A mawkish view of immigration overlooks the facts

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Appeared in the Vancouver Sun

Vancouver Sun columnist Stephen Hume (The big picture shows immigrants are a good bet, May 30) dismisses as disingenuous our study for the Fraser Institute that estimated that recent immigrants admitted between 1987 and 2004 cost Canadian taxpayers about $20 billion annually. After consulting the dictionary, we concluded that he is suggesting that we are not sincere and that we are withholding or not taking account of known information. In less polite parlance, he is calling us liars.

What are the grounds for such a charge? A careful read of his article suggests that it stems from two equally misguided sources. The first is Hume's own fuzzy positive feelings toward immigration from having been brought to Canada as an immigrant by his father. The second is another opinion piece from last week's Province newspaper by Robert Vineberg from the Canada West Foundation.

Hume's positive feelings toward immigrants are based on his and his family's success as immigrants and journalists. He even brings into his narrative our own conditions as economically successful immigrants, accusing us of trying to pull up the ladder after we're in the lifeboat. He plays shamelessly on the populist slogan Canada is a country of immigrants and therefore all immigration is good that vote-seeking politicians and the chattering classes have been hammering into our collective brains for decades.

Hume based his attack on our findings on an column by Vineberg, whom he quotes as saying that the average income of immigrants in Canada more than 15 years before the 2006 census was actually higher than for native-born Canadians and that on average, those immigrants paid more in taxes than they got in benefits. According to Vineberg, This turns the Fraser Institute's analysis on its head and suggests that immigrants are net contributors to government revenues if their entire working life is considered.

Vineberg's suggestion that the earlier postwar pattern of immigrant integration in the labour market will apply to recent immigrants is pure unsubstantiated conjecture. Statistics Canada and academic scholars have noted many times that recent immigrants have a poor economic record that has created an ever larger gap in their average earnings relative to the Canadian-born. While this gap has tended to narrow through time after their arrival, the evidence strongly indicates that it will probably never close.

The problem that we address in our study is not the past success of immigration, which we gladly celebrate, but its current failings and how they can be fixed. To all but the blind, there is mounting evidence that immigration is not working as well as it did in the past. A symbolic turning point was 1987. This was the year when the Progressive Conservative government of Brian Mulroney started to increase the numbers of immigrants admitted, and kept right on increasing them through the subsequent 1990-1992 recession abandoning the previous tap-on, tap-off policy whereby the number of immigrants admitted was cut back during recessions, when the economy was unable to absorb them.

The most obvious explanation of this record of recent immigrants is that their language skills, education and work experience are not valued by employers as highly as were those characteristics of pre-1987 immigrants. There is an ongoing debate as to the reasons for this difference. Some blame discrimination by Canadian employers, others more plausibly blame the lower language skills and quality of educational and work experience of workers from the Third World countries.

Regardless of the reason for the poor economic performance of recent immigrants, if they keep being selected in the same way and in the same large numbers, we'll get the same disappointing results. The gap will increase even further and the size of the fiscal burden will continue to grow. These problems can be solved only through a wholesale revamping of our immigrant selection system, which obviously isn't working.

We are surprised that Hume put so much credence on Vineberg's observations, which are not based on any economic study done by the Canada West Foundation. The only study currently available on the fiscal cost of recent immigration is our own.

If you want hard facts that go well beyond Hume's mawkish anecdotal approach to immigration and reliance on unsupportable evidence, check it out.

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