Scoffield: Donald Trump’s policies helped Canada attract talented and diverse immigrants. Now it’s up to us

Good column, reminding us that immigration is about more than just economics and economic advantages and the challenges of a more welcoming approach to immigration in the USA compared to the previous administration:

This is a story about post-Trump immigration policy, Canada’s competitive advantage, diversity and the workforce of the future.

Nazanin Khazra, a young economics professor at the University of Toronto, is a precious commodity when seen through all those lenses.

But the bottom line is this: she has not seen her mother since the summer of 2016.

Khazra, 33, grew up in Tehran and moved to the United States to do postgraduate studies at the University of Illinois. But when Donald Trump became president in January 2017, one of his first acts was to shut down travel from Muslim-dominated countries including Iran.

It meant that Khazra really couldn’t go home for a visit without giving up her studies and moving back there for good. It also meant that her mother and her sisters couldn’t come to see her.

“It was a choice between family and the PhD I worked for, for 10 to 15 years,” she says.

She stuck it out and got her degree last year, but didn’t see her family the whole time Trump was in office. When the job offers came in, she had her pick of top universities in the United States. She chose the University of Toronto instead and moved there in time for the 2020-21 school year, on a five-year track to tenure.

She still hasn’t seen her mother but now it’s because of the pandemic, not the U.S. president. As soon as it’s safe to travel, she’ll finally be able to visit her mom. Then she’ll return to her adoptive home, where she fully intends to stay.

It’s an iconic success story for Canada’s immigration policy — an intelligent young woman of colour brightening the ranks of Canada’s economists and sticking around for the long run. Recruiters and government strategies that target highly skilled immigrants worked together to attract some of the best talent from around the world — and in particular, the United States under Trump. Canada’s employers and Canada’s economy all gain, and we are that much richer for the experience.

But for Khazra, it’s also a tragic story of human rights gone awry. And she is sharing her story so that point won’t be forgotten in our zeal to bring in the crème de la crème for the sake of the Canadian economy.

The election of Joe Biden, with his more open immigration policies, means Canada will once again face impossibly stiff competition for highly skilled workers, with warnings that the U.S.’s gains in immigration will be Canada’s losses. Khazra is worried we will treat immigration primarily as an economic variable — and not a facet of human rights, fairness and respect for people.

It’s a mistake, she says, to focus on how much Canada’s economy will be damaged by Biden’s quick removal of the Muslim ban and his embrace of immigration. She bristles when she hears that question in Canada, comparing it to asking whether the U.S. economy was hurt by the end of slavery.

The negative effect on the economy, she says, “is just a side factor.”

Instead, she turns the question on its head.

“The way that this question should be asked is the following: Does Canada’s clear and fair immigration policy have a positive effect on its economy? 

“And the answer is yes, because you have a higher diversity compared to other countries. You have a clear and fair immigration policy which is based on points and based on skills and talent and experience, and your economy is benefiting from basically absorbing this talent.”

Her insight speaks to the ongoing debate about how beneficial immigration is to the Canadian economy, and how much immigration is needed to keep economic growth on an even keel. While some experts and policy-makers argue that immigration fuels growth and we need lots more of it to enhance our prosperity, others argue that our standard of living can only be improved if we bring in top economic performers.

That debate loses sight of the fact that immigration shapes our culture, and diversity brings us immeasurable richness, says Mikal Skuterud, an economics professor at the University of Waterloo.

While Skuterud is fully engaged in measuring and debating how immigration boosts growth (or doesn’t), he agrees with Khazra that immigration needs to be evaluated and shaped by criteria that go well beyond the economy.

“Why do we always have to make the argument that it’s beneficial for us economically? It’s much bigger than dollars and cents,” he says.

And, as Khazra says, in the end, that kind of broader appreciation of who is making their home in Canada can’t help but boost our well-being over time.

“You’re basically doing both. You’re respecting human rights and your economy is benefiting from having all these high-skilled workers.”


About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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