What Canada Teaches Us About Immigration and Politics

Shikha Dalmia observes that the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) has fared well among foreign-born voters. She draws on this experience to make the following argument:

Republicans will be able to win national elections not by brandishing their limited government ideals but promising free goodies to minorities. But Republicans need simply look north to realize that such defeatist thinking represents a failure of imagination.

There is another implicit implication of this argument, namely that U.S. Republicans should not be concerned about how creating a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants, 62 percent of whom live in households earning less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level, or increasing the size of the less-skilled influx might shape the electorate. There is a small problem with this line of analysis, however. Canada’s immigration policy has long emphasized skills. Immigrants with a high degree of English or French language proficiency and with tertiary education are strongly favored over those who do not. And so Canada’s foreign-born population does not closely resemble its U.S. counterpart.

Moreover, as John Ibbitson, a columnist for Canada’s National Post, and Darrell Bricker, CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs, observe in their book The Big Shift: The Seismic Change in Canadian Politics, the shift to the political right has not been universal among foreign-born Canadians. Rather, it is concentrated among relatively affluent suburban voters of Asian origin who have lived in Canada for ten years or more. Canadian immigrants who’ve lived in the country for a shorter period of time and who live in low-income households are far less inclined to back the CPC.

So basically we know that affluent, upwardly-mobile, tax-sensitive Canadians of Asian origin living in intact families are willing to back a center-right political party that scrupulously avoids taking a stance on contentious social issues and that is famously (some would say infamously) pragmatic on matters of macroeconomic policy and that presents itself as a defender of the country’s single-payer health system. It is not obvious that this should lead us to conclude that immigrants living in households earning less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level, or indeed less than 400 percent of the federal poverty level, a nontrivial number of whom have children outside of marriage, will enthusiatically support a U.S. political party that, among other things, is committed to rolling back the expansion of the Medicaid program and the new health entitlements under the Affordable Care Act as well as other redistributive measures, and that favors substantial cuts in marginal tax rates. It could be that my skepticism as to whether large majorities of low-income voters will embrace a rigorously small government, anti-redistribution message centered on the importance of tax cuts represents a failure of imagination. But Canada’s experience certainly does not bolster the case that low-income voters, including low-income immigrants, have suddenly developed a strong distaste for redistribution. 

The Canadian government has pursued a number of new immigration initiatives recently. Provinces are now given some scope to recruit immigrants, some of whom are mid-skilled agricultural workers. This represents something of a departure. But the highest profile new initiative is that Canada is now looking to poach U.S.-based technology entrepreneurs, including skilled immigrants who have had a difficult time securing a visa. It does not seem as though the CPC is rushing to greatly expand the number of less-skilled immigrants who are allowed to work and settle in Canada on the grounds that doing so will bolster their political prospects. If anything, the party seems to recognize that they fare best with middle- and high-income immigrants.


The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.