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Caplan defends 'best, brightest' immigration rules
OTTAWA — Canada is changing its immigration policies to encourage the world's "best and the brightest" to come here, Immigration Minister Elinor Caplan says.
Caplan also said yesterday many critics of the federal government's plans to make it harder to enter Canada are lawyers from "the immigration industry," who are more concerned about their clients than Canada's changing needs in the 21st century.
"They are concerned about their clients' interests and I'm concerned about the Canadian public interest. The new point system and the approach that we've taken is in Canada's interest," she said in an interview.
"Bringing the best and the brightest is in Canada's interest. We are competing with the rest of the world for those people," she said.
Defiant in the face of a torrent of criticism, Caplan defended her plan to make it more difficult to enter Canada as an independent immigrant and to apply the new rules retroactively.
But she said her goal is not to reduce the number of immigrants — her objective is still to move toward setting immigration at 1 per cent of the population, or about 300,000 a year.
The new point system puts much more emphasis on education, language skills, work experience and ties to Canada, such as having family or a job offer. It eliminates the old practise of points for certain occupations.
Under the changes announced Monday, hundreds of thousands of immigration applicants could find themselves disqualified. The new regulations may disqualify some applicants who might have made it under the old rules.
Lawyers have denounced the changes, charging they make it dramatically harder for legitimate applicants to be accepted as immigrants.
In the interview with The Star, Caplan said some of the mythology about the hard-working, blue collar immigrants who built this country is a thing of the past, and it's time to raise the threshold to attract the world's best. She said there must be a shift in thinking about the kind of immigrants Canada needs to attract.
"Part of that is mythology of a different time. At the time when we populated the West we needed people to till the land and open the West. Right now, we know that the economic competitive advantage for Canada is that we have a knowledge-based economy here. We are looking to bring people here that will integrate and succeed quickly," she said.
Even though the new rules will be applied when they come into effect next June to hundreds of thousands of cases already in the system — with a compromise bonus of five points for those who filed applications before Dec. 17 — Caplan insisted she doesn't see the move as retroactive.
She said the proposed changes have been in the public domain for so long that applicants and their lawyers had fair warning new rules were coming.
"Because we've given such advance notice on this, I don't consider it retroactive at all," she said. "I think that's fair and very reasonable."
The main issue is the new point system for independent immigrants and the fact the grid will be applied to many files already in the system.
The Canadian Bar Association and a number of prominent immigration lawyers have slammed the proposed changes. Critics insist it is grossly unfair to change the rules midstream and swallow the processing fees paid by applicants who would have qualified under the old grid and will now lose out. (Adults pay $500 each in a non-refundable processing fee and $100 for each dependent child).
Critics also contend the immigration department is setting the bar so high it will exclude most blue collar workers and even eliminate many university-educated and experienced applicants from the skilled trades.
"I have 34 years of experience, I've seen three Immigration Acts and I've never seen anything like this, it is beyond belief, the situation is nuts," said immigration lawyer Gary Segal, author of a leading guide to Canada's immigration policy.
It is important to distinguish between immigrants and refugees. Refugees, who come here seeking protection because they fear persecution, are put through a separate screening process.
Immigrants who come here to live, fall into two broad categories: Independent immigrants who are selected for their skills according to a point system (about 60 per cent of immigrants) and family-class immigrants who are sponsored by family members already living here and who don't have to go through the point grid to get in (about 40 per cent).
Under the new system, the pass mark will be 80 points out of 100, up from 70 out of 110 in the old system.
In the past, when major changes in immigration rules have been brought in, prospective immigrants who already had applications in the system had their files processed under the old regulations. Not so this time.
"I don't agree with the lawyers that say 95 per cent will not qualify. That's not the information I have from the department. We believe that similar numbers that qualify now will qualify under the new system,'' Caplan said. "Many people who before wouldn't qualify will, and there will be some who won't, but it will balance itself out."
Caplan said Canada's immigration program still brings in tens of thousands of family-class immigrants and refugees, who make up about 40 per cent of newcomers.
The independent immigrant program needs to be more selective, she said, adding a beefed up temporary worker program — rather than the independent immigrant stream — will become a major avenue for workers in the skilled trades to enter Canada.
Once in Canada and working, they could apply later to stay permanently, if they qualify under the point system. There is also an immigration stream that allows provinces to nominate immigrants to come to Canada to meet a labour shortage.
"So are we going to meet labour shortages, yes, but we're going to do it in a different way," she said.
Caplan said she is open to some debate: "This pass mark is not carved in stone. If you want to debate whether 80 is too high or not, that's what this consultation is all about."
But she made clear that she is inclined to try the 80 pass mark on for size and only lower the threshold if it ends up reducing immigration levels.
"We've got 500,000 applications in the system now...so part of that is inventory management," she said. "That's what I call managing the inventory in a way which meets Canada's interests. And that may not always meet the interests of the immigration industry. I understand that. But my job is to do what I think is in Canada's best interest."
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