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Canada’s immigration debate is more serious than America’s

A key Clinton-Trump exchange in Las Vegas contrasts with Ottawa’s policy debate
Canada’s Immigration Minister John McCallum speaks during a news conference in Ottawa, Canada November 24, 2015. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)
Canada's Immigration Minister John McCallum speaks during a news conference in Ottawa, Canada November 24, 2015. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)
Immigration Minister John McCallum speaks during a news conference in Ottawa, Nov. 24, 2015. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

As Canadians watching U.S. politics, there is always a temptation to look for competitive advantage. What good policy will our politics allow that U.S. politics seemingly never will? Historically, the examples have been definitive—and as diverse as universal health care and a national value-added tax.

But watching this fall’s U.S. presidential election, including tonight’s debate in Las Vegas, it’s hard to look past the dumbfounding distraction that is Republican nominee Donald Trump to see the deeper policy inclinations—and disinclinations—that might be the next defining points of that policy divergence.

Still, there is one policy field where that sort of Canada-U.S. distinction is particularly pronounced this season: immigration. It’s a hot topic in both Washington and Ottawa, although in tellingly different ways. Consider first how the subject was handled in the third 2016 presidential debate.

RELATED: Our live analysis of the third presidential debate

The night’s admirably steady moderator, Chris Wallace of Fox News Channel, put the question to Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in very broad terms. He noted that immigration policy separates them more than almost any other issue, with Clinton favouring a “path to citizenship” for undocumented workers, and Trump proposing mass deportations. “The question really is,” Wallace said, “why are you right and your opponent wrong?”

And so they went at it. “We’re going to get them out, we’re going to secure the border, and once the border is secure at a later date we will make a determination as to the rest,” Trump said, adding darkly, “but we have some bad hombres here and we’re going to get them out.”

Clinton responded, “I don’t want to see the deportation force that Donald has talked about in action in our country.” She noted that he’s talking about going after 11 million undocumented adults, who happen to have four million American-citizen kids, which is inconvenient.

It’s one of those intractable U.S. politics impasses that never seems to inch any closer to solution. But in Canada—thanks mainly, we should admit, to the fact that we don’t share a long border with a much poorer country—we don’t face the partisan conditions that have made immigration a policy quagmire in the U.S.

Instead, there’s growing debate here over how to make immigration a pillar of economic policy. This week, the question is top-of-mind for Liberal policy thinkers who don’t seem to agree on what’s possible and advisable.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s elite Advisory Council on Economic Growth will reportedly be calling later this week for a massive increase in annual immigration: 450,000 people a year, up from 321,000 immigrants in the 2015-16 year, according to Statistics Canada—already the biggest influx of newcomers in a 12-month period since 1910.

But Immigration Minister John McCallum has already voiced skepticism about whether or not that is possible. And McCallum is hardly down on boosting numbers: I recently interviewed him on the new immigration targets his department is currently working on, and he sketched reforms that would seek to increase the number of international students who stay in Canada permanently, speed up the process for bringing in immigrants with high-technology skills, along with a raft of other changes.

MORE: Canada’s demographic gap can’t be filled with immigrants

“My focus now is finding the immigrants who will immediately contribute to the economy, get jobs, get good jobs, and often create the conditions that will create jobs for Canadians,” he said.

Finding those adaptable, employable future Canadians is no easy matter, though. In fact, it seems to be growing more difficult to find many thousands every year who will settle in fast. “The labour market outcomes of many immigrants are far poorer than those of their Canadian-born counterparts, and each new generation falls increasingly further away,” wrote Don Drummond and Francis Fogg in Policy Options in 2010.

More recently, a Statistics Canada report from earlier this year pointed out that major efforts have already been made by successive federal governments to find better candidates for economic success. Any easy, obvious measures were taken long ago.

In the 1990s, Ottawa sought to bring in better-educated immigrants; in the early 2000s, there was a large increase in the number of immigrants who had previous temporary work experience in Canada. Yet the outcomes, while in some areas very promising, were uneven. There’s no panacea.

But at least the debate in Canada is serious, and not blighted much by Trump-style posturing and scare-mongering. Key voices in the Conservative party want to position themselves as even more enthusiastic about larger immigration inflows than many Liberals, including former Tory immigration minister Chris Alexander, now a candidate for his party’s leadership.

RELATED: Chris Alexander on diplomacy, Donald Trump and his leadership hopes

It’s possible that immigration is now being touted too enthusiastically around Ottawa as the solution for the shrinking labour force problem Canada shares with many other developed, demographically aging democracies.

But at least the argument is over the real policy questions. How many immigrants? With what characteristics? And what’s needed to integrate them? These same questions about immigration are, of course, also discussed by Americans who take their labour market needs seriously. But not tonight in Las Vegas. While we needn’t indulge our weakness for smugness on this file, there’s no shame in identifying a clear chance to do better.