Skip to main content

What Canada can teach GOP on immigration

By Edward Alden, Special to CNN
updated 7:37 AM EDT, Wed May 8, 2013
Jason Kenney, Canada's minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, visits Amritsar, India, on January 11.
Jason Kenney, Canada's minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, visits Amritsar, India, on January 11.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Edward Alden: GOP in the midst of historic debate on immigration reform
  • Republicans can learn from transformation of Canada's conservatives on immigration
  • By adopting pro-immigrant views, the Conservatives became a dominant party

Editor's note: Edward Alden is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and was the project director for the 2009 Independent Task Force on U.S. Immigration Policy, co-chaired by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Mack McLarty, former White House chief of staff for President Bill Clinton.

(CNN) -- The Republican Party is in the midst of a historic debate over what role it will play in immigration reform.

Should the GOP change course and support a path to citizenship for some 11 million unauthorized immigrants, hoping this will reverse the party's declining fortunes among Hispanics, the fast-growing group of voters?

Or should it double down on its opposition to reform, kill the legislation and hope to hang on by strengthening loyalty among a declining share of white voters?

While all the attention has been focused on what to do about the southern border with Mexico, Republicans would be well-advised to take a careful look north. In Canada, the Conservative Party, which lost two of every three elections to the Liberals during the 20th century, has turned the tables by embracing immigration and reaching out to Canada's immigrant communities.

There is no reason Republicans cannot do the same.

Edward Alden
Edward Alden

I lived in Canada for many years, as an immigrant from the United States growing up in Vancouver and then as a newspaper reporter for several publications. Throughout my time in Canada, the Liberal Party was the party supported by most immigrants.

Under a series of leaders, most notably Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chretien, the Liberals formed an unbeatable coalition based on French-speaking voters from Quebec and the rapidly growing immigrant population in the big cities of Toronto and Vancouver. Mostly white Conservative voters from the heartland grumbled and called for more provincial autonomy, but their party was usually relegated to the opposition benches in Ottawa.

Under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, however, Conservatives have turned that landscape upside down. In Canada's 2011 election, the Conservatives outpolled the Liberals decisively among voters who weren't born in Canada, a historic transformation that was the result of a strategic decision by Harper during the 2000s to reach out to Canada's immigrant communities.

The party, which won a minority government in 2006, made small gestures such as reducing the arrival fee for immigrants, and larger historical ones such asapologizing and compensating descendants for the notorious Chinese "head tax" levied to discourage Chinese immigration in the 19th century.

Bombings threaten immigration overhaul
'Immigration will make America safer'

In the 2011 campaign, Conservatives also promised targeted tax cuts for families that appealed to suburban immigrants, recruited more minority candidates than any other party and ran campaign ads in Mandarin, Punjabi, Cantonese and other languages. Of the 23 seats picked up by the Tories, 20 were in the greater Toronto region and none had an immigrant population of less than 30%. Just a decade ago, in the 2000 election, the Liberal Party had won more than 60% of the immigrant vote.

The 2011 election was no fluke either. The Conservative Party has increased its share of the overall popular vote in each of the past four elections.

The chief architect of this shift was an Energizer bunny named Jason Kenney, who looks like he walked out of a meeting of the young campus Republicans.

In nearly five years as Canada's minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism (yes, that's "Multiculturalism" with a capital M), Kenney has spent almost every weekend in immigrant constituencies attending parties, visiting temples and mosques, and embracing, sometimes literally, thousands of recent immigrants.

"People from the communities like to touch you, to embrace you, to hug you, and physical contact isn't my strong suit," he told Maclean's magazine recently.

Kenney has not only embraced immigrant communities, he has championed immigration policy as a tool of Canadian economic development. Indeed, if the Republicans were looking for an actual policy on immigration rather than just saying no to the Democrats, Kenney and the Conservatives are creating a more market-driven, decentralized scheme that could be a model for the GOP.

Under the Tories, who won a majority in 2011, Canada is trying to overhaul its immigration system to increase benefits to the Canadian economy. The country's historic "points system," in which the government selected immigrants based on a set of broad skills such as education, work experience and language, has not worked very well in choosing immigrants who succeed in the job market.

So the Conservative government is creating a new scheme, modeled after successes in Australia and New Zealand, in which the credentials and language skills of immigrants will be assessed by an independent third party, and those who pass muster will become part of a pool of potential immigrants to Canada that is available to employers. But they won't get on the plane until they have a job offer.

The provinces, too, are playing a bigger a role in immigrant selection, unlike the U.S. states which have no say at all. That has gradually shifted new immigrants away from the overcrowded cities to the sparsely populated Prairies and the Maritime provinces, where immigration provides a bigger economic boost.

At a speech to the Tory faithful after the 2011 election, Kenney said the Conservatives had proved it was possible to create "a new durable and diverse Conservative electorate" based on "values like freedom, enterprise and hard work, personal responsibility, equal opportunity, and respect for law and order, family, faith and tradition."

While many in the GOP believe a similar message could sell the party to immigrants here, the Republicans remain focused on not rewarding any of the roughly 11 million immigrants living illegally in the United States.

That led to Mitt Romney's support for "self-deportation," which appealed to primary voters but sent immigrants fleeing to the Democrats in the general election. While Canada does not have the same illegal immigration problem, the Tories did face the same dilemma reaching out to immigrants while holding on to white voters who see Canada's immigration system as far too porous.

The response was to crack down on the refugee admittance scheme, which was rife with fraud, and to tighten immigration rules in other areas as well. Conservatives showed that toughness on immigration policy could go hand-in-hand with welcoming immigrants.

While it has been a balancing act, the Conservatives have so far pulled it off brilliantly.

"Canadians of all backgrounds are drawn to our party," Kenney said, "not in spite of our values, but because of them." That sounds like a slogan for the GOP -- if anyone is paying attention.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Edward Alden.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT