As Immigration Minister Jason Kenney prepares to table a new immigration levels plan for 2013 this week, he has much to lay claim to in Canada's restructured immigration system.

Kenney's most commonly proclaimed achievement has been to move the country toward more efficiently accepting migrants who can best contribute to the Canadian economy. That shift will be visible yet again in this year's target levels across all categories of economic immigrants.

A promised final recalibration of the points system that governs the foreign skilled worker category was also set to be unveiled this week, but that announcement has been pushed back to January.

Still, most of the planned changes to the points system are already widely known: They will place increased weight on youth, job skills and, most importantly, strong English- or French-language skills.

The new system will also provide for better pre-screening of foreign education credentials. And there will be some new streams added, including a long-needed "skilled trades" stream that will address the large trades gap.

Wait time cut by years

In the meantime, the government has fixed the processing times, wrangling them down to less than a year. Under the old system they stretched in some cases to nearly a decade.

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Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has earned both praise and criticism for changes to the way Canada handles economic immigrants. (CP file photo)

The willingness to limit the intake is the reason processing times are finally down, and it is the most effective measure Kenney has taken, according to Vancouver immigration lawyer Richard Kurland.

"That single measure, while politically unpopular, fixes Canada's immigration system, because no longer will we take in a year more files that we can process in a year," Kurland told CBC.ca. "That guarantees no more backlogs. It's common sense, but no previous government had the chops to do it."

Overall, Kurland added, the foreign skilled workers category has undergone a major fix.

"It will be less expensive to process more files, and the quality of those files is 'higher grade,' because the bar was raised for language skills," he said.

As for the backlog of files received under the old system, last spring Kenney made another controversial move: a plan to delete the backlog of some 280,000 foreign skilled worker applications. That stack of files has been an albatross, sitting stagnant for years with no responsiveness to current labour market needs. Some applicants have languished in the queue nearly a decade.

Under Kenney's plan, those whose files had not yet been opened will be refunded their application fees.

However, to those whose files were about to be processed, the move appeared grossly unfair. They have launched a legal challenge and it's not yet clear what the outcome will be.

Observers generally agree that some improvements to the system include:

  • The expansion of the Provincial and Territorial Nominee programs: Thus far, most provinces have proven more adept at choosing the people with needed job skills than Ottawa has been at choosing them through the foreign skilled worker category. Expect to see those levels increase or remain steady for another year in a row.
  • Creation of the Canada Experience Class: No longer do the best and brightest foreign students and skilled workers who already have experience in Canada have to leave the country in order to reapply for permanent residency. Now, they can transition into becoming Canadians while they continue to contribute to the Canadian economy.

Still, for many workers in Canada, there is no easy transition to residency despite months or years of backbreaking labour here. It's a problem critics say must be considered when assessing how well Kenney has shifted the country's focus to immigration as an economic tool.

Barriers remain for temporary workers

While some temporary workers, notably in Manitoba, have gained the help they need to transition to permanent residency, a new collection of essays written by Canadian academics, documents the overwhelming barriers many temporary migrant workers face in trying to become residents and citizens of Canada.

Not only that, the increasing numbers of temporary foreign workers who have few rights and little stake in the nation's political life are creating a two-tiered system that's undermining Canada's traditionally equitable treatment of immigrants.

That's the warning issued in "Legislated Inequality: Temporary Labour Migration in Canada," co-edited by University of Ottawa professor Patti Tamara Lenard.

Lenard says it clearly documents what had long been suspected: Temporary workers in Canada are vulnerable to abuse. That runs counter to the driving ethos of Canada's decades-old immigration system, in which immigrants are viewed as "full and equal members of our political community." That sense of community has, she argues, contributed to Canada's success.

"Where migrants are admitted on temporary visas — in particular those migrants admitted to work on visas that do not permit the transition to citizenship [or where this transition is difficult] — we are undermining this basis of our success," Lenard said.

In particular, Lenard said, the collection illustrates that two conditions of temporary labour in Canada create systemic inequality: "One, migrants are not permitted to transition to permanent residence or citizenship, and so are treated as expendable; and two, they are not permitted to change employers, which means they are denied one of the main ways in which employees can protect their rights."

The essays are based on research and interviews with migrant labourers. They found that in addition to facing barriers to becoming permanent residents, even if they do achieve that goal migrant workers continue to struggle to improve their economic lot. They remain at the "bottom tier" of the economic immigration system.

Temporary workers have little to no access to supports such as settlement services to help them integrate, even if they should want to transition to permanent residency.

"Temporary migrants are not entitled to these services, so even where they can manage to stay permanently, they do not have access to the standard help in integrating that immigrants have," Lenard said, adding a serious policy change is required to give these workers more rights and more support.

Lenard argues the numbers are worrisome: For several years Canada has admitted more temporary foreign workers than economic immigrants in all categories, including foreign skilled workers and Canada experience class. Last year, the country admitted 190,679 temporary migrant workers, compared with 157,000 economic immigrants.