As the United States moves to control its borders against illegal aliens, Canada is opening its door wider to foreign settlers. Early next month, Gerry Weiner, Canada's minister of state for immigration, is expected to announce a boost in the number of immigrants to be allowed into Canada in 1987 to a range of 115,000 to 125,000. That's a slight increase over the 105,000 or so expected this year, and well above the 85,000 allowed in 1985.
With a fertility rate (an average of 1.7 children per adult couple) well below replacement, Canada faces a declining and aging population in the next century unless it accepts more immigrants.
Unlike the US, where a bill prohibiting the hiring of illegal aliens has passed the House of Representatives and at press time was being considered in the Senate, Canada has had little problem with illegal aliens. But the country has been facing a rapid increase in the flow of self-proclaimed refugees, a fact highlighted in August, when 155 Tamils were picked up in two lifeboats off the coast of Newfoundland.
Immigration officials are now drafting legislation to speed up the process of separating legitimate refugees from those simply seeking to jump long immigration lines to win access to the high standard of living in Canada.
The main reason for the small flow of illegal aliens into Canada is geography. The US soaks up much of the flow from the south, as people from Latin America or the Caribbean generally prefer the relative warmth and closeness of the US to the cold and distance of Canada. The Arctic, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans discourage illegal entry from the north, west, and east.
Another reason relates to Canada's more extensive social welfare system. To get work, for example, an individual must have a card for both social security and the universal health and hospital system. Though illegal aliens may get into the system, it is more likely they will surface and be detected, immigration officials say.
In l973-74, Canada proclaimed a full amnesty for illegal aliens, and 30,000 people took advantage of the program. In the US, which has 10 times Canada's population, the Census Bureau estimates the number of illegal aliens to be between 3.5 million and 6 million.
As in the US, immigration can be a hot social and political issue in Canada. The immediate temporary admission of the Tamil boat people by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney prompted considerable controversy. Many editorials claimed they were not true refugees, having come to Canada on a ship from West Germany, and were being allowed to bypass the normal immigration process.
The Progressive Conservative government here should be able to pass its refugee legislation with relative speed and ease. It has a large majority in the House of Commons. Nonetheless, the Mulroney government is proceeding with caution. Canada has 9.5 percent unemployment. Many jobless Canadians worry that new immigrants could take work away from them.
Mr. Weiner, the grandson of East European immigrants, maintains that immigrants create jobs by expanding markets and demand for goods. But he emphasizes that the government will open doors in ``a controlled fashion.''
Canada is a land of mostly immigrants. Its 25 million people are roughly one-third French-speaking, one-third of British isles stock, and one-third from other parts of the world. In recent years, nearly half the new immigrants have come from Asia. As a result, major Canadian cities include large communities of Sikhs and other Indians, Chinese, Vietnamese and Cambodians, and Caribbean islanders, as well as Greeks, Italians, Portugese, Ukrainians, Poles, and dozens of other ethnic groups.
The government also knows that many white Canadians are nervous about increasing the number of immigrants from Asia or other non-European cultures. They are afraid that, like the Sikhs or Tamils, they may bring their political or religious quarrels with them. Or they may just find their ``strange'' ways uncomfortable.
Mr. Weiner maintains that Canadians are not racist. But he says they do fear ``the unknown.''