At the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration
Ottawa, Ontario, October 20, 2011
Thank you Mr. Chairman and members of the Standing Committee. It is a pleasure for me to make my first appearance before the Standing Committee during this session of Parliament. I would like to congratulate the members for their approach and, I would particularly like to thank the committee for choosing the immigration backlog as its first study for this session of Parliament. Together, we must to find a solution to what I would qualify as a pretty serious problem.
So, I am happy to be here with our officials from Citizenship and Immigration Canada. Mr. Neil Yeates, our Deputy Minister, Mr. Linklater, our Assistant Deputy Minister for Policy, and Ms. Deschênes, the Assistant Deputy Minister for Operations. I must say, Mr. Chairman, that we are very lucky—I am very lucky as a Minister—I am very lucky to have such competent and dedicated public servants at all levels of the Department.
So, Mr Chairman, I would like to give you an overview of the main issues in the immigration system backlog. First of all, I would like to say that, in a way, the backlog issue reflects the fact that Canada is probably the most desirable destination in the world.
So, Mr. Chairman, I can tell you that the problem we have with, with inventories – the technical term in the ministry is inventories, the common English is backlogs – whatever we call them, they are partly a reflection of the fact that Canada is, I believe, the most desirable destination in the world. In fact, last year, Ipsos-Reid did a global poll from which they estimated that there are at least two billion people around the world who would like to immigrate to Canada right now. Seventy-seven percent of the people in China, 71% of those in Mexico, 68% in India, etc., and they didn’t actually survey in every country of the world.
So this is a reflection of the good problem we have that Canada is seen as such a land of opportunity, prosperity and democracy. And this, of course, is why we must have a managed immigration system. And, you know, the objective of that managed immigration system is to attract and select those people to Canada who will make the maximum economic contribution to our country. It is in part to deal with the challenge of our shrinking labour force in the future because of our aging population. It’s in part to counteract that aging demographic so we frankly have more people working and paying taxes, contributing to our country and economy and its prosperity in the future. And, of course, we also seek through our immigration programs to discharge our humanitarian obligations as the country which now receives the highest per-capita number of resettled refugees in the world.
So there’s that huge, almost infinite supply, if you will, people who, what we could call in immigration policy, a huge push factor from all around the world. So how do we do in terms of receiving people? Well, Canada has very high levels of immigration. In fact, over the course of the past five years, our government has received the highest sustained level of immigration – that is to say permanent residents, not just temporary residents – but the highest sustained average of permanent immigration of any government in Canadian history, with an average of 254,000 admissions. Admissions is a term that used to be called landings, but that basically when someone comes here, has the right to stay permanently to work and to live in Canada. That compares to the previous 12 years when the average was 222,000.
Now to put it in relative global terms, this represents about 0.8% of our population that we add on average per year. That is the highest per-capita level of immigration in the developed world. I say the developed world because many third world or developing countries don’t really have a control of borders or a managed immigration system, so they’re not a fair comparator. But the only country that I think comes close to our levels right now would be New Zealand. During and since the recent global economic downturn, many other countries actually cut their immigration levels.
I’ll give you one example. The United Kingdom has a population about twice our size and they’re right now restricting immigration to about 100,000 a year when our average intake is a notch over a quarter of a million a year or so. You know, three to four times more on a per-capita basis. That just gives you one point of comparison.
So, to address the backlog problem, in some ways it’s a pretty simple problem. There is a mathematical formula to express how we end up with a backlog in the immigration system.
So backlogs are a function of very simple basic math. And here is the calculation. When you get more applications for immigration than we’re able to admit, you end up with a backlog. So when total applications exceed total admissions, you get a backlog. And when that happens year after year after year, the backlog grows. And as the backlog grows, of course so do processing times. Even though the time it takes our ministry to process a particular application may shrink through operational efficiency, the total time it takes someone to go from the point of application to the point of admission gets longer not because of operational inefficiency but because they’re simply waiting in a growing queue.
