The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Canada is a progressive immigration policy dream — unless you have a disability

The country isn't so generous if it thinks a person or child might "cause excessive demand" on its resources.

Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, speaks during a town hall event in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017. (Cole Burston/Bloomberg)

It’s no secret that many progressive Americans fetishize Canada as a northern utopia: It has universal health care, it legalized same-sex marriage a decade before the United States did, and it has a cute, lefty prime minister (complete with a tattoo and a literature degree). After President Trump restricted refugees, immigrants and travelers from seven majority-Muslim countries, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted: “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada.” Cue collective liberal swoon.

The problem is that Canada’s immigrant policy isn’t quite as dreamy as Americans might imagine. It includes a virtual ban on disabled immigrants that goes back decades: Under Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, foreigners can be turned away if they “might reasonably be expected to cause excessive demands on health or social services.” What this means is families can be rejected for having deaf children and spouses can be denied because they use a wheelchair, a practice too harsh for even the United States’ difficult immigration system.

The number of disabled immigrants rejected by Canada is not known. Most of those turned away do not have the financial means to appeal, and few cases get media coverage. But the cases that are brought to the public’s attention are eye-opening.

In 2000, multimillionaire David Hilewitz and his son, Gavin, were denied immigration from South Africa to Canada because Gavin has a mild developmental disability. Angela Chesters, a German woman who married a Canadian man abroad, was denied permanent residency after the couple moved to Canada because she has multiple sclerosis. The Chapman family was stopped at a Canadian airport when attempting to emigrate from Britain in 2008 because their daughter has a genetic abnormality . The Dutch DeJong family was turned down for immigration because one of their daughters has a mild intellectual disability.” Felipe Montoya, recruited from Costa Rica to teach at a Toronto university, and his family couldn’t get residency because his son has Down syndrome. In 2015, Canada denied Maria Victoria Venancio health care and attempted to deport her after she became a paraplegic.

According to Roy Hanes, a Canadian social-work scholar and disability advocate, even though Canadian law does not explicitly state that disabled people are banned, the notion of “excessive demands” still guides the immigration process. Potential immigrants must undergo physical and mental health exams to prove that their bodies and minds will not be a burden on Canada’s socioeconomic structure. The policy, Hanes wrote in a history of Canadian immigration law, makes it “extremely difficult for people with disabilities to become citizens.”

Hanes explains that this exclusionary policy arose from the outdated concept that people with disabilities are not useful members of an economy because they supposedly use too many resources. “The long-held concern of social dependence remained as a major obstacle for people with disabilities and it appears that people with disabilities were continuously evaluated for what they might not be able to do and not what they could do,” he wrote. “In this regard, immigration legislation was based on economic ‘utilitarianism’ and people with disabilities ranked very low when considering their abilities in terms of economic productivity.”

According to some scholars, this anti-disability immigration policy might violate Canada’s constitution, not to mention the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities. Despite the possibility of future reform — a piece of federal accessibility legislation that could have implications for immigration is in the works — Canada’s discriminatory policies are “entrenched,” according to Global Disability Watch, and “show no signs of abatement.” The group added that Canada’s practices show “how to build a disability-free country.”

Underlying this policy is the assumption, borne straight from the West’s nasty marriage of eugenics and capitalism, that a person ceases to matter if they cannot be a “productive” member of society. Worth is determined by contribution to a profit, by independence and by the ability to pull one’s own weight. Of course the idea that anyone is ever truly independent, or that we could possibly survive without one another, is a complete myth. But it’s one of the central pillars of the Western capitalist story — and one that Canada has embraced when it comes to immigration.

In the United States, would-be immigrants must undergo physical and mental examinations, mostly to prove that they will not cause harm to others or commit crimes. The American system deserves plenty of criticism, but disability advocates on both sides of the border tend to see Canada’s policy as considerably more strict in this regard. Yes, Trump is attempting new restrictions on immigration, while Canada advertises its openness. But how many immigrants being rerouted from the United States will be turned away because of disability in Canada, a supposed sanctuary? Let’s not idealize a country that adheres to the ableist idea, rooted in eugenics, that any human being poses “excessive demands.”