Canada’s immigration surge has been mostly skilled workers selected for labor force needs, but under Trudeau, they’ve also been the world’s number one destination for refugees. But that’s refugee resettlement as a policy choice, set by the government with a numerical target and not just the outcome of happenstance and legalism.
Order and choice, not just skills
The point in all of this is not to deny the relevance of immigrant skill profiles for political sustainability. There’s a clear sense in which people may be more welcoming of “the best and the brightest” from around the world. But this is intertwined with the idea of an orderly process, and I think the orderly aspect is primary.
The connection, though, is that if you want skilled workers to come, you really need an orderly process. Or at a minimum, if you want skilled workers to come and do skilled work, you need an orderly process. It’s possible to work under the table in the United States of America, but if you do that you’re going to be working as a maid or a groundskeeper or maybe in construction or food service. People who lose out on the H-1B visa lottery don’t generally come across the southern border and then start working under the table as computer programmers because you can’t get hired that way. If we want skilled professionals to come here and work (and we should), they need to be invited properly with visas so they can get legitimate jobs. People working irregularly while waiting for asylum hearings isn’t a substitute for that.
But the orderly process itself counts for something. The Biden administration has actually not faced much political blowback for the various things they’ve done to expand legal immigration — some of which have involved skilled workers, but which also have included refugee resettlement, more visas for farmworkers, and other things.
The blowback, which has been massive, has overwhelmingly been about irregular arrivals at the southern border. And while Ron DeSantis’ weird stunt of flying people to Martha’s Vineyard mostly backfired, Greg Abbott’s longer, more patient game of continually bussing asylum-seekers to New York, D.C., and Chicago has made the point that there’s really no jurisdiction in the United States that’s prepared to cope with large, irregular inflows of people. This is just to say that I think the situations in the U.S. and Canada are actually not that different. Orderly migration attracts some controversy but irregular flows of people generate significant backlash.
Some of that backlash is irrational — I think most people systematically underrate the value of immigrants. But there is also some logic to it. If you say “we’re going to welcome X people per year,” then whatever X is, it’s easy to say that it’s better for those X people to be comfortable and happy and prosperous than for them to be suffering. But if you say “well, everyone has a right to a hearing” and X people happen to show up, then the concern is that if those X people turn out to be comfortable and happy and prosperous while waiting for their hearing, then next year you get 2X people, and 3X the year after that.
Lawyers can’t run the show
In February, March, April, and May of this year, southwest border encounters were running below their level from the previous year. I wanted to do the interview with Dara when I noticed how much the Biden White House bragged about that. I think this is totally fine — at the end of the day, if you’re going to get slagged politically when the number of asylum-seekers goes up, you may as well brag when it goes down.
I also think the White House has, after dawdling too much in 2021, basically gotten ahold of this topic in a politically realistic way. They are trying to divert people from irregular arrivals by creating some orderly pathways, while also creating new restrictions that the immigration lawyers’ lobby calls a “transit ban” and Human Rights Watch calls an “asylum ban.” This is just to say that Biden has ultimately landed where Trudeau and Albanese found themselves — there are both risks and rewards to pro-immigration politics, but being seen as welcoming to irregular arrivals is toxic.
But while Biden has kind of walked backward into the conclusion that Republicans are basically right and having large numbers of asylum claimants show up is undesirable, he hasn’t really come out and said clearly “I agree with Republicans that having large numbers of asylum claimants show up is undesirable, which is why even while continuing to disagree with them about other aspects of immigration, I want to work on bipartisan legislation to improve this situation.” They’ve been taking this victory lap over the fact that ending emergency pandemic rules didn’t lead to a surge at the border, but the next logical step is to say “we shouldn’t be using pretextual public health emergency rules as our asylum policy, we need Congress to act and do blah blah blah.”
What should the blah blah blah be? I’m not sure exactly. But you need to start with the policy objective, which is minimizing irregular arrivals making asylum claims, and then work with stakeholders in Congress to reason back from the goal. That means stiff-arming the lawyers and their desire for maximum procedural fairness. Jeh Johnson, both when he was Homeland Security Secretary under Obama and now even more pointedly, has been saying Congress needs to change the “credible fear” standard for initial admittance to the country. The advocates and immigration lawyers don’t like that idea, but if the goal is to reduce the number of people who come, it seems like that would probably work. And it does seem to me like that is Biden’s goal — why brag about numbers going down unless your goal is for the numbers to go down? — but they kind of feel bad about it so they don’t want to publicly acknowledge it as a goal.
And that’s where I think the Canadian example is relevant. I’m a soft-hearted cosmopolitan, just like most of the people who work for the Biden administration. But ultimately the path to sustainable higher levels of immigration runs through tightly controlled levels of immigration that can be deliberately pushed up or down by policymakers.