U.S. travel ban creates opportunity for Canada to attract skilled new workers

The U.S. is mired in confusing messages regarding the direction of its immigration policy, and Canada should look at this as an opportunity to attract the best and the brightest to this country, says immigration lawyer Reis Pagtakhan.

Trump's policy an opportunity for Canada to show our immigration system is open for business

People gathered outside the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa Monday afternoon to protest an executive order signed by President Donald Trump banning citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. (CBC)

Regardless of what one thinks of the merits of the travel bans, the U.S. is mired in confusing messages regarding the direction of U.S. immigration policy.

Canada should look at this as an opportunity to attract the best and the brightest to this country. This week's announcement of a key component of Canada's Global Skills Strategy — which the government says will make it easier for high-growth Canadian companies to attract the specialized global talent they need by providing a more predictable and streamlined service for bringing them here — is a welcome first step.

The controversy surrounding the two recent U.S. travel bans have made the new administration's first forays into immigration policy look, at best, haphazard — or at worst, based on race or religion. 

The chaos created by the rollout of the first U.S. travel ban has made businesses and potential immigrants wonder if future American immigration policy can be relied on to be predictable and rule-based, or whether it will be developed on the basis of the political headwinds at the time.

Demonstrators participate in a protest by the Yemeni community against U.S. President Donald Trump's travel ban in the Brooklyn borough of New York, U.S., February 2, 2017. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
As we have seen over the last six weeks, a number of businesses have reacted negatively to both travel bans. Some multinational companies have asked Canadian immigration officials to step in to allow foreign workers — who may face restrictions on entering the US — into Canada.

As well, there are accounts of researchers now looking to Canada to continue their research as fears grow regarding their ability to live and work in the U.S.

While we should take advantage of the opportunities created by the immigration chaos down south to attract new Canadians, it is important we do so in a manner that keeps in mind a few factors.

For starters, Canada should maintain its "Canada first" policy, which requires employers to attempt to hire Canadians and Canadian permanent residents before hiring foreign workers.

While existing exceptions to this law should be maintained and, in some cases, expanded, the general requirement should stand. This is needed to give Canadians confidence that our government is looking after their best interests. How the government will require companies to demonstrate that there is a gap in the Canadian labour market will be key.

Second, once an employer has completed its recruitment efforts, the government must process the immigration application quickly.

In their Global Skills Strategy announcement, the government speaks of a "faster and more predictable streamlined service." Right now, some employers have to wait three to six months for a needed employee to be authorized to work in Canada. 

Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains announced the Global Talent Stream initiative to fast-track visas for high-skilled foreign workers will kick in June 12. (CBC)
While the government is proposing processing times that will take as little as 10 days, we have seen these promises before. The big question is, can the government deliver?

Third, the immigration system must provide priority entry for highly skilled workers and entrepreneurs. While there may also be a need for lower-skilled workers, the future of Canadian industry will depend on the need for highly skilled workers and entrepreneurs with transferable skills to work and build businesses in the knowledge economy. The announced focus on these types of workers is welcome.

Fourth, today's immigrants should be chosen by the people who know our economy best — Canadian employers. Immigration policy has traditionally failed when the government tells employers who they need to hire. The government's idea to create a high-demand occupation list — even with industry input — will only be effective if these lists are reviewed and revised often and meet the demands of local economies.

Let employers decide

A better idea would be to let employers decide who they need without regard to some magic list. Employers know who they need and the government of Canada should, by and large, trust the judgment of Canadian employers.

While the government needs to play some role to ensure that jobs are legitimate and those coming to Canada are not security threats, screening done by the government should be limited to looking for these and other related characteristics.

Finally, the federal and provincial governments should implement a one-stop shop for employers and immigrants. Right now, an employer looking to hire a foreign national as a temporary foreign worker, and then a permanent resident, must go through up to five different applications, filed with up to four different departments spanning two levels of government.

While no one is suggesting that different levels of government and different government departments don't have roles to play, why not set up one application form that can be used by employers and immigrants and then have the relevant government departments work off this one form?

The uncertainty surrounding U.S. immigration policy provides Canada with an opportunity to show the world that our immigration system is stable and open for business. 

The announcement made by the government that their Global Skills Strategy will allow Canadian companies to access top global talent is an important message for Canada to send to industry.

How successful it will be depends on how well it is implemented.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Reis Pagtakhan

Immigration lawyer

Reis Pagtakhan is an immigration lawyer with MLT Aikins in Winnipeg.