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Is the Jewish community losing faith in immigration?

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About two years ago, National Public Radio, the American public broadcaster, ran a story comparing Canadian and American attitudes towards immigration. Canada, the report noted, “has invited in so many immigrants that today one-fifth of the population is foreign born, and yet, broadly speaking, Canadians don’t seem to wrestle with the anti-immigrant sentiment that has motivated voters in the United States and in Europe.”

Whether Canadians are as positive towards immigration today as they were just two years ago may be up for debate. According to a December 2018 poll conducted by Ipsos on behalf of Global News, 39 per cent of the 2,001 Canadians polled were positive about immigration, up slightly from 38 per cent the year before, while 32 per cent were negative. But the results also showed an increase in negative attitudes toward immigration.

“There is a growing belief (44 per cent, up eight points) that there are too many immigrants in Canada,” Ipsos reported, while “six in 10 (57 per cent, up five points) say immigration has put too much strain on public services.” Only 23 per cent disagreed with the contention that Canada has too many immigrants.

The poll came at a time when the federal government was coming under fire for its decision to permit thousands of undocumented asylum-seekers to enter the country from the United States. Asked if they agreed with the statement that “immigration is causing my country to change in ways that I don’t like,” 48 per cent of respondents agreed (up from 41 per cent the year before), while only 26 per cent disagreed. Interestingly, 59 per cent agreed with the statement that “the government is hiding the true cost of immigration to taxpayers and society,” while only 13 per cent disagreed. And 38 per cent said “politicians, media outlets and others in Canada who have spoken out in opposition to immigration have been treated unfairly.” Only 18 per cent disagreed with that proposition.

But if Canadians’ attitudes toward immigration are hardening, that does not appear to be reflected at the government level. In his 2018 Annual Report to Parliament on Immigration, Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen said that, “Immigration has been an important part of building Canada into what it is today: a country that celebrates multiculturalism and diversity, has a global reputation for welcoming people from around the world and stands up for the most vulnerable.”

Hussen reported that in 2017, Canada welcomed more than 286,000 permanent residents, including more than 44,000 refugees. Looking ahead, Hussen said Canada plans to “responsibly grow our annual immigration levels to 340,000 by 2020, with 60 per cent of the growth in the economic class.” Meanwhile, the Canadian Press reported that documents it obtained under an Access to Information request showed that, in November 2017, the Immigration and Refugee Board estimated that it would need $140 million per year, plus $40 million in one-time costs, to process 36,000 extra refugee cases annually. As of May 2018, the current backlog of pending claims stood at a little more than 50,000, but CP estimated that the number actually stands at around 64,000.

People welcomed Syrian refugees at a solidarity rally in Toronto on Nov. 22, 2015. (Arindambanerjee/Shutterstock.com)

In Quebec, meanwhile, the governing Coalition Avenir Québec tabled a bill on Feb. 7 aimed at better matching immigrants to jobs, while also requiring that they be proficient in French and accept Quebec values. In doing so, the government threw out 18,000 applications from skilled workers who had applied to come to Quebec. The government had previously announced that it would reduce the number of immigrants to the province to 40,000 this year, down from 50,000 in 2018.

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Where does the Canadian Jewish community stand on immigration? As the descendants of fairly recent immigrants ourselves, do we look upon immigration more favourably than the broader community sampled by Ipsos?

There’s little doubt that when it comes to refugees – those fleeing political, racial or religious persecution – Jews feel a degree of empathy that is a direct result of our own tortured history. Debbie Rose, the executive director of MozuudRSVP, which runs Project Abraham, said that the organization she leads is dedicated to helping Yazidis, and others who are fleeing genocide, find safety in Canada. When the organization was launched in 2017, 95 per cent of its membership and supporters were Jewish. Today, that number stands at around 75 per cent, as others in the broader community join in the group’s mission, she said.

So far, Project Abraham has brought four Yazidi families to the Greater Toronto Area under the private sponsorship program, with another six families in the works.

In addition, the organization provides “settlement support” to around 20 of the 40 Yazidi families in the region, though no one is turned away from the integration programs offered to the new arrivals, Rose said.

“It’s a Jewish imperative,” Rose believes. “Emotionally, this is what happens with Jews when they do identify with someone. It leads to action.”

