Nov 13, 2018

Immigration 2.0: What Role Will Cities Play?

Canada’s international reputation for welcoming and integrating newcomers is unparalleled.

At a time when much of the world seems intent on pulling itself apart over disputes around immigration and placing formidable barriers in the path of newcomers, Canada is raising its immigration levels. In November 2017, Ahmed D. Hussen, the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) announced the replacement of annual processing targets with a three-year roll-out plan designed to attract one million immigrants by 2020.

Canada’s revised immigration target is moderately higher than current the current intake, but modest in comparison to the annual target of 450,000 newcomers recommended by the government’s Advisory Council on Economic Growth. Moreover, the current debate about target levels serves as a distraction from the greater challenge facing IRCC officials – ensuring that policy development is both efficient and effective. Canada achieves very little in the long-run if the “cost” of reaching a 450,000 milestone is a disproportionate rise in immigration application fraud, money laundering, and human trafficking.

Optimizing the Immigration Advantage  

In a competitive global environment characterized by uncertainty and unpredictability, the economic imperative to direct the flow of knowledge, networked relationships, and entrepreneurship to Canada remains intense.

Optimizing the long-term dividends of the global migration phenomenon demands a holistic understanding of systemic forces that drive large-scale cross-border movements, the structural barriers that foreign governments erect to limit or displace human mobility, and more effective engagement and knowledge sharing with networked migrant communities. The international pressure to dismantle structural barriers to cross-border movements is particularly acute among developed countries challenged by an aging demographic.

The international respect that Canada has traditionally enjoyed as a preferred migration destination stems largely from its effective management of demand and supply-side drivers. Geography has also worked to Canada’s “immigration advantage.” But the world is rapidly changing and Canada’s migration management regime will have to learn how to adapt accordingly. Meeting these challenges will require agility, risk-taking, and foresight and the capacity to scale-up those capabilities in the near-term.   

In many ways, the hard work is just beginning.  

Immigration 2.0

Large-scale mobility networks connect more ideas, people, and places than at any time in history. According to the United Nations International Migration Report 2017, 258 million people (3.4% of the total population) reside outside their country of birth. This figure represents an increase of 49% since 2000. Meanwhile, international tourist arrivals reached 1.32 billion in 2017, a 7% rise over the previous year. This year, Canada and the Netherlands will partner with the World Economic Forum (WEF) on a scalable trusted-traveler pilot program based on a smartphone app and a biometrically-protected profile that passengers show at border-crossings. These facilitative technologies will help ease the friction of global travel, projected to reach 1.8 billion by 2030.

As the primary point of contact for millions of foreign travelers, skilled workers, international students, permanent immigrants, refugee applicants, and Canadian passport holders (since July 2013), IRCC is strategically placed to leverage public-facing information and communication platforms. Data analytics and visualization software will soon be indispensable because of the way in which they enable government analysts to see the dynamic interplay of seemingly unrelated risk factors and managers to better understand the impact of their decisions.

With more sophisticated business intelligence solutions available at lower costs, Canada should be able to facilitate the travel of low-risk persons from high-risk countries with a less cumbersome visa application process. In theory, IRCC should be able to build a full-service delivery infrastructure which allows newcomers to collect their immigration, identity, health, education, and employment records upon arrival at a Canadian port of entry.

The digital transformation of the workplace and the structural configuration of the federal bureaucracy is no longer a futuristic fantasy. The proliferation of encrypted communications on mobile platforms provides the opportunity to pivot away from a one-size-fits-all approach to a “mass customization” business model.

The promise of a redefined government-citizenship relationship may not be too far away.

Cities of Migration

While newcomers immigrate to Canada, they settle in our cities and local communities. Canadian cities are consistently ranked as the best places to live in the world. In 2014, Toronto placed first in the Grosvenor Resilient Cities Index, followed by Vancouver and Calgary. Canada’s economic strength and soft-power rests with the diversity and resilience of its urban communities. For example, almost 50% of Toronto and Vancouver identified in the 2016 census as members of visible minorities. Medium-sized cities like Saskatoon, Regina, Oshawa, and Brandon have become more ethnically diverse.

Cities provide well-paying jobs and generate a disproportionate amount of tax revenue that support social programs. The spatial proximity of urban institutions and knowledge brokers helps to mobilize expertise in the service of difficult problem-solving activities.

Smart” urban governance is what enables the world’s most vibrant cities – London, Berlin, New York, Tokyo, Paris, and Toronto – to function as international gateways while remaining incredibly resilient to contemporary geopolitical shocks and security threats. Toronto’s resilience is being tested this summer as it tries to cope with a large-scale influx of refugee claimants amidst a provincial-federal jurisdictional dispute over the cost of housing more than 3,000 newcomers. Embedded within the political drama is a sobering reminder that while newcomers migrate to Canada, they settle in Canadian cities and local communities. It is precisely for that reason that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, has committed to working collaboratively with city mayors on the global refugee crisis.   

In addition to acting as national “shock absorbers,” resilient cities function as centres of learning and laboratories of innovation. By contrast, struggling cities are often those which are locked-in to mature and often inefficient manufacturing technologies. Migration destination countries that are incapable or unwilling to adapt to unforeseen circumstances in a timely manner may suffer a similar fate as manufacturing cities that were unprepared for the global shift to the post-industrial economy.

Pioneering Cities

To remain a preferred destination for migration, tourism, and business investment, it is imperative that Canada’s metropolitan centres and medium-sized cities be resourced with the “soft” infrastructure that will enable them to optimize the social and economic dividends of future migration flows.

Specifically, an agile and responsive migration management regime should integrate municipalities into the national policy making process, notwithstanding the fact that cities occupy the lowest position in the federal hierarchy. One possible remedy would be to duplicate the provincial nominee program (PNP) at the city level. A piloted program in a major migration city like Vancouver could serve as a powerful catalyst for both the federal Innovation Agenda and the proposed Cascadia Innovation Corridor. Integrating cities into the immigration planning and decision-making process would also accelerate Vancouver’s potential as a global knowledge and innovation leader.

At its core, migration management in the coming decades will be a story about visionary leadership, managerial foresight, and strategic adaptation.

In the same way that forward-looking public policy in the US created the conditions for the internet to scale to critical mass, Canada’s future immigration policy could be used to accelerate urban economic innovation and to push out the nation’s productivity frontier.


This article was originally published in the Canadian Government Executive Magazine (July/Aug 2018).

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