'It's fraudulent': Former immigration official says action needed on 'passport babies'
B.C. hospital says 22% of babies born there are to non-resident mothers - but some say problem not significant
One of Canada's former top immigration officials says so-called passport babies are a genuine problem in some Canadian locales and closing a loophole being exploited by pregnant foreign tourists is required to curtail the fraudulent practice.
But Andrew Griffith, a former director general at Citizenship and Immigration, said that a policy resolution passed by Conservatives this weekend to end the practice of giving citizenship to anyone born in the country may be akin to "using a hammer to squash a fly."
Delegates at the Conservatives' policy convention in Halifax endorsed a resolution to end the policy of birthright citizenship, with backers contending too many foreigners are travelling to Canada solely to give birth to secure status for their children.
Party members voted to call for a key section of Canada's nationality law to be rewritten, endorsing a policy that would remove citizenship rights for children born in Canada to non-Canadian (or non-permanent resident) parents. The resolution is, however, non-binding on a future government.
"It's basically using fraud to get citizenship for a child. People are coming on a visa under false pretences and just coming for the opportunity to provide citizenship for their kid. I can understand the motivation, but it's really not what the policy was designed for and it's a form of fraud and misrepresentation," said Griffith in an interview with CBC News.
Proponents of the change, introduced by delegates from Newfoundland and Labrador, said such a move is necessary to crack down on foreigners travelling here for the sole purpose of securing perks and privileges for their children that come with being Canadian.
The change would upend a section of Canadian law that has been largely intact since the advent of a distinct Canadian citizenship decades ago.
Canada — along with some other nations in the Americas, including the U.S. — is among a few developed countries that grant citizenship to any child born on its soil, regardless of the immigration status of their parents.
There are a few exceptions, notably the children of foreign diplomats are excluded, but generally the principle of jus soli, Latin for "right of the soil," is applied.
Some have suggested this is a solution looking for a problem as, according to Statistics Canada, just 313 babies were born in this country in 2016 to non-Canadian mothers, out of the 383,315 children born here that year.
But other data suggests the phenomenon is more common. Richmond Hospital in Richmond, B.C., a city near Vancouver, recorded 383 births to non-resident mothers in 2016-17 — representing 17.2 per cent of all births at the hospital.
Last year, the number rose to 469, or 22.2 per cent of all births — according to statistics provided by the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority to CBC News. The authority said the majority were to Chinese nationals.
"It's arguably crowding out [hospital] space and facilities for residents of Canada. So, there's a real issue there in Richmond, B.C. and other localities," said Griffith.
But Griffith questioned whether the Conservative solution is workable, noting former Conservative citizenship minister Jason Kenney pursued a policy change while in government only to find the numbers relatively small and the cost to provinces — which issue birth certificates — prohibitive.
"I don't want to see [birth tourism] happen, but on the practical side as to what you do about it, abolishing birthright citizenship is using a hammer to squash a fly, because if the numbers are small ... do you really want to inconvenience literally millions of Canadians to address a relatively small problem? Are there other ways one can address the issue?"
Griffith suggested hospitals could require higher deposits from non-residents to cover medical expenses, or there could be changes to how visas are granted to pregnant women to allow border officials to refuse entry if they suspect a person is travelling to Canada to give birth.
He also said the clear discrepancy between StatsCan data and information supplied by just one B.C. hospital suggests the government needs to "get its act together ... to get a real handle on what exactly the numbers are."
B.C. 'birthing houses'
The South China Morning Post, Hong Kong's newspaper of record, has also documented a rise in the number of "birthing houses" in B.C. that host pregnant tourists looking to give birth to a Canadian baby.
That paper found dozens of such houses catering to pregnant foreign women who come to B.C. specifically to give birth to Canadian citizens.
"Can't we do some regulation around these birthing houses? Or ban them?
"It is an abuse of the system, it's an abuse of the policy but I think the measures need to be more focused and targeted rather than just wholesale change," Griffith said.
Conservative B.C. MP Alice Wong, who has introduced a petition in Parliament on the issue, railed against the current policy, saying "passport babies take away the resources from our system."
"It is dangerous to the mother and the child themselves. The Liberals support it. They do not support a fair citizenship system — we should fight for our own babies," she told the convention Saturday.
Another delegate said citizenship should only be inherited from a Canadian parent.
"Justin Trudeau would tell you that Canada has no nationality and I think everybody here would disagree with that. I think our nationality runs in our culture, our land, our blood from Juno Beach to Vimy Ridge. We have a culture, we have a nationality, there's no reason to arbitrarily hand out citizenship to whoever happens to be on vacation here," the delegate said.
Liberal officials were quick to pounce on the Conservative resolution, suggesting it could allow future governments to strip immigrants of their status.
Gerald Butts, the prime minister's principal secretary, said it was "remarkable ... they committed to give the government the power to strip people born in Canada of Canadian citizenship," while linking to a series of tweets from a Somali refugee who was born stateless.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh went even further, "unequivocally" condemning the "division and hate being peddled by @AndrewScheer & the Conservative Party of Canada."
Conservative Alberta MP Deepak Obhrai also spoke out against the change, suggesting a birthright ban could be open to abuse.
"Any person who is born in Canada by law is entitled to be a Canadian; we cannot choose who is going to be a Canadian and who is not going to be a Canadian," he said at the convention. "This is a fundamental question of equality."
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer defended the adoption of the resolution Monday.
"Conservatives recognize there are many Canadians who have been born in Canada by parents who have come here to stay and have contributed greatly to our country. I will not end the core policy that facilitates this. Unlike Justin Trudeau, I will safeguard it against abuse. A Conservative government will restore order, fairness, and compassion to Canada's immigration system," he said in a statement.
Howard Anglin, a top legal adviser and deputy chief of staff to former prime minister Stephen Harper, said the Liberals were whipping up fear among immigrants for political purposes.
"Here we see openly the beginning of a plan to mischaracterize another policy proposal, which would align us with virtually all our peer countries and allies (and which, of course, is not yet in an election platform) to stoke fear and alienation in ethnic communities," he tweeted.
"No one will be stripped of citizenship, which is what [Butts's] tweet said. It's not retroactive. The proposal is that children of tourists, visitors, & others temporarily in the country or here illegally, will no longer automatically become citizens (just like in our peer countries)."
But Janet Dench, executive director of Canadian Council for Refugees, said Monday there is no meaningful data to suggest "birth tourism" is an actual problem and that if the measure came into force, "the vast majority of people affected would not at all be people who come for birth tourism reasons."
Dench told The Canadian Press it would impact many women who give birth in Canada while they are waiting for permanent residency status, refugee claimants and others in limbo.
With a file from the Canadian Press