That’s a sentiment shared by Lia Kisel, the language and settlement director of Jewish Immigrant Aid Services Toronto (JIAS). When the government was attempting to bring in Syrian families fleeing the civil war and African asylum-seekers leaving Israel, JIAS stepped up and helped facilitate their entry into Canada. “The Torah contains more than 50 references to the laws of the stranger. It asks us to remember that, ‘The stranger who sojourns with you shall be as a native from among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” Kisel said.

“The sponsorship of refugees is entirely a humanitarian effort guided by core Jewish values and principles.”

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) also places a lot of emphasis on supporting newcomers. “Canadian Jewry is a community in which virtually every family can trace its roots to immigrants or refugees, some of whom arrived in recent years,” said Steve McDonald, director of policy for CIJA. “We have a vested interest in this issue and a unique perspective to share with all Canadians.”

However, McDonald also cautioned that “there is a growing sense that our asylum-seeker process requires significant reform, as called for in an independent review of the Immigration and Refugee Board released in June 2018.” Of particular concern is the lengthy backlog of asylum claims, as well as how immigrants are being vetted. “While we strongly support immigration for a whole host of reasons, we believe more can be done to protect Canadians from individuals whom the government and the courts have ruled should not be permitted to remain in Canada due to security concerns, or for having committed crimes against humanity,” he said.

McDonald notes that since 2015, Canada has issued 70 removal orders on security grounds. As of early last year, only 14 deportations had occurred. In one high-profile case, a former member of a Palestinian terror group continues to evade deportation, despite proceedings against him having begun in 1992. “This is grossly unacceptable,” McDonald said.

Avi Benlolo, the CEO of the Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, agrees that we should exercise caution over who gets to enter Canada. “As was the case in our pursuit of Nazi war criminals, our only contention regarding immigration is for Canada to properly vet and disallow modern-day war criminals from entering our country,” he said.

READ: THE STORY OF JEWISH IMMIGRANTS TO CANADA, AND HOW THEY PROSPERED

“This would extend to extremists who are affiliated with terror organizations, have either committed acts of terrorism or have the potential to incite or radicalize here in Canada. Our hope for new immigrants is that they understand and adhere to Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, considered essential for protecting Canada’s democracy, respect and equality.”

But Karen Mock, president of JSpaceCanada, believes the progressive wing of the Jewish community supports Ottawa’s immigration policy and the vetting process. “Except for Aboriginal peoples, Canada is a nation of immigrants,” she noted. Mock believes that Ottawa’s current approach “is adequate to screen out ‘undesirables.’ ”

“There is no valid evidence that immigrants to Canada from specific countries have higher crime rates than any other country,” Mock added. “What we need is more resources applied to the vetting process to clear the backlog and speed up the process, particularly when people are fleeing from war-torn countries and places where there are humanitarian crises.

“Canada is considered a safe haven. It has been good to our community, once the immigration restrictions for Jews was relaxed, and as a community, we should certainly be exemplary when it comes to supporting Canadian policy on new immigrants and refugees.”

As for the Ipsos poll, Mock said that, “The results are upsetting but not surprising. Goebbels taught us well: if you repeat lies often enough, people will believe them.

Guidy Mamann is an immigration lawyer who counts new Canadians as members of his family. “Immigration to Canada handled properly is fantastic,” he said. “It is how the country needs to move forward, to be competitive.”

But are we doing it right? Are we in control of our immigration policy?

“Not at the border,” he believes, where Canada has seen an influx of refugee claimants in recent years, despite having an agreement with the U.S. that’s supposed to prevent refugees who have already landed there from coming here.

“The refugee system is supposed to be akin to a lifeboat on the ocean. You can’t ignore the nearest lifeboat,” Mamann argued. “Canadians now look at the border and feel we’ve lost control.”

But what about the traditional Jewish imperative to help the stranger in your midst?

Mamann acknowledges that this attitude goes back to biblical times. The question for him, however, is how do we protect people in need – those fleeing persecution and genocide – while not undermining support for the immigration system as a whole?

He believes “you need a local approach: settle people near the conflict zone where they would be safe.” When the conflict ends, they can return to their homes.

Canadians are orderly people, they wait their turn in line, he continued. Right now, there are millions of refugees in camps around the world waiting to be resettled, while half of those entering from the United States and making refugee claims are being denied. “Many are economic migrants,” he said.

“There’s a hole in the fence and people already in a safe country are saying, ‘No, we’d rather go to Canada.’ That doesn’t feel like a rescue mission anymore.”

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