Most Canadian Immigrants Are Not Economic Immigrants, they are Family-Based Immigrants

President Trump recently released another plan to reform the immigration system.  It was crafted with the help of his son-in-law and presidential advisor Jared Kushner.  My colleague David Bier ably explains the details of the Kushner plan, but I want to focus on a common misconception that lays at the justification for merit-based immigration reform: In reality, there is not a single country in the OECD or European Union (EU) where economic immigrants are a majority of new permanent residents, even in merit-based systems like Canada’s. 

The one-pager for the Kushner plan says that 63 percent of Canadian permanent resident visa are granted in employment and skill-based categories compared to just 12 percent in the United States, 57 percent in New Zealand, 68 percent in Australia, and 52 percent in Japan.  Those percentages all include the derivative family members of the immigrant workers admitted through the employment and skill-based visa categories.  In other words, economic or skills-based immigrants are allowed to bring their immediate relatives but they also count against the economic visas even though they are not the economic immigrants themselves.  The Kushner plan one-pager counts the derivative family-members of merit-based economic immigrants in Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, and the United States as skilled immigrants.  This grossly exaggerates the percentage of immigrants who are economic or skills-based immigrants and undercounts those who are family-based immigrants.

Figure 1 shows the percentage breakdowns of immigrants granted permanent residency whereby the family-members of employment or skills-based economic immigrants are counted against the All Family visa category.  With the exception of Japan, every country mentioned in the Kushner one-pager grants more family-based immigrants permanent residency than to explicitly economic or skills-based immigrants.  These data comes from the OECD and are pooled for the years 2005-2016.  Table 1 breaks down these figures for all OECD and EU countries and shows that there are only three countries where there is more family-based immigration than economic immigration:  Japan, Spain, and Ireland.


Figure 1: Immigrants by Broad Visa Category


Table 1: Immigrants by Broad Visa Category


This problem is known in the United States.  In 2017, a minority of employment-based green cards actually went to workers while the majority went to their minor children and spouses.  Other countries or the OECD tend to count the family-members of economic skills-based immigrants in the same way – inflating the percentage who appear to be skilled economic immigrants and deflating those who are family members.  Just to be clear, derivative family members often work too and are an economic asset, but they are the types of immigrants whom the proponents of merit-based immigrants want to cut.

There are many points in favor and against creating a more merit-based immigration system in the United States, but let’s not be confused by the admittedly odd way that governments or the OECD count economic and family-based immigrants.  At a minimum, let’s stick to the facts when comparing immigration systems across countries:  No country in the OECD or EU admits mostly economic immigrants.