While the U.S. grapples with questions of immigration reform, border security, and an ever-increasing visa backlog, neighboring Canada is experiencing immigration-related changes of its own.
Unlike the U.S., where population growth has steadily declined for decades, Canada is seeing the fastest population growth since 1957 — a demographic shift driven entirely by immigration. A significant percentage of this growth in recent years can be attributed to an increase in asylum claimants entering the country along the U.S.-Canada border. According to official government data, the number of asylum seekers crossing into Canada at informal entries along the country’s U.S. border reached the highest level since 2017.
Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) statistics show 23,358 asylum seekers have crossed into Canada at unofficial border points since the beginning of the year. While asylum seekers who enter Canada at official land border crossings are typically sent back to the U.S. for processing, migrants who cross elsewhere along the 5,500-mile border may remain in the country and file asylum claims with the Canadian government instead. These types of unauthorized crossings shot up during the Trump administration and have not slowed since President Biden took office.
Unofficial entries have become a common way for migrants to seek refuge in Canada and avoid being returned to the U.S. based on a decades-old agreement between the two countries. Ratified in 2004, the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) was designed as a way to manage U.S.-Canada land border crossings. Under the STCA, asylum seekers must request protection in the country where they first arrive, so migrants who enter Canada at official entry points are sent back to the U.S. — and vice versa. The idea underpinning the agreement is that both Canada and the U.S. are equally “safe” for refugees and offer access to fair asylum systems.
The pact has drawn widespread criticism from rights groups in recent years, with its future now being considered by Canada’s Supreme Court. Many in Canada argue that the U.S. is no longer a safe country for refugees, and therefore the U.S. government is unable to uphold its end of the agreement. Immigration advocates claim the policy forces asylum seekers to take increasingly dangerous journeys in order to cross the border, and migrants that do manage to cross are put at risk of immigration detention or deportation upon return to the U.S.
Canada’s asylum system and border policies are not the only areas to be impacted by grim immigration realities in the U.S. The sentiment that Canada may be a safer country for immigrants has rippled into other facets of the Canadian immigration system, namely the study and work permit sectors.
International student enrollment at Canadian colleges and universities doubled between 2016 and 2020 based on new analysis from the National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP). By comparison, Boundless’ data report on international students found that U.S. schools experienced a 72% decrease in international student enrollment in 2020 compared to the previous year. NFAP’s analysis cited Canada’s friendlier immigration policies as a possible explanation, as the lack of reliable paths to a green card in the U.S. could also make Canada a seemingly safer immigration choice for prospective international students. International graduates in Canada jump through far fewer hoops to obtain temporary work visas and permanent residence than their counterparts in the U.S.
In addition to losing international students, many highly skilled foreign nationals are choosing employment opportunities in Canada over the U.S. In 2021, House Immigration Chair Rep. Zoe Lofgren warned that the U.S. is losing immigrant talent to Canada because of “outdated and restrictive U.S. immigration policies.”
There is no numerical limit on how many work visas can be issued under Canadian immigration law. In contrast, it has become increasingly more difficult to get an H-1B work visa, which is typically the only practical option for immigrants to work in the U.S. long-term. The H-1B system itself is plagued with complex requirements and yearly caps that applicants and sponsoring employers must navigate. For example, in March 2021, sponsoring employers filed around 308,000 H-1B applications and over 72% of petitions were rejected.
Unlike the U.S., Canada also does not have a per-country limit on permanent residence, and immigrant workers are generally able to declare immigrant intent after working in temporary status for one year, regardless of country of origin. Meanwhile, the employment-based green card backlog stood at around 1.4 million in 2021, with applicants from certain countries like India estimated to wait several years to a decade before becoming eligible for a green card.
The trend of individuals selecting Canada over the U.S. for future immigration plans, regardless of which visa category they may fall under, is likely to continue with increased incentives from the Canadian government. Prime Minister Trudeau’s government announced plans to roll out new policies and programs to better recruit immigrant workers in industries suffering the most from labor shortages. Trudeau also set an ambitious target to bring in a record number of new permanent residents (more than 1.3 million) over the course of the next three years.