In the twenty-four hours following George W. Bush's victory in the American presidential election on November 2, 2004, the Canadian government's Department of Citizenship and Immigration website received 115,016 "hits," six times the average daily number, and double the previous record.
There followed a flurry of media speculation over the prospect of disgruntled American voters leaving their country to settle in Canada or other destinations, including Spain, Mexico, or New Zealand.
Coverage in newspapers, magazines, and personal websites ranged from thoughtful pieces featuring interviews with individuals who have already emigrated, to editorials examining the relationship between emigration and loyalty, to spoof articles poking fun at Canada and at American "liberals." Included among the prospective emigrants in these articles were anti-war protestors, disaffected Democrats, and gays and lesbians seeking a place where same-sex marriages are recognized.
The speed with which websites mounted information—both serious and satirical — indicates that such information had been prepared in advance. At least one Canadian immigration lawyer immediately announced plans to hold seminars for potential emigrants in major American cities. And blog sites swiftly distributed cartoons, joke maps—such as one showing the "blue" states seceding to Canada — and even advertisements for bumper stickers.
The list of public policy issues cited by emigration proponents includes Canada's greater rights for same-sex partners, opposition to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, a universal health care system, tight gun control laws, the legal use of medical marijuana, and Canada's ratification of the international environmental agreement, the Kyoto Protocol. But the two issues that seem most likely to encourage people to leave the U.S. are the United States' role in the Iraq War and federal and state governments' legal measures to limit marriage to heterosexual couples.
On the basis of such material no one can predict the number of Americans who might eventually leave the United States in reaction to the 2004 election results, although American emigration to Canada increased slightly after the 2000 election. Of course, wanting to emigrate to Canada and legally being able to settle there are different issues. American citizens who seriously plan to move to Canada for political reasons — and who are well-educated with needed skills — most likely would enter as economic migrants rather than refugees because it would be the easiest path into the country.
We may be able to gauge future emigration trends by looking at American emigration to Canada during the Vietnam War era, then examining policies related to same-sex marriage in both the U.S. and Canada. It is also important to consider the role of Canadian websites and Canadian immigration lawyers in this trend, because, in the 1990s, the latter were able to influence emigration flows from Hong Kong.
Emigration to Canada During the Vietnam War
Emigration from the United States to Canada in response to political crises is not a new phenomenon. The numbers reached unprecedented levels during the decade spanning the Vietnam War after Canada developed an explicit policy of accepting draft resisters under then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.
Of the more than 400,000 Americans who took up Canadian residency between 1968 and 1978, an estimated 50,000 were draft-age males, and an unknown number of others, including family members of draft resisters, emigrated as a direct response to foreign policy at the time. The U.S. represented the second largest source (after the United Kingdom) of immigrants during that decade, accounting for about 20 percent of all immigrants to Canada. During the peak years of 1971 and 1972, nearly 50,000 individuals moved across the northern border. After 1978, the numbers declined rapidly, to stabilize by the mid-1980s to approximately 5,000 persons per year, a little more than two percent of total immigrants to Canada annually (see Table 1).
Table 1: Immigration from the U.S. and total immigration to Canada
Table 1: Immigration from the U.S. and total immigration to Canada
American immigrants had a significant impact on Canadian society at that time. Representing about one percent of the total Canadian population in any given year of the Vietnam War era, many easily entered knowledge industries such as journalism, teaching, and university research, and seemed to integrate well into urban Canadian culture.
Moreover, many Canadians saw the American immigrants as symbolic of the values that define the differences between the two countries. After President Carter extended an amnesty to draft resisters in 1977, more than half elected to remain in Canada as citizens. Sociologist John Hagen, whose book Northern Passage tells their story, says Canada's acceptance played a significant role in constructing Canada as a place of refuge, and in defining Canadian immigration policy in terms of human rights.
Emigration Today as an Anti-War Protest
Since September 11, 2001, the memory of the Vietnam-era draft dodgers has been resurrected. Although there is no military draft now in the United States, a small number of American soldiers have sought refugee status in Canada rather than be sent to Afghanistan or Iraq.
The cases of soldiers Jeremy Hinzman and Brandon Hughey are ongoing with the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) and have attracted wide controversy. They receive support from anti-war organizations in both countries. In Toronto, groups organized for peace have rallied around American war resisters, and some have encouraged emigration. In June 2004, Bill King, a Vietnam draft resister and jazz musician, organized a benefit concert at the University of Toronto to support military asylum seekers.
More than 100 American applications for refugee status in Canada have been filed over the past year for a number of reasons, including the right to use medical marijuana. None of the applications have been approved, and it is unlikely that American asylum claims could meet the criteria specified in the international convention on refugees.
In addition, the U.S. has not instituted a military draft, and even if there were a draft, it is not clear that the current Canadian government would adopt Trudeau's policy of accepting war resisters. The cases now before the IRB represent individuals who did not wish to follow through with the terms under which they entered the armed forces, a compelling argument for not granting asylum. If the IRB grants U.S. soldiers refugee status on the grounds of human rights and American foreign policy, such a decision would have huge implications for U.S.-Canada relations and for future asylum seekers from the U.S..
Nonetheless, given the history of the Vietnam War era, and the fact that the media have reported on a number of politically motivated emigrants, it seems reasonable to suggest that Americans emigrating to protest their government's war efforts could increase substantially.
Emigration and Gay Rights
The November 2004 election brought into stark relief the politicization of gay and lesbian equality rights in the United States, as well as the distinct differences between Canada and the United States with regard to equality for gays and lesbians.
In the November elections, 11 U.S. states passed referenda banning same-sex marriage. In many states, these initiatives limited not only marriage and/or recognition of same-sex unions of any kind, but also explicitly prohibited a range of rights commonly enjoyed by married couples, including health and insurance benefits, common property inheritance, and hospital visitations.
