The Harper government is considering changes to the citizenship rules to target so-called birth tourism — where a foreign national comes to Canada to give birth so the baby can get Canadian citizenship.
But critics say closing the loophole will deter bona fide immigrants and harm the economy in the long run.
"We don’t want to encourage birth tourism or passport babies, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney told the CBC’s Power and Politics in an interview. "This is, in many cases, being used to exploit Canada’s generosity. The vast majority of legal immigrants are going to say this is taking Canada for granted.
"We need to send the message that Canadian citizenship isn’t just some kind of an access key to the Canadian welfare state by cynically misrepresenting yourself.… It’s about having an ongoing commitment and obligation to the country."
The potential changes are part of the government’s plan to "modernize" the Citizenship Act, though Kenney admits he doesn’t have a handle on the extent of the problem.
The issue was brought to the government’s attention by hospital administrators and doctors in Montreal who complained that women without legal immigration status had given birth there and left without paying the bill, Kenney said.
A recent story by a Hong Kong newspaper also exposed unscrupulous immigration consultants who were telling pregnant couples how to come to Canada as visitors and give birth here to have a better chance of staying on humanitarian grounds or have their children obtain citizenship and later sponsor them.
Canada and the U.S. are the only nations in the developed world that grant automatic citizenship to babies born on their soil. Most other countries, including the European nations, as well as Japan, Australia and New Zealand require people to have permanent legal status prior to obtaining citizenship or require at least one parent to be a citizen.
There would be a provision for babies potentially left stranded without any citizenship under proposed changes, though such cases amount to only a handful a year, Kenney said.
"Any changes that we make would cover off the problem of stateless persons."
Critics say the government is overreacting to the issue of birth tourism.
"It’s an overblown knee-jerk reaction to a problem that the government has no formal statistics on," said Toronto immigration lawyer Michael Niren.
"Does it happen? Sure it does, but the government should not move to throw out birth citizenship, which is entrenched in our democratic culture, based on some loosey-goosey evidence."
The move may score the government points on a "hot button" issue like immigration but changing the law would be short-sighted because it would deter bona fide immigrants from considering Canada, Niren said.
"A protectionist approach may be politically savvy in the short term but it won’t support Canadians in the long run," he said.
The conservative government's plan to modernize the Citizenship Act got enthusiastic approval from most of the CBC Community. Read the reaction.
"Which direction do we want to go as a nation? What kind of signal are we sending? The world is a global place today. Our population is getting older and smaller, so instead of keeping immigrants out we have to open the floodgates because we’re going to desperately need more and more workers to support our economy."
Using fraudulent means or reasons to gain Canadian citizenship is obviously wrong and should be dealt with by closing administrative loopholes at hospitals or better screening of visitors admitted to Canada, Niren said.
But overhauling the Citizenship Act is "like using a nuclear bomb to kill an ant hill," he added.
Instead the government should focus on fixing the immigration system, which Niren said is "broken" with long backlogs. "We’re losing the best and brightest applicants to other countries because of it."