Tamara Woroby is Senior Adjunct Professor of Canadian Studies  at SAIS and Professor of Economics at Towson University (U of MD System).  In recent years, she has served as a consultant to the Migration Policy Institute and the World Bank. 

As the U.S. Presidential election campaign heats up, the debate on immigration policy has moved to the forefront.  For most people, immigration reform means addressing the question of what to do about the more than eleven million undocumented in the U.S. population. True reform, however, is much more than this.  A look north to Canada, and an examination of recent changes in immigration policy in both Canada and the United States, provides insight into what is meant by ‘comprehensive’ immigration reform.  

Immigrants are the foreigners who are granted legal permanent resident (LPR) status.  They are typically grouped into three categories: economic class (those who are accepted because of their potential contribution to the economy); family class (those who seek reunification with family members already in the receiving country); and refugee class (those who seek safe haven due to civil strife or political threat).

For the past half century, Canada has given priority to economic entrants. In contrast the United States, believing that social integration is more important, has given preference to those entering as family class immigrants. The result is that some sixty-five percent of Canadian immigrants have entered based on their economic skills (Citizenship and Immigration Canada 2015), while the economic class in the United States has comprised less than twenty percent of immigrants, with almost seventy percent being family class (United States Government 2015).   A preference for family class entrants creates a ripple effect. If a large proportion of immigrants are unskilled, as is the case in the United States (with thirty percent having no high school completed), this will continue to be so if family reunification, and not economic skills, dominates. Refugees have comprised, on average, ten to fifteen percent of immigrants in both Canada and the United States, with Canada recently becoming more open to refugees and the United States becoming less so.

Non-immigrants enter through temporary channels and, in some cases, may adjust their status to a permanent one.  The primary categories of non-immigrants are temporary foreign workers and foreign students. It should be noted that almost half of individuals receiving LPR status in the United States in recent years have been temporary immigrants adjusting to LPR status (United States Government 2015). This underlines that immigrants are not only those who apply for permanent status from outside the borders of the receiving country, but those who do from within as well.

A successful immigration policy, if it is to do no economic harm to the existing population, should address both the size of immigration and the economic contribution of immigrants.  In recent years, Canada has undertaken a significant number of changes to its immigration policy, in an attempt to achieve a better match between skills of the immigrant and the economic needs of the country. 

Selection of permanent entrants to Canada has long been based on a points system (first introduced in 1968) that has given more weight to higher skills and greater years of schooling.  Since 2008, this pro-skilled bias has been fine-tuned to give priority to those who already know one of the two official languages in Canada, and to those who not only have many years of schooling, but have also received their education from globally ranked educational institutions.  A new express entry system that fast tracks such applicants who already have a job offer in Canada has been introduced, so as to ensure that Canada’s specific labor needs are rapidly met. Such changes in policy have increased the probability that immigrants to Canada provide a positive economic contribution.

The Canadian government has also made it easier for foreign students to remain in Canada, a human capital consideration that has been missed in the United States.  Foreign students are often the brightest individuals from their own countries, are familiar with the language of the receiving country, and are more likely to seamlessly integrate into the new society by virtue of already having been immersed in it.  The Canadian government has introduced legislation that allows foreign students to remain in Canada for a longer period of time (three years as compared to one year in the United States) upon completion of their studies and to adjust to permanent status more easily.

Temporary foreign workers programs are another channel for economic entry, as evidenced by the H-1B visa program for skilled workers in the United States.  However, the number of such visas granted does not match the needs of the economy, with total annual slots being filled within a month of issuance. This often leaves U.S. employers with unfilled applications and positions, waiting years for the needed skilled workers.

Shortages at the other end of the skills spectrum, in particular for home care workers, have been exacerbated by aging populations in both countries.  Recent legislation in Canada has addressed shortages for particular unskilled workers through revisions to temporary worker programs. At the same time, measures have been introduced to decrease the probability that temporary workers are not hired by employers as cheaper substitutes for Canadian workers. 

In contrast to the Canadian experience, significant American immigration reform has been scant. In 1986, major US immigration legislation was introduced with the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). IRCA focused on granting amnesty to what was then only three million undocumented immigrants, and also included border security policies as well as the introduction of employer sanctions.  The purpose of the latter was to keep future undocumented flows in check. Clearly, based on the present high number of U.S. undocumented, IRCA did not succeed and there is a palpable sense among the American electorate that immigration is out of control.  

The Immigration Act of 1990, passed four years after IRCA, focused on issues beyond the undocumented and sent a more welcoming message, not only because it increased the number of immigrants admitted, but also because it facilitated the entry of a broader range of individuals.  Of note, it introduced the above mentioned H-1B visa, which allowed easier entry of skilled workers, eventually offering renewals and the possibility of adjustment to permanent residency.

The remainder of the 1990s, however, changed the message of welcome to one of defensiveness and pushback. Two acts passed in 1996, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) placed the focus back on the undocumented, significantly increasing authority for removals and deportations, and curtailed the process of legal appeals.

Since then, there have been small changes to US immigration law, but little in the way of comprehensive immigration reform despite a number of attempts. Most recently, a bipartisan comprehensive immigration bill was passed by the U.S. Senate, S. Bill 744: The Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act (United States Senate 2013). This bill focused on comprehensive immigration reform by addressing many aspects of immigration beyond border control and undocumented immigration.  This included addressing the immigration of workers with skills in high demand, and ways to change future permanent flows so as to address the needs of the US economy.  However, the U.S. House of Representatives never took up this bill. As everyone knows, the overall political tone in Washington—be it dealing with immigration, foreign policy, health care or government spending—has become increasingly partisan, and legislative paralysis is the norm.

In this atmosphere, a frustrated President Obama issued two executive orders, in 2012 and 2014, which provided protection from deportation and work authorization to as many as five million undocumented individuals. The first was the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a program that focused on undocumented youth, and the second was the Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA), which focused on the parents of US citizens and lawful permanent residents. Unfortunately, executive orders are temporary in nature and can be challenged in the courts, as has happened to DAPA.  Therefore, executive orders cannot guarantee long-term protection, let alone provide LPR status.

When understanding what comprehensive immigration reform includes, it becomes clear that much needed changes are not likely to take place in the United States as long as the political stalemate prevails.  The cost of not undertaking such reforms, however, will have long-term economic consequences.  


Alboim, Naomi, and Karen Cohl. 2012. Shaping the Future: Canada’s Rapidly Changing Immigration Policies. Maytree.

Beach, Charles, Alan G. Green, and Christopher Worswick. 2011. Towards Improving Canada’s Skilled Immigration Policy: An Evaluation Approach. Toronto: C.D. Howe Institute.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada.  The Canada Points System at

Citizenship and Immigration Canada. 2015. “Facts and Figures 2014.” Ottawa: Government of Canada.

Passel, Jeffrey, and D’Vera Cohn, 2014. Unauthorized Immigrant Totals Rise in 7 States, Fall in 14. Washington, D.C: Pew Hispanic Center.

United States Government. 2015 and various years. Yearbook of Immigration Statistics. Washington, DC: Citizenship and Immigration Services, Department of Homeland Security.

United States Senate. 2013. Bill S.744—The Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act. Washington, D.C. June.

Woroby, Tamara. 2015. “Immigration Reform in Canada and the United States: How Dramatic, How Different?”  American Review of Canadian Studies. Vol 45. No 4: 430-450. 

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