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By Erin Mershon August 5, 2010

Bloomberg claims Canada allows far more work visas than the U.S.

Immigration has become a hot-button issue this year and politicians are complaining that the United States has outdated laws and weak enforcement of border security. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg took up the debate on NBC's Meet the Press on Aug. 1, 2010, arguing that the U.S. should seek immigrants with valuable work skills.

"You have to give visas for the skills we need," Bloomberg said. "Canada sets aside 36 percent of their visas for people with skills they think their country needs. We set aside 6 percent. We educate the doctors and then don't give them a green card."

Since we don't often hear about Canada's immigration policies, we decided to dig in and see if he was right.

But before we get into the numbers, we should point out some important differences between immigration policies in the United States and Canada.

The U.S. gives highest priority to family members of citizens and immigrants with work permits (which are often known as green cards) under the philosophy that immigrants with family members in the U.S. are more easily integrated into American society. Over two-thirds of all immigrants enter the U.S. through family reunification. Humanitarian protection and employment-based immigration account for the other third of legal immigration.

Canada's system, on the other hand, takes a different approach. Although it permits immigration through family reunification and humanitarian protection channels, it primarily relies on a point system to determine who will be permitted through economic channels.

The point system is designed to encourage immigration by those who seem likely to make the greatest contribution to the Canadian economy. The system awards points based on criteria such as level of education, languages spoken, occupation and whether or not the immigrant has relatives in Canada. Only candidates with enough points can apply for a Canadian work visa.

So at the outset, the two systems were set up for very different purposes -- and encourage very different types of immigration. With that in mind, let's dig into the figures.

There is no limit to the number of people who can immigrate to the U.S. through the family reunification process, as long as the immigrant's application is sponsored by a citizen. Employment-based immigration, on the other hand, is capped at 140,000 per year. Because employment-sponsored immigrants can also immigrate with spouses and children, only about 40 percent of those 140,000 visas go to workers themselves; the other 60 percent go to dependents.

In the U.S., annual limits and caps on specific types of immigration were established in the 1990 Immigration Act, but there is no overall number limiting total immigration into the U.S. each year. Because there's no total cap on the number of visas available, it's impossible to say that 6 percent of visas are "set aside." There is no U.S. law that sets aside 6 percent of the annual flow of immigrants for skilled workers; rather, Department of Homeland Security data shows that most years about 6 percent of U.S. immigrants are sponsored by U.S. employers.

Bloomberg's office told us the numbers come from a book published by the Brookings Institution that said 6.5 percent of immigrants came on employment visas. But we find that Bloomberg misspoke when he said that 6 percent of visas are set aside. While there is a cap on visas for economic immigrants or skilled workers, the cap is not a percentage.

Canada, by contrast, does not cap job-related immigration. Instead, it sets annual "targets," which are given as a range. In 2009, for example, the government hoped that between 156,300 and 166,800 skilled workers would become Canadian permanent residents. Bloomberg's assertion that any Canadian visas are "set aside" is incorrect.

When we crunched the actual data from 2009 (not the limits or targets), we found that 63,997 Canadian immigrants came as principle workers and accounted for 25.4 percent of the total 252,124 who became Canadian permanent residents in 2009, well below the 36 percent Bloomberg cited.

Bloomberg's figure for Canada may have come from a single category of economic immigrants, "Skilled Workers," which, if dependents are included, accounted for 38 percent of all immigrants. If it did, he was comparing a small subsection of Canadian economic immigrants, including dependents, and the entire category of U.S. economic immigrants, not including dependents. That, in our view, is an apples to oranges comparison.

So let's recap. While Bloomberg correctly noted an interesting disparity between Canadian and U.S. immigration policies, his facts are off. First, he says that the U.S. and Canada both set aside certain percentages of their visas. But only the U.S. limits visas for specific types of immigrants, and it does so with a number, not a percentage as he claims. And there is no "set aside" as Bloomberg says. We find the statement False.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

Interview with Jeanne Batalova, Policy Analyst, Migration Policy Institute

Interview with Kirin K. Kalia, Senior Editor, Migration Information Source

Interview with Jason Post, Mayoral Spokesman for Michael Bloomberg

Interview with Angela Kelley of the Center for American Progress

Department of Homeland Security, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, 2009

Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Facts and Figures, 2009
Meet the Press, Transcript, August 1st, 2010

Bloomberg claims Canada allows far more work visas than the U.S.

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