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Moving to Canada, explained

Maybe, watching election results come in, you're beginning to think about that joke you made months ago.

Maybe you really should move to Canada.

In 2016, you're not alone: The Canadian government's immigration website crashed the day after Donald Trump swept the Super Tuesday primaries, under the force of thousands of Americans Google searching "move to Canada."

But moving to Canada is harder than it seems. I am here to explain it to you.

To a certain extent, we've been here before. "Moving to Canada" is a recurring threat among American progressives — because of the romantic image of Canada as a place that's like America, without the parts of America progressives don't like.

The problem for anyone who's already packing her bags and learning to spell things with extra u's is that — spoiler alert — the Canadian commitment to tolerance and humanitarianism that makes it so appealing to American progressives also makes it really hard for Americans to move to Canada in the year 2016. And that raises questions, in turn, about the difference between people who get to consider leaving the US in the event of a Trump presidency, and people who'd actually be at risk under a President Trump.

Canada: a haven for Americans who can't stand America anymore

In the American imagination, Canada is a more liberal, more European version of America: more polite, less religious, more cosmopolitan, and with government-run health care.

And whenever it looks like American politics are shifting to the right, American progressives start joking about shifting to the north.

move to Canada google trends Screenshot via Zack Beauchamp/Vox

Progressives' Canadian romance managed to persist even when Canada was being run by its previous prime minister, Conservative Stephen Harper.

Neda Maghbouleh and her husband moved to Canada in 2013, to take positions at the University of Toronto. They hadn't been planning to leave the US when they started looking on the academic job market — they were just trying to get jobs.

"But then once we actually showed up," she told me in March, "it was like, 'You're going to take this job from my cold, dead hands. We're not going back!' We truly fell in love with Toronto, and Canada more broadly."

But most Americans who move to Canada are like Maghbouleh — they're moving for the typical reasons people move from one country to another, for a job or to be near family, not because they're fed up with the political choices of the rest of the electorate. The spike in Google interest after George W. Bush's reelection in 2004 didn't translate to a spike in actual American emigration.

American immigration to Canada rose throughout the Bush administration, but the overall pattern of immigration seems pretty independent of election cycles and media hype.

Donald Trump might be the threat Americans needed to get out of dodge

This time, people could be serious.

The stars (or at least the electoral cycles) have aligned to encourage Americans to start dreaming of Canada again. Last fall, Harper was replaced with the dreamily good-looking, meme-ably progressive Justin Trudeau. And Obama is rounding out his term in office — to be replaced by someone who's certainly less exciting than Trudeau to American liberals, and possibly by Donald J. Trump.

"It's almost like a lot of Americans are embarrassed" by the rise of Trump, says Chris Reid, the founder of Canadian startup Sortable, explaining the sudden popularity of jokes about moving to his country.

"Just the whole thing seems bizarre. And that's why we thought, 'Oh, we should do some bizarre recruiting around it'" — placing Facebook ads encouraging American engineers to come work at Sortable and escape the Trump.

A Facebook ad from Canadian startup Sortable, encouraging Americans to escape Donald Trump by applying to work for them.
A Facebook ad from the Canadian startup Sortable, encouraging Americans to escape Donald Trump by applying to work for Sortable.

The morning after Super Tuesday, so many Americans Googled "Move to Canada" that it overloaded the website of Canada's immigration agency. A Morning Consult/Vox poll found that 15 percent of voters would be very likely to "consider leaving the country" if Trump gets elected (though it didn't specify whether that country would be Canada).

It's officially hit the phase in the meme life cycle where it's being co-opted by brands. Spotify pulled together a "Moving Up to Canada" playlist, featuring "Run Away With Me" (by Canadian Carly Rae Jepsen) and Justin Bieber's "Sorry," which is doubly Canadian because, as all Americans know from pop culture, Canadians apologize all the time.

Canada has a history of taking American refugees — from things like slavery and the Vietnam War

The idea of Canada as the promised land for embattled Americans — the land of the free, only freer — started among the people for whom America wasn't the land of the free to begin with. Some escaped slaves before the Civil War fled north not just to free states but to Canada (then a British colony).

Canada became a particularly appealing option for refugees from slavery after 1850, when Millard Fillmore signed the Fugitive Slave Act — which allowed slave owners and bounty hunters to recapture slaves who'd escaped to the North, and made it illegal for abolitionist Northerners to protect them.

