Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Commentary on Canada's New Legislation on Asylum Seekers

Submission to the Hearings of House of Commons Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration on Bill C-31 the Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act on May 2nd, 2012

Chair and Honorable Members of the Committee:

I thank you for inviting me to share with you my views on pending legislation aimed at improving Canada’s immigration system.  Minister Jason Kenney, the government and the members of this Committee deserve much praise for taking on this difficult task.

By now you will have heard much criticism from well organized lawyers and human rights advocates about the short-comings of Bill C-31.  All of these criticisms deserve your attention and some may help to improve some detailed provisions of the Bill.
I will stay away from discussing the issues raised by these critics, except to urge the Committee to remember that the views of the lawyers and rights advocates are not entirely driven by their unselfish desire to protect the rights of asylum seekers.  These witnesses also have much at stake, professionally and personally.
I have no personal stake in the effects and operation of Canada’s refugee legislation.  My remarks are motivated by the desire to discuss how Bill C-31 will affect the well-being Canadians, which is a topic often neglected in discussions that focus on the effects the Bill will have on the well-being of asylum seekers.
However, before I do so, let me make clear that my analysis should not be interpreted as suggesting that Canada should withdraw from its commitment to help people to escape from persecution abroad. The issue, as I see it, is that while our commitment is and should remain firm, it should not be without limit.
We all give more to charity now when we can afford it than we did when we were young and poor, struggling to take care of our families.  The same principle applies to our government.  Bill C-31 will reduce the cost of our commitment to help foreigners.  It is therefore appropriate for our present poor fiscal conditions.
In this spirit, let me remind you of the undisputed existence of Canada’s serious fiscal problems due stubborn deficits and the effects of an aging population on the unfunded liabilities of pensions and health care programs.  In this unstable world we live in, these deficits are likely to be larger than forecast by many.
There is also no doubt about the fact that the administration of the existing refugee system is costly.  As Martin Collacott told you earlier and Joe Bissett will tell you in more detail tomorrow, the direct cost for every claimant has been estimated to be about 60 thousand dollars and the annual costs of dealing with all of the claimants in Canada are in the billions.
In addition, present refugee policies cause successful claimants to settle in Canada without having to pass the points test.  Studies have shown that most of them will have below average incomes and tax payments while they absorb benefits provided by our universal social programs.  My estimates suggest that the annual fiscal burden of such immigrants is about $6,000 on average and greater for admitted asylum seekers.
I believe that Bill C-31 will not only make the system fairer but that it will also reduce the number of asylum seekers and successful claimants.  These reductions will give rise to savings, which will reduce the deficit, allow governments to provide more public services or lower taxes.
These benefits of Bill C-31 going to Canadians are accompanied by costs to asylum seekers.  You have heard much from lawyers and other witnesses about violations of due legal process and the way in which seekers suffer from a reduction in standards of fairness in their treatment.  We are faced here with an iron law of economics.  Government benefits to some impose costs on others.
The trouble with Bill C-31 is that no estimates of the value of these benefits and costs exist.  Yet, in the end, your decision to vote should rationally be built on such calculations.  The value of feeling good about being generous to foreigners and even of meeting to the fullest extent commitments made through international agreements is not infinity.  If the benefits were one billion dollars for each less fairly treated applicant or wrongfully rejected claimant, the Bill would be more desirable than if the benefits were one million or one hundred or one thousand dollars.
In the absence of these numbers, you have the unenviable task of voting for a Bill without full knowledge of the benefits and costs.  My sympathies are with you.
In case you are interested in my personal views, let me tell you that I would vote in favour of Bill C-31 because based on knowledge gained in my study of economics, I believe that the likely benefits for Canadians are high enough to warrant the imposition of costs of somewhat less fair treatment and the likely small numbers of wrongly rejected asylum seekers.
But let me add frankly that I have a moral bias entering these views.  I believe that charity should start at home and that the well-being of foreigners should come second and only after we have gotten our fiscal house in order.

A video of my presentation to the Committee can be found at http://parlvu.parl.gc.ca/Parlvu/TimeBandit/PowerBrowser.aspx?ContentEntityId=8919&EssenceFormatID=848.  The presentation takes less than 10 minutes.  The site also shows the presentation by other witnesses and the questions posed by members of the Committee.

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