The inverse mathematical formula is when the total number of admissions exceed the total number of applications, backlogs shrink and processing times speed up. So I invite you to remember this basic mathematical formula through today’s hearing and all of your studies. You know, there are a lot of interesting issues to be discussed. At the end of the day, it’s a very simple mathematical problem.
So let’s see how this works out in any given year. I’ll just take, for example, 2008 is the last year for which we have full stats, and it’s an average year in terms of numbers for the past several years. So we established an operational target for admissions in the range of a quarter of a million, which is about average for the past several years. We assessed those applications and we found that about a quarter of a million met our criteria and could come to Canada, and about another 100,000 applications were rejected. But here’s the problem. We received about 450,000 applications. So that is to say that the total number of applications that we received exceeded the total number that we were able to consider that year by about 100,000. And this is the problem we’ve had year after year.
Now, another way we could look at this is to think if we were to actually try to welcome or process everyone who would like to make an application, and based on the Ipsos-Reid poll, that would be over two billion people. I just throw that in there just to give us a sense of perspective about how much sort of supply there is versus our ability to accommodate that demand to come to Canada.
Another way of looking at this, a metaphor that I often use is to look at how a transport company would sell tickets, because I think, you know, look, it’s a good way of considering the problem of backlogs. So let’s say that this is essentially what happened. And the problem really picked up momentum following the adoption of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, because that act created a legal obligation on my department, on the government, to process all new applications to a final decision, regardless of how many people we planned to admit or practically could admit.
So there was a policy decision that threw completely out of alignment the number of incoming applications with an obligation to process them versus the capacity to admit people and settle them in Canada. And that is one of the primary reasons we’ve seen this problem. So one way of explaining this metaphorically would be to say that over the past decade or so, the Government of Canada was, on an annual average basis, selling 400,000 or more tickets on the plane to Canada to that market of two billion people who would like to buy those tickets.
And yet, even though we’ve been maintaining our highest average levels of immigration in our history, the highest averages in the developed world, unprecedented levels of immigration to a developed country, notwithstanding that, we’ve been admitting about, on average, a quarter of a million people.
So every year, selling 400,000 plus tickets, admitting, let’s say for sake of argument, a quarter of a million people, what does that mean? One hundred and fifty thousand customers, if you will, who bought their tickets to Canada, who paid their fees, and those fees went into our general revenue fund and we cashed those cheques, and they end up at the airport saying, “What happened? You oversold the plane by 35% and we’re left sitting here.” And we say, “Yeah, sorry about that.” And the next year, we come back and we sell another 400,000 tickets. We say there’s a quarter of a million spots on the plane to Canada. And then that crowd at the airport grows to 300,000 the next year. And then the third year, we do it again, and the next thing you know, there’s, you know, a growing number. That puts 450,000 people in the backlog, and year after year after year, that’s how you end up with a backlog of over one million people.
So let’s look at this over time, in the past decade. In 2001, the backlog was just under 700,000, but here’s the interesting thing. The immigration target – this is what we call our operational target – it’s gone up over the course of the past decade to about a quarter of a million a year. The number of applications received over the past several years was consistently over 400,000. That means to say a consistent perpetual surplus of applications over admissions, and because of the basic math formula I talked about, that’s why you see the growing backlog.
The good news is in some of the programs, we’ve begun reducing the backlog, and I’ll address that in a moment. So what are the possible solutions? Well, they really boil down to two very simple possible solutions. One would be a massive increase in the level of immigration to Canada, like by orders of magnitude. So if we wanted to just maintain what we would call a working inventory, or a just-in-time immigration system, without limiting the number of new applications, then we would have to increase overall immigration levels to over 400,000 a year. So a massive increase, an increase by orders of magnitude. Or we limit new applications, find ways to control incoming applications, or at least our obligation to process new applications, or we do a combination of both.
