Canada Is Being 'Bombarded' With Anti-immigrant Views From the U.S.—Here's How Their Immigration Minister Is Fighting It

As the U.S. government continues a hardline crackdown on immigration across the country and along the southern border, its northern neighbors have been keeping a watchful eye, wary of how a rise in anti-immigrant rhetoric south of the border might affect the daily discourse in Canada.

In an interview with Newsweek, Ahmed Hussen, Canada's Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, said that while Canada is lucky to have a population that "generally supports immigration," it is not immune to the "anti-immigrant narratives" being espoused in the U.S. and around the world.

"I think we're very lucky in Canada, by and large, to have a population that generally supports immigration, understands the positive role that immigration has had on our country and understands the positive contributions of immigrants," Hussen said on Wednesday, following a roundtable discussion organized by the Concordia Forum at Canada House in London.

"However," he said, "we cannot take that for granted and we are being bombarded with a lot of anti-immigrant narratives right now."

With Canada's looming federal election set to take in October, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government has sought to resolidify its commitment to welcoming migrants, asylum seekers and refugees into the country. Earlier this year, the Trudeau administration announced plans to attract one million immigrants to Canada over three years.

Hussen, who came to Canada as a refugee himself at the age of 16 after he and his family were forced to flee Mogadishu in Somalia, said he was well-aware of the way anti-immigration rhetoric in a country like the U.S. can shape the discourse around the world.

To counter that, the immigration minister said, the Canadian government has made a conscious effort to "shore up" support for pro-immigration initiatives "by sharing success stories."

"Not just success stories of the newcomers themselves," Hussen said, "but also of Canadians who have been transformed by the experience."

Pointing to Canada's Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program, now in its 40th year, as one key example, Hussen noted that "over the last 40 years, over two million Canadians have personally sponsored a refugee."

"Now, that really does something," he said. "It transforms people... Because we find that not only are those two million Canadians who are signed on to sponsor transformed by that experience, but their networks also get involved with embracing that refugee family."

"So, for a big substantial percentage of the Canadian population, refugees and immigrants are not an abstract issue. It's a member of their new family and so, there's a resilience there," he said.

Further, he said, that "resilience" is something that more countries have been working towards building, despite the rhetoric coming out of the U.S. Britain, for example, has not only joined Canada in promoting the private sponsorship model, but also in offering a "community sponsorship program."

"Now, the UK and Canada are jointly promoting this to other countries, so there's now about 12 countries that have either adopted...or are about to launch...a program in places like Germany, or places you wouldn't expect, like Belgium," Hussen said.

When it comes to countering anti-immigration sentiments, the immigration minister said: "I think that's the way you do it, because that helps to increase the places [for refugees], but it also helps to change perceptions."

Another way that the Canadian government is seeking to "change perceptions" around refugees, Hussen said, is through a new pilot scheme that allows refugees to enter the country through economic immigration programs.

Run by Talent Beyond Boundaries, a non-government organization that has partnered with the UN Refugee Agency to help match refugees with employers in Canada and Australia, Hussen said the program is aimed at giving refugees more agency.

There are several competitive economic immigration programs in Canada, he said, and "for those spots, people are selected based on their human capital, skills, education, work experience and so on."

"It doesn't matter who you are, where you're from, your religion, or your background, but refugees, right now, are not eligible for those programs because they're displaced," the immigration minister said.

"What I'm saying is that's not fair to many refugees who have skills, so why don't we allow them to compete here?" he said. "You know, not just giving them a spot the way we do with the refugee program, because that is not based on skills, it's based on vulnerability... We're saying for those who can contribute, and a lot of them can, why not allow them to compete with everyone else here?"

Already, Hussen said, a number of refugees have started working in the country under the program, including a Syrian refugee who was living in Lebanon before being recruited to work for a technology firm in Kitchener-Waterloo earlier this year.

"He used this program to come through the economic skilled immigration competition and he came through the highest federal skilled worker program," the immigration minister said. "He has the human capital... He just happens to be a refugee."

Despite the positive influence that Hussen is confident initiatives like the one run by Talent Beyond Boundaries will have on both the economy and perceptions on immigration in Canada, recent public opinion polls have suggested a hardening of Canadian views towards immigrants and refugees.

A recent poll commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and conducted by Public Square Research and Maru/Blue found that of the 4,500 adults participating in the online survey, 57 percent felt that Canada should not be accepting more refugees.

Of those surveyed, 64 percent also said they believed illegal immigration is becoming a serious problem in Canada, while 56 percent said they felt that accepting too many immigrants into the country will change the nation. Meanwhile, 24 percent said they felt too many immigrants are visible minorities.

Despite signs of anti-immigration sentiments growing in Canada, Hussen said his government was determined to stay the course in keeping its commitments to migrants, asylum seekers and refugees.

Addressing the growing debate around immigration in the global discourse, Hussen said: "Look, we are not immune as part of the global community."

However, the immigration minister stressed that he believes the antidote to rhetoric that turns countries and their citizens increasingly inwards is to "keep pushing and promoting and showcasing [the] success stories" that can be told when countries strive to lift their lamps out to those looking to come in.

Ahmed Hussen
Hon. Ahmed Hussen, Minister of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship, Canada, speaks at The 2017 Concordia Annual Summit at Grand Hyatt New York on September 18, 2017 in New York City. Riccardo Savi/Getty