Why we traveled to Toronto to learn about immigration

Elvia Malagón is a Pulitzer Center Richard C. Longworth Media Fellow.

TORONTO — Nearly half of Toronto’s 2.7 million population identifies as immigrants.

The city’s diversity is visible on its streets. A stretch of a neighborhood includes Asian, Caribbean and Latino retail shops and restaurants. Pedestrians of Canadian, Sudanese or Indian backgrounds mingle while eating Mexican sushi or jerk poutine.

As the United States has doubled down on restrictive immigration policies, particularly around asylum, Canada is viewed as the friendlier neighbor where politicians see immigrants as a possible solution to labor shortages.

“One should see them as nation builders,” Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow told the Chicago Sun-Times about immigrants. “They’ve helped build Canada, they helped build Toronto.”

But Canada now faces immigration problems too — a housing crunch and a rising cost of living. The government has made policy changes aimed at reducing the influx of temporary foreign workers and international students.

This spring, the Sun-Times traveled to Toronto to explore how the country handles housing and job needs for its newest immigrants. Of Canada’s immigrants, two populations come into focus: skilled workers and “refugee claimants,” people seeking asylum there.

Refugees in Canada say their top priority is safe housing. But skilled workers have more options, so advancement — in their careers, for example — is their objective.

Finding rewarding work and permanent housing, in Chicago and Toronto, have been major hurdles.

Canada’s immigrant population is much more diverse than in this country. Most of the immigrant skilled workers admitted into Canada through its Express Entry system in 2022 were citizens of India, Nigeria and China, according to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.

While most of the refugee claimants come from countries like Mexico, Haiti and India, immigration advocates said it was people from African countries like Kenya and Uganda who ended up sleeping on city streets awaiting shelter.

In 2019, there were 64,030 refugee claimants made in Canada, and that number jumped to 143,795 in 2023, according to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.

“This whole issue of global displacement will continue,” said Samina Sami, the CEO of COSTI Immigrant Services, a Toronto-based organization. “This is not just a brief uptick.”

Special Report

Canada is known for its friendlier approach to immigration, but it also faces hurdles as record numbers of people are displaced globally.
But while many praise Canada’s Express Entry system as speedier than the months-long wait to get a work permit in the United States, immigrants can face hurdles finding pay and job titles equivalent to the ones in their native countries.
As Chicago dealt with a shortage of shelter beds, Toronto was also managing a shelter crisis amid an increase in people seeking refuge in Canada.
Three refugees from Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda share their stories about fleeing their countries for safety in Canada.
The Democracy Solutions Project is a collaboration among WBEZ, the Chicago Sun-Times and the University of Chicago’s Center for Effective Government, with funding support from the Pulitzer Center. Our goal is to help our community of listeners and readers engage with the democratic functions in their lives and cast an informed ballot in the November 2024 election.
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