The old anti-immigrant game

Posted by admin on Sep 24th, 2010

Published On Fri Sep 24 2010, Toronto Star

News item: Canada’s minister responsible for immigration has been on an important overseas mission to lobby for new restrictions on the unscrupulous practices of many recruiters. These international measures will combine with major new Canadian laws to assert more control over immigration agents. The move comes after a series of sensational cases of underhanded and possibly criminal activities by immigration promoters. Although this may sound like a story about Jason Kenney’s current trip abroad and the Conservative government’s recent policy announcements, it’s actually a description of events in 1906. The minister in question was future prime minister Mackenzie King, sent to London to lobby the imperial Parliament to pass new laws against “fraudulent representation” in immigration.

Indeed, agents and recruiters have been central — and controversial — figures throughout the history of transnational migration. In particular, during an earlier period of heavy immigration, the early 20th century, there was a series of public campaigns by different interest groups, investigations by royal commissions (four in 1904-1906 alone), and public policy debates about immigration promoters. In the early 21st century, the issue appears ready to heat up again, as evidenced by Kenney’s trip and Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s reported decision this week to avoid detaining immigrants arriving in large ships and “to focus more on stopping the people who bring the migrants here.”

To be sure, the context of the current interest in recruiters is vastly different than it was for those debates more than 100 years ago. For instance, refugees did not constitute a distinct category in policy or public debate back then. More important, in the early 20th century, groups from across the political spectrum, from church officials and conservative media to progressive-minded social reformers and labour leaders, were much more overt in expressing opposition to immigration. They openly vilified particular immigrant groups, especially those from Asia and eastern and southern Europe

Nevertheless, some key features of previous controversies around immigration agents bear striking similarities to the situation today — and these parallels tell us what to expect if this issue continues to gain prominence in Canadian politics.

First, there should be little doubt that any serious investigation of immigration agents will find serious abuses. While certainly not all recruiters can be cast as villains, devious practices by shady agents and brokers have abounded through the years.

Indeed, many stories from the recent ship carrying Tamil immigrants, particularly of people getting gouged on costs and misled about their reception and economic prospects in Canada, will have an all-too-familiar ring to students of immigration history. In the past, abuse was so widespread that even philanthropic and religious organizations — many of which may have started with noble motives — were frequently caught misleading and taking advantage of immigrants.

But past experience also provides little hope that this new interest in recruiters will deliver meaningful protections for immigrants. Campaigns vilifying promoters have consistently been led by groups and politicians whose real goal is to generate a backlash and sour the popular mood about immigration. The agents are perfect for this agenda as targeting them is a convenient way of creating opposition to immigration without overtly attacking the migrants themselves.

This is a particularly important consideration today, when open immigration bashing is (at least for now in Canada) less politically profitable than it was 100 years ago. Back then, anti-immigration forces confined their attacks to agents involved in British immigration, as most migrants from the Mother Country — unlike “foreigners” from eastern Europe or Asia — could not be easily vilified.

Attacking the agents eventually has a similar effect, however, as outrage caused by shocking cases of underhanded activity helps spread a dark cloud of mistrust over every aspect of immigration. Fostering this suspicion is easier today, as more immigrants come from places Canadians understand less and fear more than they did the Mother Country 100 years ago. Casting the players in the immigration system as corrupt and criminal engenders doubt that it could send over migrants who would become good citizens. Casting agents as sleazy characters cheating the system encourages suspicion that the migrants themselves will do the same in Canada.

For labour leaders in the early 20th century, this crystallized into an argument that almost all immigration had to be shut off because it was “illegitimate.” Although the term “queue jumpers” was not around then, there were equivalent complaints about “legitimate” immigration being discouraged by the government’s soft approach to corruption in the system.

A final benefit for politicians is that this is one of those areas where it is easy to take action that appears bold and sweeping but in reality has little impact. Mackenzie King returned home able to boast about his success in lobbying the British Parliament to enact new legislation regulating the activities of agents, which in one sense was no small accomplishment for a Canadian politician on his first political assignment to the capital of the empire. But immigration agents continued their work almost uninterrupted, and King’s trip to London is most notable now as a step forward in his political career and as a sign of the government’s desire to pacify anti-immigration constituencies.

A much larger overhaul of immigration legislation a few years later had only a slightly larger impact. It was only after World War II that international economic trends, the rise of the welfare state, the emergence of new industrial unions, and shifts in labour law would fundamentally improve the terms under which immigrants were brought to Canada.

Today, the Conservative government is heading in a drastically different direction. In particular, Harper’s government has overseen an explosion in immigration systems (already expanded by the Liberals) that are ripe for abuse. Under Temporary Foreign Worker Programs, thousands of immigrants are brought to Canada with few rights, only provisional status to remain in the country, and not even the minimum protections from labour standards legislation.

If the Harper government was serious about protecting immigrants, it would abolish or at least drastically reform these programs, even if it meant going against the wishes of Canadian employers looking for a steady supply of cheap and easily coerced labour. A much better bet, however, is that the Tories will continue to replay the old tactics of manipulating fears about immigrants and their recruiters to their own political advantage.

David Goutor is a Canadian historian and assistant professor of labour studies at McMaster University. He is author of Guarding the Gates: The Canadian Labour Movement and Immigration, 1872-1934.

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