Since the 2020 election in the United States, there has been a great deal of debate and discussion regarding the Republican Party’s surprisingly strong performance with racialized voters, including migrants. This result caused a great deal of consternation among progressives, as it challenged their underlying political assumptions.

Most progressives envision a natural affinity between immigrants and progressive politics. As a consequence, many have even fallen into the trap of believing in the tautology of ‘demographic change’ ensuring future progressive political dominance. This tautology is undermined by the fact that the immigration system is designed in a manner that tilts the class and political makeup of migrants joining the electorate.

As migrants and their children form a significant proportion of racialized communities, the ways in which migration is managed are relevant to the phenomenon of support for right-wing politics among these groups, both in the U.S. and Canada. Considering the biases of the current immigration system, progressives shouldn’t expect automatic political success with migrant communities.

Despite the variety of visa options available, the design of the immigration system ensures that few working class people from the Global South are ever provided a path to citizenship, and therefore the electorate, in the Global North.

The most fundamental cleavage in the immigration system is that between migrants with legal status and those without. The difference in class composition between the two groups is transparently obvious. Migrants without legal status earn much lesser incomes than their counterparts with legal status and have lower educational attainment.

Despite forming a massive labour bloc in the U.S., these migrants aren’t provided a clear path to citizenship. In Canada, the role of undocumented labour is instead performed by temporary foreign workers. Although the legal regime is different, temporary foreign workers also allow Canada to fill its labour shortages while minimizing the actual provision of citizenship to working class migrants, with only a small proportion ever given permanent residency.

Of course, there are also migration paths that do offer a path to citizenship. For elites in the Global South, this path isn’t a difficult one to traverse. Many countries in the Global North offer explicit investor visa programs that provide residency and eventual — sometimes immediate — citizenship in return for large investments. For example, though Canada suspended its Immigrant Investor Program in 2014, Quebec retains its own version alongside the Federal Government’s more elaborate entrepreneurship visas.

Along with explicit investor visas, there are a variety of legal paths for the Global South’s rich to migrate to the U.S. and Canada. As a result, those from the highest wealth percentiles in the Global South have disproportionate access to citizenship in the Global North.

Another migration path is via postsecondary education. Dwindling public funding has resulted in many North American universities depending heavily on the extravagant tuition fees charged to international students.

In Canada, international undergraduate tuition is usually several times that of domestic tuition. For example, in the 2019-2020 academic year, the University of Toronto’s annual international tuition could be more than $55,000 for an undergraduate degree, while its domestic tuition could be as low as $6,100 for the same degree.

Naturally, the students that are able to afford these fees are those with rich families. Though some scholarships are offered, the high tuition fees generally filter out any incoming international students with working class backgrounds.

Many of these international students that do make it to North American universities are able to stay in their adopted countries, find employment and pursue a path to citizenship. Though the educational visas offer a path to permanent residency in the Global North, the high cost of this education ensures a clear class bias.

Some migrants are able to directly obtain working visas or skilled-worker visas in the Global North. However, such visas are only given for specific occupations, typically requiring advanced degrees. These occupations are often limited to ‘professional’ fields such as finance, technology, engineering and health care. These educational hurdles ensure a class tilt in the inflow of migrants on this visa category, as those from wealthier backgrounds are more likely to obtain advanced degrees.

However, some developing countries — such as China and Venezuela — have built effective education systems that have at least partially overcome educational gaps between classes. This results in at least some room in this visa category for professionals from working class backgrounds to migrate in a permanent and legal manner.

Despite this possibility, though, the children of proletarians have less access to networking and other aspects that define ‘competitiveness’ for these jobs, vis-à-vis the children of Global South elites. Those from poorer backgrounds are also disadvantaged in other selection factors, such as English and French fluency, having family in Canada or having previously studied in the country.

Even if working class migrant candidates are hired or qualify as skilled-workers, there remains the issue of how working in these professional sectors forms a new class identity.

Refugee Status

Another major category for permanent and legal migration to the U.S. and Canada is via refugee status.

As the rich are better able to avoid becoming displaced, one would expect the class composition of refugees to be oriented towards the poor and working class. Yet despite its potential inclusiveness, asylum policy is prone to being engineered for partisan ends. Specifically, asylum policies are inextricably linked with the foreign policy objectives of Global North countries. Overall, such policies are biased toward granting refugee status to those aligned with the U.S. and Canada’s right-wing interests in the developing world.

The politicization of asylum policies in the U.S. is a fairly well-studied phenomenon. The first refugee legislation passed in the U.S. in 1948 drew tens of thousands of internally displaced Europeans. Explicitly designed with a systemic bias against Jews and Catholics, it instead allowed many Nazi collaborators and sympathizers to escape prosecution by resettling in the U.S.

In the ensuing decades, asylum policy was an important part of the Cold War toolkit. Those ‘fleeing’ from communist or Middle Eastern governments had a far greater chance of qualifying for refugee status. A more standardized refugee program was finally developed in 1980, though it remained tied to foreign policy rationales.

