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Policy Initiative Spotlight: How Canada Lets Local Governments Pick Immigrants

by Steven J. Markovich
August 6, 2014

Canada flags Parliament Hill Ottawa Canadian flags line the road around Parliament Hill in Ottawa (Blair Gable/Courtesy Reuters).

Comprehensive U.S. immigration reform is dead.  More than a year after the U.S. Senate passed its reform bill, the House has not voted on comprehensive reform.  The upcoming mid-term elections will likely forestall further action—particularly after the primary defeat of House Majority leader Eric Cantor and the crisis on the Texas border.

As national reform unravels, however, some state and local leaders are advocating for smaller-scale regional initiatives.  Proponents see potential for economic growth by attracting skilled immigrants and entrepreneurs.  Local initiatives could allow shrinking cities and small towns to compete with natural immigrant magnets like New York and Silicon Valley.

Michigan governor Rick Snyder stressed the value of immigration in his January 2014 State of the State address to improve Detroit’s economy.  He created the Office for New Americans to attract global talent to Michigan, and requested that the federal government designate 50,000 employment visas for skilled immigrants who move to Detroit over the next 5 years.  Some lessons could be learned from the Canadian province of Manitoba, whose regional approach has allowed it to compete with Toronto and Montreal for immigrants to strengthen its workforce and revitalize its rural communities.

Just north of North Dakota and Minnesota, Manitoba is 50 percent larger than California but home to only 1.2 million people, half of whom live in Winnipeg, the provincial capital.  As Canadian fertility rates declined, Canada saw the need for higher immigration and successfully increased annual intake from 0.3 percent of the population annually in 1985 to 0.9 percent in 1992. But most of those migrants went to the major cities, and immigrant flows to smaller provinces actually decreased.  In response, Canada began to allow more local influence on immigration, and in October 1996 Manitoba became the first province to sign an immigration agreement with the federal government, creating the Manitoba Provincial Nominee Program (MPNP).

The MPNP allows the province to take an active role in immigration by setting criteria for immigrant categories, promoting their province to prospective immigrants, accepting applications, and passing along approved applicants to the federal government for prioritized and routine—historically more than 95 percent—approval.

MPNP’s website touts job opportunities, affordable housing prices, and a bevy of services provided to immigrants through Winnipeg’s Manitoba Start and regional immigration service centers in rural areas.  Canada as a whole has focused on economic immigrants, whose share of permanent residents increased from 54.7 to 62.4 percent from 2003 to 2012 as provincial nominee programs like the MPNP have grown.  In contrast, only 16.3 percent of new U.S. permanent residents in 2013 came for economic reasons; 65.6 percent were family-sponsored immigrants.

MPNP offers a variety of pathways to permanent residence. Temporary foreign workers in Manitoba offered a permanent job by their employer after six months can apply.  Skilled workers with some connection (e.g. family, friends, past education, past employment) can apply.  Immigrants can also be invited directly by the MPNP through the regular recruitment missions it conducts overseas–usually with Manitoba employers.  There is also a separate program to attract entrepreneurs with a net worth in excess of CDN$350,000.

Applicants–except for those currently working in Manitoba and entrepreneurs–are rated on a points system with five factors: English and French language ability, age (21 to 45 year olds given priority), work experience (points max out at 4+ years), education (points only for formal post-secondary education or training) and adaptability, which quantifies your connection to Manitoba and adds extra points for immigrants planning to settle in rural areas.

Overall, MPNP is seen as a strong success story, both for the province which has benefited from an influx of talent and the immigrants who have succeeded in their new home.  In 2012, MPNP accounted for 72 percent of immigrants to the province, Manitoba Start had a 75 percent placement rate for its job matching program, and Manitoba reported a retention rate of 85 percent.  Outside studies have also found that MPNP immigrants were more likely to remain rooted than immigrants who come through other channels, a better outcome attributed to the MPNP’s efforts to integrate immigrants into their new communities.  Beyond the economic factors, the MPNP has also introduced greater diversity to the province.  For instance, Winnipeg now has Canada’s largest Filipino community outside of Vancouver and Toronto, which grew 50 percent over five years.

In 2015, Canada will implement “express entry” to reduce wait times and improve matching of potential skilled-immigrants with provinces and employers who have identified a need for those specific skills; express entry will also give MPNP nominees an automatic pass.

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