Looking Across Borders

border.jpg(Ryan Remiorz/CP)

Canadians are internationally known for only a few things. Hockey, maple syrup and the cold are some of them. We’re also known for being polite.

I’ve always wondered whether that reputation for politeness was well-deserved. Are Canadians actually better mannered than any people, say, than the globe-trotting Australians? Or is this part of Canada’s identity formed — like so much else — out of a contrast with the United States. Maybe Canadians are only polite because when we’re abroad we’re being compared, often, to travellers that look and sound like us, but aren’t us.

I think that Canadian identity is inextricably tied to America. It has always been that way and it always will be. So while we’ve carved out a niche for ourselves as the True North, as a diverse society, and as the more polite travellers, we have done so largely in contrast to the United States. Sometimes, to be “Canadian” is basically to be “not-American,” and to be proud of it.

Part of that benign anti-Americanism is reflected in another important aspect of Canadian identity, the distinct sense of smugness with which Canadians view the American political scene. And since the elections of Justin Trudeau in 2015 and Donald Trump almost a year later, that distinctly Canadian smugness has accelerated to a dangerous velocity. We’re shaking our heads at the Americans so fast we’re going to put ourselves in a stretcher.

But every once and while, something comes along in American politics that makes Canadians pause, and check our poorly hidden self-satisfaction.

Last week, Donald Trump introduced his proposal for legislation concerning legal immigration into the United States. After two years of focusing almost exclusively on illegal immigration (gotta build that wall), the president has turned to the more traditional side of the debate.

In essence, Trump’s plan would cut immigration by half over the next decade, by restricting some ways of acquiring green cards through family members and introducing a point-system to screen new immigrants. The overall objective is to slant the immigration system towards a more merit-based approach.

If you’re Canadian, that should sound familiar. Trump’s plan is explicitly based on the system used in Canada (as well as other places, like Australia).

Well, that puts us into a tricky situation, doesn’t it?

As if my normal anti-American bias were not enough, the experience of the Donald Trump candidacy and presidency have made it even easier to ridicule the most powerful country in the world. I think it’s fair to assume that when Trump opens his mouth to speak, I won’t like it. But what if what he’s saying is that the United States should be more like Canada?

I mostly like the Canadian immigration policy, by the way, though it has its faults. It’s not as open as I would like it to be, and it’s obviously discriminatory against poorer applicants. It also tends to disadvantage applicants from places where Canada’s official languages are not as likely to be taught (outside of Europe).

Many of these faults can be mitigated through a generous asylum program, which fulfills some of what I see as a moral obligation on the part of Canadians, and through them, the Canadian state.

But it’s difficult to argue that the policy has been bad for Canada. In fact, it has probably been a big part of why Canada has been so successful in creating a more diverse, more prosperous society. So why is there such pushback from left-leaning Americans, who often uphold Canada as a model, about its application in the United States?

There are two reasons that I can think of, one practical, one concerning identity.

The practical argument against the immigration plan is that just because something works somewhere doesn’t mean that it will work everywhere. What works for Canada and Australia, two relatively small countries, may not work for the American behemoth. This argument basically contends that the necessities that the Canadian immigration plan satisfies are not the same as the necessities in the United States.

You could argue for hours about what those necessities are, and I’d think in the end you’d realize that your answer to that question depends a lot on how you view the second, identity-driven reason. The easy answer to the first argument, though, is that we’re not actually sure what goals an American immigration plan is supposed to fulfill, because we don’t know for sure what kind of immigrants the United States will need in the future.

The second argument, concerning identity, was in plain view during the irritating back and forth between CNN’s White House Correspondent Jim Acosta and Stephen Miller, the Steve Bannon protégé that helped design the plan. Acosta essentially argued that the merit-based system ran counter to the open-door ethos that has animated the United States since before its independence. He noted that the point system did not exactly jive with the spirit of the message on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

That assessment of the proposal is, as I see it, definitely true. The merit-based system does seek to change America’s identity as it concerns immigration. But that doesn’t mean the argument from identity actually carries any real weight. Oddly enough, Acosta is arguing from something of a traditionalist or conservative perspective: staying the course, preserving American identity. It is the Millers and Bannons of the world, meanwhile, that are seeking to change what it means to be an immigrant in the United States. What Acosta was really saying was: “you are changing American identity in a bad way.

I believe that the simple fact of changing a core identity — openness to immigration — is not in itself an argument against that change. Liberals and progressives, whose identity revolves almost entirely on positive change, should know this. So I don’t see this proposed shift in identity — from more open to less, from broad criteria to more discriminatory ones — as inherently good or bad. The two programs merely occupy different spaces on a spectrum, and it is us as individuals that lend them moral value, based on our own conceptions of what the plans are supposed to do.

The generalized assumption many liberals make is that more immigration is right, and less immigration is cruel. But is this the right way of looking at an immigration policy?

Is it necessarily true that letting in more immigrants is the right thing to do? What if they can’t be integrated into the economy and society? What if letting them in detracts from the state’s ability to let additional immigrants enter? What if immigrants take up the “spot” of refugees, who are in even greater need of a safe harbour? What if immigration makes things worse for current citizens, to which the state obviously has a greater obligation?

If you buy the argument that immigration plans inherently have, at best, uncertain moral value, then this moral value can only be clarified by the actual practical implications of the policy. I will caveat this only by saying that more open immigration plans at least have the chance of doing a great deal of good for more people. More restrictive systems like Canada’s, for example, tend to opt for a safer bet: obtaining better conditions for a smaller number of people, at a lower risk.

But still, I find it difficult to see, before knowing the actual result, how one is better than the other. To me, they seem to be two approaches to the same problem, both of which have a shot at a moral and efficient outcome. Maybe, these immigration systems are moral if they achieve a good outcome. This shifts the burden of morality onto what we consider to be a good outcome, rather than on the plan itself.

I’ve already outlined what I think is a good outcome: a better life for as many immigrants as possible, along with a net positive for the receiving country (usually in the medium to long term). I think that both plans have a chance at achieving this. Whether one plan does better than the other is a matter of practical debate, not moral evaluation.

All of which makes it difficult for me to fairly critique President Donald Trump’s immigration plan, much as I would like to. Instead, I can only say what I have said above: a similar plan works well for Canada, but it might not for the States. A change in identity is not necessarily a bad thing.

Alright, back to patting ourselves on the back over public healthcare and our more handsome head of government.

 

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