U.S. interventions in Central America in the ’80s are another revealing case of how asylum policy can be politicized. While the U.S. backed right-wing dictatorships in El Salvador and Guatemala, it also supported right-wing rebels in Nicaragua. Nearly 1 million Salvadorans and Guatemalans fled government repression, with thousands of them seeking asylum in the U.S.

The annual acceptance rate for asylum claims was between 2 to 3 per cent for Salvadorans and Guatemalans, despite the serious risk to their lives. In contrast, U.S. authorities were much more inclined to grant asylum to Nicaraguans fleeing their democratically-elected socialist government, peaking at more than 80 per cent being granted asylum in 1987.

The Nicaraguan experience is consistent with others fleeing ‘enemy’ governments in that era, with a 1984 asylum acceptance rate of 60 per cent for Iranians, 40 per cent for Afghans and 32 per cent for Poles.

Asylum policies also continue to be used strategically. In 2018, after U.S. President Donald Trump drastically reduced the number of refugee admissions, the Pentagon was quick to dissent by highlighting potential asylum as a powerful tool in inducing cooperation with American occupation forces.

Canada’s history with refugee policy broadly parallels the U.S., though it has remained more insulated from political pressure. Canada, for example, has its own sordid history of resettling Nazis as part of its anti-Communist policies, with the history of the Ukrainian Canadian community being emblematic. The anti-Communist orientation of Canadian asylum policy also continued throughout the Cold War.

In the contemporary era, Canada’s asylum policies are more independent but still linked with foreign policy. Anti-imperialist countries, and those with active Western military interventions, are overrepresented as countries of origin for refugees.

For example, Iran and Venezuela together account for more than 16 per cent of all accepted claims in 2019, but only around 2 per cent of rejections. While Iran and Venezuela have many problems, social activists are generally not gunned down like in (West-friendly) Colombia. Nonetheless, more refugees are accepted, at higher rates, from Iran and Venezuela than Colombia.

While much commentary has argued that recent increases in refugees are the direct result of imperialist intervention, there has been little research on how asylum policies toward targeted countries are a part of the interventionist toolkit.

The most recent example of the link between asylum and foreign policy is the Canadian government’s announcement that it will approve anti-Communist activists in Hong Kong for refugee status. This shift is clearly important, with the homepage of Canada’s immigration website advertising potential “priority processing” for Hong Kong residents. This transparently political manoeuvre contravenes the conventional definition of refugee, as members of the separatist movement in Hong Kong have generally not actually been displaced.

In effect, this policy fast-tracks (often wealthy) right-wing activists from China’s richest region for migration over refugees from the rest of the Global South, all due to their involvement with a West-backed protest movement in which two people died, one killed by protestors. Meanwhile, leftist Chileans involved in a protest movement with more than 30 deaths aren’t given the same treatment.

So, while not subject to the same class biases as other migration paths, Canada’s refugee policy holds ideological biases through its links with foreign policy, prioritizing those perspectives that align with Canada’s interests in the Global South.

This doesn’t mean every (or even most) refugee(s) provided asylum will have geopolitical beliefs that align with Canada’s elites. Rather, it means that the objectives of Canada’s asylum policies structurally prioritize those assumed to have aligned beliefs.

Rethinking The Immigration System

A review of the various paths to citizenship clearly illustrates the sheer unrepresentativeness of the U.S. and Canada’s migration policies. It would be fairly representative if 90 per cent of permanent and documented migrants to Canada from the Global South were from the bottom 90 per cent of the wealth distribution in their origin countries. Considering the migration paths considered above, the inverse is more likely.

Investor and entrepreneurship visas can be ruled out, with few qualifying for undergraduate scholarships and none able to afford the tuition otherwise. Few will be able to out-compete their richer compatriots for work or skilled-worker visas. Some will be able to migrate as graduate students or through the byzantine patchwork of provincial and regional migration programs.

The most probable option remains temporary foreign worker programs, whereby a proportion will be able to transfer their status to permanent residents. The other major migration path, family reunification, involves citizens sponsoring their, usually immediate, family members for visas. As it’s contingent on having family members arrive via one of the mentioned migration paths, it’s still subject to the same class and ideological biases.

Overall, the migration system mostly filters out working class candidates from migrating to Canada on a permanent basis. Those from the richest percentiles in the Global South are heavily overrepresented. This is compounded by the stickiness of class identity: even though migrants may be relatively poorer in Canada than their origin countries, the worldview formed as rich members of southern societies are likely to inform their later political habits.

The Canadian left remains shy about discussing immigration. Understandably so, with a media landscape perhaps more homogeneously right-wing than the U.S., many fear opening Pandora’s box. But without progressive pushback, a status quo has taken shape that thoroughly selects the richest members of Global South countries. This has downstream political consequences. Rather than being an independent process, the system structurally favours those that are more likely to have an affinity for right-wing politics.

Beyond Canada’s moral duty to provide refuge to those in the Global South disproportionately affected by this country’s climate, foreign and economic policies, it’s also politically advantageous for the left to push for an expansion and greater inclusivity in our immigration system.