Legal Law

Designer Immigration: Canada’s Federal Skilled Workers Program (FSWP)

When it comes to being a nation of immigrants, Canada walks the walk. For example:

  • In 2011, non-citizen permanent residents accounted for 20% of Canada’s population, compared to just 12.5% in the U.S.
  • Newly arrived immigrants account for about half of the country’s annual population growth; and,
  • According to one study, Canadians tend to have favorable views of immigrants and and the continuing, influx of migrants, and only 17% believe there are “too many” immigrants, compared to 37% of Americans and 59% of British.1
Designer Immigration

Clearly, the Canadian approach is worth a close look by anyone interested in immigration, immigration policy, and reform. In this post, I want to take an introductory look at what may be the most unique aspect of the Canadian system, the Federal Skilled Workers Program (FSWP), in which I have long been interested but somehow never bothered to learn very much about. The underlying principle of the FSWP is similar to a skills assessment, in that the government evaluates a prospective immigrant in terms of her skills, education, and background, awarding her a certain number of points for each “valuable” attribute she possesses. Instead of requiring an employer petition or certain family connections, as is the case, for the most part, in the U.S. system, the FSWP starts with the question, What sort of immigrants does Canada want?, and builds a system around the purported answer.

Here’s how it works: First, a prospective immigrant must meet the minimum eligibility requirements:

  • One or more years of continuous, full-time, paid work experience, or its equivalent
  • In in a managerial, professional, or skilled / technical capacity
  • Within the 10 years preceding the date of application
  • That includes all the essential duties of the occupation, as set out by government guidelines.2

That’s enough to get a person through the door. Next, the person must demonstrate a combination of attributes that together give him enough “points” to qualify for a visa. The government awards these points in the following way:

  • Education – up to 25 points;
  • Language – up to 24 points;
  • Experience – up to 21 points;
  • Age – up to 10 points;
  • Arranged employment – up to 10 points; and
  • Adaptability – up to 10 points.2

To qualify for a visa, a person must have at least 67 points (under the most recent standard, set in 2003).2

So, what’s to like about this system? For one thing, it isn’t built around a set of arbitrary, inflexible requirements, like family relationships, at least not solely, and it doesn’t require that a person first line up a job with an employer willing to sponsor her visa. For another, the program uses a holistic assessment that looks at various aspects of a person and “values” these according to underlying policy decisions about what kind of people the country needs. Instead of having to conform to a rigid set of eligibility requirements, different people can qualify with different combinations of valued attributes. And now for the criticism: The program is optimized to cherry-pick “desirable” characters from around the globe (although the vast majority of immigrants to Canada come from just a few countries: India, China, the Philippines, and Pakistan3). And it’s a massive program: between 2002 and 2008, FSWP admissions accounted for 80% of all economic immigration to Canada and 46% of total immigrant admissions.2 Therefore, in a sense, as the FSWP does, so does Canada.

Indeed, the FSWP is just one part of an immigration sea change in Canada. In the mid-1980s, about 50% of all immigrants were admitted based on family relationships, and just 30% were economic migrants.1 By 2009, these numbers had reversed, with only 38% of admissions being based on family relationships, while 47% were of economic immigrants, and by 2012, the percentage of economic migrants had risen to 65%.1,4 On the other hand, only 42% of FSWP admissions between 2002 and 2008 were of principal applicants, with the other 58% being derivatives (read: family members).4 I see two take away points here: First, changes to immigration policy have successfully pivoted immigrant admissions away from family unity and toward skills-based immigration. On the other hand, most of these “skilled” immigrants are not necessarily skilled at all, being the family members of a lesser number of skilled workers.


This chart, taken from the Canadian government’s official statistics website, shows the changes over time:

So, is Canada getting the immigrants it wants? Turns out, it’s hard to say. Studies indicate, for example, that the earnings gap between recent arrivals and the Canada-born population has actually widened over time and that this gap doesn’t close easily for newcomers.1 Immigrants are more likely to be impoverished, and they have a hard time catching up to the native-born population. Of course, there could be many factors underlying this persistent income gap, and I won’t pretend to know enough to express an opinion as to the possible causes. Another problem for Canada is passive “mooching” from the southern border, as many immigrants seem to be using the Canadian system as a “stepping stone” to eventual resettlement in the old U.S. of A. Turns out that the America’s economy remains a powerful magnet, in spite of a U.S. immigration system that, compared to the more carefully crafted Canadian model, looks like an exercise in uncontrolled chaos.

In light of the fascinating experiments across our northern border, I will no doubt be returning to the topic of Canadian immigration again.

1. Migration Information Source articles here and here.
2. Article on the Citizenship and Immigration Canada website, here.
3. York University powerpoint presentation on the Canadian system.
4. Additional articles on the Citizenship and Immigration Canada website, here and here.

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