Canada cancels investor visas: modern Chinese Exclusion, or a sign that Canadian citizenship isn’t for sale?

A boy holds up Chinese and Canadian flags (photo credit: Vancouver Sun)
A boy holds up Chinese and Canadian flags (photo credit: Vancouver Sun)

Although most avenues of legal citizenship to North America involves skill- or job-based visas, one of the lesser-known avenues of immigration to Canada and the US involves visas that are informally referred to as investor visas (a class that I was unaware existed until today). In brief, wealthy foreign nationals — those with a net worth in the millions — have the option to apply for a special visa status if they agree to loan the American government $500,000 (or, $800,000 if you’re trying to immigrate to Canada) for a fixed period; in return, these “investor nationals” are granted permanent residency with an option to apply for citizenship.

Or, in other words, for wealthy foreigners, American and Canadian citizenship is for sale, and the cost is a paltry half a million dollars. Or, rather it’s actually free — the money is returned to the visa holder (interest-free) after three to five years.

As someone who has been entrenched in the American visa system as a legal temporary resident for nearly 15 years, the existence of this visa program frustrates. Whereas my presence in this country is dependent upon annual proof that I am both highly-trained and am providing an ongoing contribution to this country; and, whereas my presence in this country is further characterized by interminably long wait times and confusing red tape; the idea that American and Canadian citizenship is for sale — but only if you’re part of the 1% — chafes.

It’s not just the notion that these visa holders are required to offer no further proof of their appeal to America than the size of their wallet, but I’m also surprised to find that they received near-automatic permanent residency, a status that technically-trained prospective immigrants typically have to wait 5 or more years to receive (if they’re lucky).

On the flip side, however, there’s something to be said about attracting wealthy permanent immigrants to a country like Canada (or America) with a growing debt burden associated with the cost of social services and entitlements. A half a million dollar pricetag per individual (plus dependents, if you’re trying to immigrate into Canada; America requires separate applications for dependents) for citizenship adds up quickly; further, attracting wealthy immigrants to set up shop in your country encourages further investment into the country in the form of business dealings and large tax payments. Given the apparent ease and lax requirements for this visa status, it’s not surprising that it would be highly popular for wealthy foreigners.

Indeed, in a recent expose, the South China Morning Post reported that more than 70% of Canada’s 50,000+ applicants for these investor visas are from mainland China; this has contributed to the vastly disproportionate influx of Asian immigrants from China versus other parts of Asia to parts of Canada.

Just a week after that article, Canada announced it was cancelling its investor visa program, leaving roughly 40,000 pending applications from Chinese applicants in the lurch. Canada — which also stopped accepting applicants in 2012 due to backlog — announced it would be returning all fees.

In justification of its decision, Canada stated that the program “significantly undervalued Canadian permanent residence” and wasn’t demonstrated to be significantly contributing to either the federal government’s coffers or to the Canadian economy.

I’m of mixed feelings about this turn-of-affairs. On the one hand, I dislike separate — and easier — pathways for the world’s wealthy; this was a clear example of wealth privilege. But, on the other hand, one must wonder why the program was scrapped today. Why now? Can we really believe that just days after a report that the program was heavily-used by Chinese nationals that the Canadian government realized the program was insolvent?

I can’t help but get a whiff of Chinese Exclusion in America — exclusionary immigration laws that had nearly-identical parallels in Canada — and the tactics used by both the American federal government and by state governments to write laws that appeared race-neutral, but that in both writing and implementation disproportionately disenfranchised Chinese residents or other “undesirables”. The further possibility that Canada’s decision to scrap their “investor visa” program was influenced by the public being made aware of how this “pathway to citizenship” was being utilized predominantly by Chinese immigrants solidifies the parallel.

But, perhaps there’s hope for these wealthy Chinese nationals? The American version of the “investor visa” program has a far lower price tag — only $500,000 US, far lower than the UK, Australia, and even Portugal. And while dependents can’t be brought along with a wealthy investor, the wait time for this visa is probably substantially shorter than it was in Canada: last year, only 6500 foreign nationals applied to buy their way into this country, and there are no signs that America is contemplating an end to the program.

Since Canada clearly thinks it’s got enough wealthy Chinese people living in their country, maybe America’s about to see some of those 40,000 Chinese one-percenters turn their sights here?

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