08/02/2016 09:31 EDT | Updated 08/02/2016 09:59 EDT

Security Trumps The Economy Among Immigration Opponents

Peace Tower in Ottawa, Canada
Nobuo Kawaguchi/Aflo via Getty Images
Peace Tower in Ottawa, Canada

Until August 5, 2016, the Government of Canada is inviting the population to share its thoughts on the future of immigration in the country. It's asking Canadians what they think immigration means for Canada, and how we can continue to grow our nation through immigration.

It's quite clear that this government wants to increase the numbers of immigrants that the country accepts. Traditionally those arguing against taking in more immigrants insist that doing so will have a negative impact on the economy. They have simultaneously argued that newcomers create unemployment and/or take away existing jobs from the Canadian-born. A more nuanced observation ties annual immigration numbers to the condition of the economy and in the event of a recession calls for a lower intake of newcomers.

The Government of Canada has forcefully undercut the economic rationale for curtailment by declaring in its immigration levels consultation guide that "the contributions of newcomers result in jobs, innovation and economic growth."

Some Canadians have not abandoned the economic argument against immigration and instead have put a new twist on it. They contend that we should prioritize those individuals that are born in Canada and that are out of work. We should be doing this before reaching out to newcomers to fill gaps in the labour market. They go further by suggesting that the resources invested in immigrant assistance could be better served by helping those born here. Some refer specifically to the country's indigenous population and contend that these Canadians should come before newcomers filling existing jobs.

Forgive me for being skeptical if I strongly believe that most individuals who make the case that the resources being deployed to support immigrants in favour of indigenous peoples are not really concerned about the latter's condition.

Opponents of immigration have enjoyed recent success in getting some Canadians to think that a dollar spent on newcomers means a dollar deducted for the presumed needs of Canadians. Regrettably, government analysts have fallen into the trap of testing this notion by funding a survey question that encourages respondents to think along these lines.

Hence a January 2016 poll of Canadians commissioned by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) revealed that 39 per cent of Canadians agree and 30 per cent disagree that "the federal government should focus on helping Canadians rather than welcoming refugees." These findings run counter to other results obtained in the same survey that show, for example, that 46 per cent of respondents agree and 24 per cent disagree that "refugees have a positive impact on Canada's economy" and 53 per cent agree and 16 per cent disagree that "that refugees have a positive impact on Canada's economy in the long run."

There is a significant minority opposed to immigration in our country, but presently the concern is far more about security than it is economy.

Even the most well meaning groups have unwittingly bought into the false dichotomy that opposes the needs of immigrants with those born in Canada. A survey of Torontonians commissioned by a credible immigrant service agency got a majority agreeing "we need to focus on caring for people 'here' instead of spending resources on refugees." But the flawed question calls on respondent to assume there is opposition between assisting newcomers and helping the people that are established here.

In the same survey the majority of Torontonians agreed that immigrants play a valuable role in society (72 per cent) and are an important part of 'our' cultural identity (71 per cent). Still analysts surmised that "opposition is mainly because of concerns that Syrian immigration will mean less help at home. Those opposed [to Syrian immigration] see Canadians as needing support first and foremost." In light of the seemingly contradictory survey outcome it was concluded that Torontonians had ambiguous feelings about newcomers. But this observation was partly attributable to the flawed question.

There is a significant minority opposed to immigration in our country, but presently the concern is far more about security than it is economy. The January 2016 IRCC survey demonstrates that the more someone is anxious about the threat of terrorism the less they support immigration. While the Toronto survey didn't ask explicitly about the threat of terrorism, it uncovered high levels of negative sentiment towards Muslims. Undoubtedly, the Torontonians holding such views are the most uneasy about immigration, a finding that is true elsewhere in the country. The most vocal critics of immigration in Canada and elsewhere are aware of this linkage and it's why they evoke security threats when attempting to persuade the public that countries admit too many immigrants.

If the Government of Canada hopes to increase the numbers of immigrants it will need to be mindful of these anxieties and counteract those seeking to prey upon them.

Follow HuffPost Canada Blogs on Facebook


Photo gallery Wage Gains In Canada, By Industry (2015) See Gallery