The facts on immigration

Andrew Coyne
National Post
October 2, 2002

Martin Collacott proceeds apace. From the alarmism and selective quotation of his recent anti-immigration tract for the Fraser Institute, he has graduated to insults. Thus, for the crime of having provided what he professes most to crave, a debate, he responds by calling me “poorly informed” and decrying my “profound ignorance.”

Readers who wish to judge the depths of my ignorance for themselves will find a fuller statement of my views as they appeared in The Next City magazine. But let me just make a few points in the space I have here.

I noted previously that immigration is not especially high at present, as Mr. Collacott and his fellow restrictionists seem to believe, but rather is well below our historic average – about 1% of the population per year. In reply, Mr. Collacott claims I had “to reach back almost 100 years” to find the last time immigration crossed the 1% threshold. Wrong: In 1967, we admitted 223,000 immigrants, about the same as currently, into a population of little more than 20 million. Similar or higher numbers were admitted through much of the 1950s.

In addition to exaggerating the scale of current immigration, Mr. Collacott places heavy emphasis on the supposed steep decline in quality of recent immigrants, which he attributes to a politically motivated shift in favour of family-class immigrants, rather than economic-class. Worse, he claims, is the tendency of immigrants to use this provision to bring in their aged parents. Far from ameliorating the problem of an aging population, he points out, immigrants make up a higher proportion of those over 65 (18%) than do the native-born (10%).

Had Mr. Collacott taken greater care with his use of statistics, however, he would have noticed that this is entirely a function of a previous generation of immigrants, those who came here 40 years ago or more. Among recent arrivals, the proportion aged 65 and over is just 5%, less than half the proportion among the native-born. Oops.

That distinction, between recent immigrants and earlier cohorts, is critical. Mr. Collacott is greatly exercised that recent arrivals should make such a poor showing in economic terms compared to the native-born population. Indeed, immigrants in the 1991-96 cohort have higher rates of unemployment (18.6% versus 9.9%) and lower average incomes ($15,000 versus $25,000) than native-born Canadians. But that was always true. New immigrants, whether because of language difficulties, lack of contacts, or problems getting their credentials accepted, always underperform the average. Within about 12 years, however, they have caught up with the native-born population, eventually surpassing them by a wide margin.

Research by Professor Ather Akbari of St. Mary’s University shows that the average immigrant household pays more than twice as much in taxes as it consumes in public services. In 1990, he calculates that family would have made an annual net transfer to the native-born population of $1,813, or almost $100 per current resident.

It’s probable the size of that transfer would be less now – it does seem that today’s immigrants are taking longer to catch up than previously – but not its direction. For it isn’t only that immigrants, once established, tend to earn more than the average. They are also less inclined to be a drain on the public purse. They are less likely to be in jail, for one, as Mr. Collacott concedes. They are more likely to hold a university degree, to be self-employed, or to own their own home; less likely to be divorced, to have a chronic condition like cancer or to suffer from alcoholism.

Ah, but what about all those settlement costs, for language training and the like? Mr. Collacott again quotes from the Economic Council of Canada’s 1991 report on immigration, which he continues to misrepresent as supporting his position. In fact, the Council estimated those costs at just $20 per capita annually. By comparison, just the scale-economy effects of higher immigration would, according to the Council’s figures, add about $70 to the incomes of current residents for every million people admitted. At a population of 100 million, the Council estimated per capita incomes would be 7% higher than at present.

Mr. Collacott neglects to mention that, just as he overlooks the Council’s meticulous empirical proof of what economic theory predicts: that immigration has no impact on unemployment. Neither does he include the Council’s finding that, far from raising social tensions, attitudes to immigrants tend to improve the higher the proportion of immigrants in a given community. Rates of ethnic intermarriage, to take just one indicator, have been climbing steadily for decades.

One final point. Mr. Collacott seems most offended that I should have compared him to Enoch Powell, for raising the spectre of race riots if immigration is not severely cut back. But where’s the offence? Powell foretold scenes of bloody violence following from the admission of large numbers of black and Asian immigrants, and sure enough they followed – 30 years later, sporadically, for any number of reasons, but still, violence is violence. I’d have thought Mr. Collacott would hold him up as a prophet.

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