Why Cities and National Governments Are Clashing Over Migration

Why Cities and National Governments Are Clashing Over Migration

The world’s largest cities increasingly need to import young talent. Their needs typically match immigrants’ wishes.

SourceMario Tama/Getty

Why you should care

Cities are clashing with populist national governments over immigration.  

As a sponsor of a Syrian refugee family, John Tory personifies the unusually welcoming approach to immigrants for which Canada has long been known. He is also Toronto’s mayor, responsible for ensuring that the 50,000 migrants and refugees it takes in annually can integrate and succeed in a city where just over half of the population was born abroad.

Immigration policy in Canada is a federal responsibility and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government is credited with having boosted Toronto’s technology industry with a Global Skills Strategy that enables skilled foreigners to obtain work permits in two weeks. But Canada’s provinces play a big policy role in areas such as health care, and cities like Toronto are responsible for providing services to newcomers and long-standing residents alike.

“We are the ones  … closest to the people,” Tory says. But with three layers of government, “it can become very confusing and financially complex.”

That complexity is on view around the world as city leaders’ eagerness to attract skilled workers increasingly comes into conflict with anti-immigrant sentiment among populist national politicians or rural voters beyond the city limits. The friction has been vividly illustrated in U.S. President Donald Trump’s rhetorical clashes with Democratic mayors of immigrant-friendly “sanctuary cities.”

Nations talk and cities act.

Samer Saliba, urban technical adviser, International Rescue Committee

With tight labor markets and aging domestic populations in most Western countries, the world’s largest cities increasingly need to import young talent. Their needs typically match immigrants’ wishes: Harvard Business School professor William Kerr found that in the U.S., Canada, Australia and the U.K. — which host two-thirds of skilled immigrants in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development — most cluster in the largest cities.

“Nations talk and cities act,” says Samer Saliba, urban technical adviser for the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a humanitarian nongovernmental organization. One reason that more than half of the world’s displaced people live in urban areas is because “cities recognize the value these communities bring,” he says.

But cities have not traditionally set policy on how much of that talent to admit. They often need national governments to help fund the costs of welcoming people they expect to more than repay the investment in taxes within a few years. When the IRC last year surveyed leaders of 23 global cities that were hosting 5 million displaced people, it found that half saw access to funding as a critical need and nearly a third wanted to be represented in the national or international debate about migration.

To achieve that representation, mayors from Amman to Athens launched the Mayors Migration Council last December. By coordinating with regional and international bodies, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said, their aim was “to bring our experiences to the table, share best practices and help inform smarter policies worldwide.”

Even in Toronto, the challenges are clear. After Canada opened its doors to those fleeing violence in the Middle East and saw an influx of people from other troubled regions crossing its southern border, Toronto’s shelters held more than 3,000 asylum-seekers by last summer. Tory asked Ottawa for financial assistance. “Ultimately, immigration is a federal responsibility and I felt there should be some financial responsibility that goes with that,” he explains.

It took almost a year for Trudeau’s government to send the city $33.5 million, and Tory does not take assistance for granted. “Disagreements can impede the flow of money,” he says.

Trudeau and Tory see eye to eye on the case for immigration, but Ontario’s populist premier, Doug Ford, does not. His provincial government has argued that Ottawa should foot “100 percent of the bill” for settling asylum-seekers, and proposed a $133 million cut to funding for legal aid, which many immigrants and refugees require. Disagreements between levels of government have made it harder to direct immigrants to smaller cities

Toronto has tried to resolve tensions using a Refugee Capacity Plan with provincial and federal officials to improve coordination. “If you share the responsibility the money thing becomes easy to work out as well,” Tory says.

He admits, however, that disagreements between the levels of government have made it harder to direct immigrants in Toronto to smaller cities that may have more jobs. A similar debate is happening in upstate New York, where small cities in need of labor are advertising to attract refugees.

Dana Wagner, Canadian operations director for Talent Beyond Boundaries, a nonprofit body that finds jobs for skilled refugees, would welcome more coordination between big and small cities. Small ones can offer more affordable housing but may need to coordinate with other cities to develop services such as child care and language teaching if they hope to draw immigrants.

New agreements between mayors and regional, federal or international authorities may not resolve tensions over immigration, but the IRC’s Saliba is confident that cities will continue to lead on welcoming new arrivals.

“Facts can be twisted but when you come face-to-face with a refugee you realize these are not people to be feared,” he says. “Cities realize this because they’re closer to the reality than national governments are.”

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By Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson

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