Tech Canada's minister of immigration explains what successful immigration policies look like

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Ahmed Hussen says his country has historically been very welcoming of immigrants and refugees, and has no plans of stopping.

Ahmed Hussen. play

Ahmed Hussen.

(Chris Wattie/Reuters)
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Canada has a long history of resettling people from war-torn countries, beginning with the US itself.

In 1776, black slaves found refuge in Canada during the American Revolution. At the turn of the 20th century, Jews fleeing Russian pogroms settled there. And within the last 50 years, the country has welcomed more than 60,000 refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, as well as another 40,000 from Syria.

"Canada is a nation of immigrants," Canadian Minister of Immigration Ahmed Hussen tells Business Insider. "We've always had immigration as a key tool for economic growth and nation-building."

But to hear Hussen celebrate Canada's attitude toward immigration — however motivated by economic gain it may be — puts in stark relief the changing sentiments in the US about immigration. A century after millions of European migrants arrived on Ellis Island, a lot of US hopefuls — many of them well-educated, here on professional work visas — now fear deportation.

Some have even cancelled their food stamps, worried the government benefit could lead to an unexpected ICE raid.

In Canada, immigrants often observe a different mentality. Over the past year, many of the Syrian refugees who shacked up with Canadian families — essentially their adoptive guardians — came to see the sponsors as kin.

"I'm not anxious because I know our sponsors love us. They won't leave us," one refugee, Wissam Al-Hajj, told the New York Times.

"There's an understanding in Canada that immigration is a net-positive for our society," Hussen says, "and that we should continue to have a very robust immigration system that welcomes those in need of protection but also those that want to come and give us their skills and talents."

In the US, that's historically been true, too. Each year, the US issues 85,000 H-1B visas to highly skilled workers, many of whom find jobs at places like Google, Facebook, and other large tech companies. But critics, like President Trump, who recently signed an executive order to overhaul the program, say it robs native-born Americans of jobs in favor of cheap, outsourced labor.

Proponents say the visas give immigrants the opportunity to live out their version of the American Dream, pursing a life that in many other cases would be impossible.

Recently, however, Silicon Valley firms have started relocating workers across the border to protect them from possible deportation. For $6,000, a firm can pay the Canadian-founded company True North to fly their employee to Vancouver, house them for two nights, and have them meet with an immigration expert to sort out gaining residency.

Canada's government may have a greater incentive to be friendly to immigrants than the US, given the country's low fertility rate and small population. Immigrants represent a much more immediate economic benefit to a country of 36 million than one of 318 million.

Hussen concedes the fiscal upsides, but he says there are other benefits, too.

"There are very substantial contributions to our economic growth, our prosperity, to our social and cultural mosaic" that come from immigration, he says.

Canada's immigration process used to be lengthy and difficult, sometimes taking 8-10 years for applications to go through. But since 2015, Canada has offered a so-called Express Entry system. Modeled after the New Zealand and Australian models, people in the Express Entry program only wait at most six months to have their residency applications processed. People earn certain scores for the skills they bring, such as experience level, number of degrees, and so on.

For all others, there are several routes to gaining residency, and then full citizenship. The cost can run into the thousands, but logistically the process is more straightforward than a lot of other countries.

The system isn't perfect, which the Canadian government freely admits. Temporary foreign workers and international students may struggle to fully integrate in the eyes of the law, for instance. But Hussen says the country is receptive to making the necessary changes.

And though he didn't want to comment specifically on what the US could do better, he emphasized what, in his opinion, has made Canada great for so long.

"Our immigration system welcomes everyone from all over the world," he says.