Canada, in contrast, has consistently favored equal rights for individual gays and lesbians, as well as same-sex couples. Although support was less than unanimous in some areas, many Canadian provinces have legalized same-sex marriages since June 2003. In December 2004, the Supreme Court clarified that the federal government has exclusive jurisdictional authority to define marriage.
Furthermore, Canada allows its citizens to sponsor same-sex partners under the family class provisions of the Immigration Act while American immigration law does not permit American citizens to bring over same-sex partners. In fact, Canada has made it possible for some same-sex couples and individual lesbians and gay men to emigrate from the United States to Canada under Bill C-23 and the new Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (Bill C-27), passed in 2002.
These legislative events and judicial decisions have generated considerable exchange between gay rights groups in Canada and the United States. Some American groups focus on lobbying efforts to secure rights and effect legislative change, while others encourage emigration to countries such as Canada.
Some groups, concerned with practical matters of emigrating to Canada, provide information ranging from real estate and labor market opportunities to legal services, or even temporary accommodation.
Americans and Canada's "Points" System
Canada has a well-earned reputation for humanitarianism with regard to refugees, but Americans who may end up moving to Canada would do so mainly through the provisions in the Immigration Act favoring highly educated and relatively affluent "economic" applicants.
Indeed, those Americans who tend to be most interested in emigrating to Canada — well-educated, skilled, under age 40, and English-speaking — also stand the best chance of being admitted under Canada's "points" system for skilled immigrants.
This system applies to independent, or economic, immigrants whose eligibility is scored based on their potential for integration within the Canadian labor force. Prospective immigrants must have at least one year's experience in an occupation from a designated classification, and sufficient funds to support themselves and their family members. Currently, the minimum qualification is 67 out of a possible 100 points.
The Canadian government's immigration website includes a trial test for prospective immigrants to see whether they possess sufficient education and work experience to qualify under the points system. In the days after the November election, the majority of site visitors went straight to this test.
The Internet as an Instrument of Emigration
Canadians use the Internet to provide information for prospective immigrants and, increasingly, to solicit immigrants. These include the government, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and immigration lawyers.
The official government website provides comprehensive information on the immigration process, information about Canadian laws and social conditions, and a trial test for those who want to qualify as highly skilled immigrants.
NGOs dedicated to a variety of causes — peace, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights, and general human rights issues — use the Internet as a means for political discourse. Some of these sites are designed to "sell" Canada, usually on the basis of its progressive public policy. The NGOs represent another means of marketing Canada as a choice destination, from a motive of social and political change rather than financial gain.
Immigration lawyers' websites also provide a range of information, including the offer of free "tests" to determine potential points at no obligation. Such lawyers reported a significant increase in enquiries just after of the November election, and some became quite aggressive in their solicitations, posting articles on the benefits of emigration explicitly targeted either to disenchanted voters, or to same-sex couples.
Emigration and the Role of Immigration Lawyers in the 1990s
Canadian immigration lawyers, for whom soliciting immigrants is a lucrative business, have shown they can play a significant role in influencing immigration patterns.
In the decade prior to the return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule in 1997, the number of immigrants from Hong Kong to Canada exceeded 20,000 per year, and peaked at more than 44,000 in 1994. Like the Americans, these immigrants were well off and highly skilled, and in addition to responding to political conditions in their country of origin, chose Canada for its lifestyle. These lawyers facilitated such immigration both with their advice and by brokering business and investment opportunities.
Emigration and Immigration Lawyers Today
A similar approach is now being taken towards same-sex American couples, and single gay men and lesbians with significant financial resources. In other words, immigration, in conjunction with other financial and settlement services, is being "marketed" as an alternative to the progressive erosion of social citizenship rights in the U.S..
One Canadian immigration lawyer received extensive international media coverage when he announced a plan to hold immigration seminars in cities across the United States. Several lawyers have now held such seminars since the elections, almost all to packed audiences.
It is impossible to estimate the numbers of Americans who have emigrated to Canada over the past four years for political reasons, or who will do so over the next four years. No government body keeps such statistics.
Media coverage would suggest, however, that they now number in the hundreds, while those contemplating a move may number in the thousands. For these Americans to actually "vote with their feet" and emigrate to Canada, or any other country, they would need to believe that public policy, and the attitude of their fellow citizens, is so at odds with their lifestyle that they no longer feel they have a place in the U.S..
Although post-election media coverage has highlighted the many "liberal" Americans who are casting around for options in an increasingly socially conservative United States, the most significant political exodus recently is of those seeking rights on the grounds of sexual orientation.
Opposition to the war has also motivated emigration, although the numbers, for the present, are much smaller than those from the gay and lesbian communities. Experience during the Vietnam War indicates that numbers could increase dramatically as a result of changes to policy, such as increased military action or reinstitution of the draft.
Yet for most Americans, talk of emigration is simply talk. The topic of emigration provides a basis for comparing the cultural and legal differences that exist between the two countries on a range of significant public policy issues, such as access to health care, ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, gun control, military policy, and gay and lesbian rights, all issues on which Canada's public policies are substantially different than those of the U.S..
For those who do choose to migrate to Canada, the decision will rest on a variety of criteria, including the potential for employment, real estate opportunities, and lifestyle, in addition to fundamental issues of human rights
Hagan, John (2000). "Narrowing the gap by widening the conflict: power politics, symbols of sovereignty, and the American Vietnam war resisters' migration to Canada." Law & Society Review, 0023-9216, September 1, 2000, Vol. 34, Issue 3.
Hagan, John (2001). Northern Passage: The Lives of American Vietnam War Resisters in Canada. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press.
Human Rights Campaign (March 2004). "Quality in the states: gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans and state laws and legislation in 2004." Available online.