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 6:10 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
updated 8:11 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
updated 3:57 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
updated 4:51 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
updated 2:25 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
updated 6:29 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT