Ending “birth tourism” and “birthright citizenship” are not new policy objectives for the Conservative Party, which made the issue a priority at its August 23-25 convention. The previous federal Conservative government under Stephen Harper made considerable efforts to crack down on the practice of non-Canadian women giving birth in Canada to obtain citizenship for their babies.

“We need to send the message that Canadian citizenship isn’t just some kind of an access key to the Canadian welfare state by cynically misrepresenting yourself,” Immigration and Citizenship Minister Jason Kenney said in 2012.

But if Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives form government, they would likely run into the same operational and cost challenges that ultimately caused the Harper government to backtrack, which is not to say this is an issue to be ignored.

“Not a priority” for Conservative government

When announcing changes to the Citizenship Act in 2014, Immigration Minister Chris Alexander lowered expectations that his government would address birth tourism: “We have to make sure we get it right in a way that doesn’t disrupt the vast majority of Canadians who are having their legitimate births in hospitals, but does detect and deter those cases where our generosity is being abused.”

Documents released in 2014 under the Access to Information Act shed light on what happened behind the scenes when the government engaged in consultations. A “Citizenship Reform Proposal” prepared for Kenney indicated that although birth tourism was deemed a priority, the federal government could not do much about it by itself, given provincial responsibility for birth registration.

One of the options explored by the department was to issue citizenship proofs (certificates that prove Canadian citizenship) for all those born eligible for citizenship. But it was determined this would be costly for the federal government and would require Canadians to present two identification documents (both birth certificate and citizenship proof, rather than just a Canadian birth certificate) when trying to obtain services.

Another option explored was to put citizenship information directly on birth certificates. (Currently this is unnecessary, because people with Canadian birth certificates are automatically considered citizens). But consultations with the provinces highlighted operational and cost considerations that made this approach unwieldy. New funding would be required for the provinces to handle the significant changes to their birth registration procedures and vital statistics agencies.

Ontario, which accounted for 37 percent of Canadian births in 2016, may have helped kill both proposed options. Provincial officials noted in a response to the federal consultations that there “is not enough evidence to justify the effort and expense for such a system-wide change.”

Furthermore, officials could identify only about 500 cases of suspected birth tourism out of an annual average of some 360,000 live births in Canada, or 0.14 percent. The final recommendation from Citizenship and Immigration Canada to ministers nevertheless was to signal the intent to change birthright citizenship, allow time for consultations and return to cabinet with a request for funding.

The released documents reveal that the government had intended to apply changes not only to birth tourists passing through Canada but also to all temporary residents such as workers, live-in caregivers, refugee claimants and international students. The minister never publicly admitted to this broader scope, and none of the background material provides estimated numbers of how many babies are born to temporary residents, apart from refugee claimants.

Meanwhile, the consultations resulted only in more anecdotal evidence around birth tourism. Minister Alexander subsequently admitted to Chinese Canadian media that it was “not a priority” given “the small number of offenders.”

Is birth tourism a real issue?

Reducing fraud and abuse is legitimate and necessary, reflects sound management and preserves confidence among Canadians regarding the fairness and integrity of citizenship. Birth tourism clearly involves fraud or misrepresentation on the part of a parent.

Since 2014, there continue to be many reports of birth tourism, mostly about Chinese visitors and about births in Richmond, BC, where about 20 percent of all births are to foreign nationals (compared with 2 percent of all BC births). Anecdotal reports suggest that there is an increase in other cities in Canada, but there are no hard numbers.

Anecdotes help identify issues and should not be dismissed. While officials at Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) made efforts to obtain concrete evidence, they did not appear to access provincial statistics on live births not covered by medicare, which would include birth tourists.

Still, an impartial observer would conclude that there is currently no business case for changing Canada’s birth policy, given the small numbers and the considerable operational and financial implications. As table 1 shows, births to foreign mothers are a minuscule number over the last 10 years, less than 0.1 percent of total births except in 2012, when the figure was abnormally high.

All this being said, the number of births by foreign mothers should be monitored. Statistics Canada numbers may not present an accurate picture. The number of births to foreign women in Richmond was reported as 394 in 2016-17, greater than the 313 that Statistics Canada reported for the whole country for 2016 (see table above). The Richmond numbers showed a steady increase from 2010, compared with the flatter trend in national numbers. Statistics Canada and IRCC need to work with provincial health ministries to ensure more reliable and consistent data.

More focused measures need to be considered to reduce or contain birth tourism. Options include making it more expensive by increasing the deposit that mothers pay hospitals; making suspected birth tourism grounds for visa refusal; and banning or regulating “birth tourism hotels,” places catering to pregnant foreign women and the consultants who help make the related arrangements.

These concrete actions would be a more proportionate response to the concerns raised by politicians and their constituents, and one that should be pursued by any government to improve the integrity of the citizenship program and address public concerns about fraud and abuse.

It is also important that the motivation behind discussion and debates on birthright citizenship not be labelled as racist, xenophobic or anti-immigrant. The fundamental issue remains fraud and misrepresentation, not discrimination.

Photo: Former prime minister Stephen Harper and former Conservative cabinet minister Jason Kenney look on during a campaign stop in Richmond Hill, Ont., Sept. 29, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

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