By Levon Sevunts
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
November 22, 2005
MONTREAL – As the United States fortifies its southern border, Canada has extended the welcome mat to Mexican immigrants frustrated by U.S. restrictions and dreaming of a better life north of the 49th parallel.
About 50,000 Mexican natives are living in Canada permanently. Another 10,000 visit Canada each year to study, and about 200,000 arrive as tourists.
Mexicans can enter Canada legally just by showing a passport, rather than enduring the long, expensive process of obtaining a visa to the United States.
With unemployment at 30-year lows and a manpower shortage looming, Canada has simplified its immigration rules in an effort to attract more skilled workers from around the world.
Last month, Canadian Citizenship and Immigration Minister Joe Volpe told Parliament that the Liberal government plans to attract 300,000 immigrants a year within the next five years.
Canada is on track to accept 245,000 immigrants this year and plans to welcome 255,000 in 2006. Although Chinese and Indians comprise the largest groups, immigration from Mexico has been rising quickly.
The biggest change has been in the number of Mexican temporary workers.
A study by Richard Mueller, an economist at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, shows the number of temporary Mexican workers in Canada rose from 13,261 to 22,344, or 68 percent, from 1998 to 2003.
“In terms of growth it’s pretty significant,” Mr. Mueller said. “I suppose it depends on how you look at it: Compared to the numbers that go to the United States, it’s pretty small but it’s growing very quickly.”
By comparison, 110,075 legal, temporary workers were admitted to the United States from Mexico in 1998, and 130,327 in 2003, an 18 percent rise.
Canada’s immigration minister says he would like to see even more qualified Mexican workers.
“We are in severe competition with other developed countries for skilled people with ambition and industry from everywhere around the world,” Mr. Volpe said. “As long as they are healthy and honest, and as long as there are no security issues, we want them.”
‘For us, it’s survival’
The reasons are simple, he said.
“For us, it’s survival more than anything else,” Mr. Volpe said. “We have an aging population and we have one of the lowest birthrates in the world.”
Greg Scott, a spokesman for Citizenship and Immigration Canada, said the 2001 census showed that immigration was the main source of Canada’s population growth between 1996 and 2001, the first time that has happened since World War II.
“Immigration now accounts for almost three-quarters of the growth of our labor market,” Mr. Scott said. “By 2011 to 2016, immigration will likely account for all net labor-force growth in Canada. Projections indicate that immigration will account for all net population growth by 2031.”
Many small communities are unsustainable because of the low birthrate combined with continuing urbanization, and these local economies need more people, Mr. Volpe said.
Nowhere is that more true than in the agricultural sector, which has come to rely on Mexican labor. Canada has developed a widely praised Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program.
Rene Mantha, head of the Foundation of Companies for the Recruitment of Foreign Labor, said Quebec’s horticulture industry would collapse without Mexican workers. The foundation, known by its French acronym FERME, represents more than 350 employers in Quebec province that use temporary foreign workers.
Other Canadian provinces rely on Mexican laborers to do everything from picking vegetables to planting Christmas trees, Mr. Mantha said.
Family farms thrive
Jacques and Lise Michaud, who grow onions and carrots on their family farm south of Montreal near the U.S. border, couldn’t find enough kind words for the six Mexican and Guatemalan workers they have been hiring for years.
“I wouldn’t be able to operate this farm without them,” said Mr. Michaud, straining to be heard over the din of the vegetable-packing machine in a huge warehouse. “I simply can’t find local workers willing to do this job anymore.”
Because of a booming economy, more Canadians have found permanent jobs and fewer are willing to do the backbreaking seasonal work on the farms, Mrs. Michaud said.
“It’s hard work,” Jose Rodrigo Jorge Larios said as he stacked a shipping pallet with 50-pound plastic bags of carrots. “But the pay is decent and conditions are good.”
Mr. Larios said he has been at the Michaud farm every season for the past 10 years. “It’s much easier to find work in Canada than in the United States,” he said. “And it’s legal.”
Mr. Mantha said Mexican workers under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program earn $8 Canadian per hour and can make up to $15,000 in a season. They are covered by medical insurance and receive workers’ compensation if they are injured on the job.
About 75 percent of the Mexican workers have returned to Canada year after year since the program was created in 1979, Mr. Mantha said.
Although the seasonal worker program presents a rosy picture, analysts warn that Canada faces an increase in illegal immigration from Mexico, too.
Refugee applications rise
One of the indicators of illegal immigration is the number of Mexicans applying for refugee status. Between 2000 and 2003, as the United States began fortifying its border, the number of refugee claims by Mexican nationals soared by 89 percent.
By 2003, Mexico was Canada’s third-biggest source of refugee claimants, slightly below Pakistan, which is plagued by sectarian violence, and Colombia, which has been devastated by decades of civil war.
Michel LeBrun, a Montreal-based immigration lawyer, said he has seen a steady increase in the number of refugee claimants from Mexico.
“Here, they get free medicine, work permits and even welfare while their case is being heard,” said Mr. LeBrun. “And it could take a couple of years before a claim goes through the system.”
He joked that Canada would be flooded by refugee claimants if more Mexicans realized the generosity of the system.
The Refugee Determination Board approves about 25 percent of Mexican claims, compared with an average 40 percent rate for all refugees, Mr. LeBrun said.
Mr. Volpe, the immigration minister, dismissed fears of a large wave of illegal aliens from Mexico.
“Some of the people who go to the United States from Mexico might find their way up here,” Mr. Volpe said, “but notwithstanding our open and inclusive approach to immigration, we have a very rigorous security system. This is not the easiest country to access geographically or politically.”