Let me just say that there are some people suggesting that we actually open up whole new huge avenues of immigration to Canada. For example, I believe Mr. Davies suggested recently that we find a pathway to permanent residency for all temporary foreign workers. Excluding those who already have a pathway to permanent residency, that would mean adding about 140,000 additional people in the immigration queue. So if we wanted to prevent the further growth of backlogs merely by increasing admissions, we’d have to increase admissions to over 400,000. If we then wanted to add new PR programs like Mr. Davies has suggested, like for temporary foreign workers, we’d have to increase it by about another 140,000. That would bring us to well over half a million permanent resident landings per year to Canada, you know, and a valid argument could be made for that.
I don’t think there are many Canadians that support that, but if that’s where people want to go, if that’s where parliamentarians or this committee want to go, I invite you to be explicit about wanting to invite over half a million immigrants, essentially more than doubling immigration levels to Canada. Let Canadians participate in that debate.
So some have said we should just increase processing resources for the Department, give more money to hire more visa officers around the world so they can do these decisions faster – faster processing. Well here you can see what happens when you’re trying to take the demand, that is to say the number of applications we get, and put it through a funnel so it goes, you know, slowly comes the number of people coming, the volume that is received comes through that funnel, but you see it goes up to the amount of people we can accept, which is about a quarter of a million.
So let’s say we hire a whole bunch more visa officers and process the applications faster. Well, guess what? You end up with just the same number of people admitted to Canada. So that’s not a solution. We do not have an operational – well, let me put it this way. Backlogs are not a function of a scarcity of operational resources in the Department. Yes, our Department could always function more efficiently and we are doing that. In fact, I’ll get into this perhaps in the Q & A, but through our implementation of, for example, our Global Case Management System, which is a new worldwide electronic IT platform, we are going to see, together with other aspects of modernization, we are seeing our whole system operate more efficiently.
But at the end of the day, if there’s not an alignment between the number of new applications and the number of admissions, it doesn’t matter how quickly you can process them. You could hit your targets in the first quarter of the year, and so what if the surplus of applications over admissions end up waiting in the airport lounge.
So I’m someone who believes that we should listen to Canadians on immigration.
I don’t want to repeat the problems that we are witnessing in Europe, for example, where immigration policies have lost touch with public will. And so, happily in Canada, Canadians overall have a very positive attitude toward immigration and diversity. Mr. Chairman, I want to maintain this spirit of openness. However, around 80% of Canadians state that we should reduce immigration or freeze it at the current level.
Consistently, we are only seeing about 10% of Canadians indicate that immigration levels are too low. About eight out of 10 Canadians are saying that they’re too high or high enough. And I point out, there was just a recent study that came out this week which points out that immigrants to Canada are those who are least likely to support increased immigration levels. And that’s consistent in the polling.
So let’s look at how have we tried to fix the problem. Well, in 2008, we managed to pass Bill C-50, which gave the Minister the capacity to limit the number of incoming applications, which power we have applied to the federal skilled worker backlog, that is the points system, as a result of which, had we not taken those actions, the federal skilled worker backlog would now be over a million. But as a result of limiting those applications now to 10,000 a year, we are at 475 overall. And so we’ve had a significant reduction.
We’ve also applied the same logic to the Investor Immigrant Program, and we are doing so with the privately sponsored refugee program. But there’s one program where we have seen real problems with backlogs where we’ve not applied that logic, and that is parents and grandparents. So you can see the wait times, the backlog is now 160,000. Last year we received almost 38,000 applications for the program and on average, over the course of the past decade, we’ve been admitting about 18,000.
So just to freeze the backlog would require that we double the number of parents and grandparents coming to about 38,000 a year, which would be moving that up from about 6% to maybe 14% of total immigration to Canada. And that would mean cutting economic immigration.
So I’ll close, Mr. President, by pointing out that increasing admissions on that program, even doubling that, will not eliminate or even really significantly reduce the backlog in the program. And frankly, nor will even cutting applications in half. In closing, I just want to say to the committee my hope, my vision, is that by using some common sense, we can, in the next few years, arrive at a just-in-time immigration program where applications received for our various programs are processed in the same year and those people are admitted without having to wait longer than a year, and I really do hope we can have a constructive debate about how to get to that just-in-time immigration system.
Thank you very much.
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