With the harassment, capture, and servitude of ex-slaves (or free blacks) elevated from sectional policy to national policy, Canada became the only safe place for black Americans to go. As many as 20,000 African Americans migrated to Canada between 1850 and 1860 — increasing the black population of the colony by 50 percent. (Meanwhile, some northern states, like Connecticut, actually lost black residents.)

No one, thank heavens, is comparing Americans fleeing a putative Trump (or Clinton) administration to Americans fleeing actual slavery. It's more likely that the modern trope of "moving to Canada" has its roots in a more recent American exodus: draft dodgers fleeing the Vietnam War.

American draft dodger Alex Scala, in Canada.
American draft dodger Alex Scala, in Canada.
(Bob Olsen/Toronto Star via Getty)

At the end of 1969, the American government started using a draft lottery to conscript thousands of young men into service in Vietnam — a war that Americans increasingly viewed as a mistake. The Canadian government, meanwhile, had passed a law two years earlier that allowed someone to arrive in Canada as a visitor, then apply for permanent residency once there.

The combination of the two presented would-be American draftees who didn't want to fight (and didn't have better options to get out of the draft) with an appealing, if illegal, solution: fleeing to Canada as fugitives.

One Canadian estimate says that between 30,000 and 40,000 Americans fled to Canada over the course of the war (from 1965 to 1975). Many of them stayed even after President Jimmy Carter formally pardoned draft dodgers in 1977, allowing them to return to the US safely. A Canadian government report on the country's immigration history calls them "the largest, best-educated (immigrant) group this country had ever received."

But what's often lost in the draft dodgers' history is that Canadian laws were attracting people from lots of other countries at that time, not just the US. Only for two years during the war (1971 and 1972) was America the country sending the most emigrants to Canada. And when Canada implemented an amnesty in late 1973, allowing 39,000 people to become residents, only a little more than a quarter of them were American — only a couple thousand more Americans got amnesty than natives of Hong Kong.

Emigrating to Canada is pretty easy … if you have a job there already

Canada has firmed up its laws since 1973 — if you're going to emigrate there, you're going to need to get your papers in order first. But what it values in immigrants (and the types of immigrants it chooses) has stayed largely the same.

Canada encourages highly educated, technically skilled people to settle in the country, while also carving out a place for humanitarian refugees. This is a pretty big difference from the American immigration system, whose first priority is family reunification. (Indeed, many pro-business Republicans like Rep. Raul Labrador have tried to push America to be more like Canada when it comes to immigration — the only time you'll ever hear them say something like that.)

This is great news for Americans who can manage to find jobs in Canada before they arrive. A skilled immigrant with a job offer in the US still has only a slim chance of actually getting into the country — for the past several years, the government's had to hold a lottery because it's gotten twice as many applications on the first day visas are available as there are visas to hand out.

A skilled immigrant with a job offer in Canada, however, has a much easier time of it. "If you can show that you can't hire the talent and you have the talent," says Chris Reid of Sortable, "I think the government wants to support bringing people in. Because they're going to be paid well, they're going to be contributors, they're going to be typically highly educated."

It's not a sure thing — there are still a limited number of economic immigrants the country will accept. But the Canadian government reassures employers that "[c]andidates with a valid job offer or provincial/territorial nomination will quickly receive an Invitation to Apply (ITA) for permanent residence." It doesn't hurt that instead of putting hard caps on the number of immigrants who can come under particular categories, like the US does, Canada sets "targets."

Even before getting a formal Invitation to Apply, a US citizen with a job offer in a technical field in Canada and a work permit can simply cross the border and stay in the country for up to three years — thanks to a provision in NAFTA. (That's what Neda Maghbouleh and her husband did.)

If you, say, have tech skills, finding a job in Canada might not be hard. "We're not the only Canadian company recruiting Americans," says Reid, "especially in the tech space." (His company is going to hire between 15 and 30 engineers in 2016; "it's not like we're Google or anything.")

But if you're moving to Canada to escape Trump first and ask questions later, you might not have a job lined up. And this is where things get tricky.

In which I try, and fail, to qualify for residency in Canada

The good news is that Canada makes it incredibly easy to figure out if you qualify for easy immigration — the main way that skilled workers get admitted to Canada as permanent residents. (You can also get admitted to Canada by being sponsored by a particular province — but the provinces use similar criteria, so the national website is a not-terrible guide to that, too.) And if you have a four-year degree and speak English well enough to read this article, Canada probably considers you a skilled worker.

The bad news is that you may very well find out that you don't qualify.

Screenshot of a Canadian government website telling the author that she does not, in fact, qualify for Express Entry into the nation of Canada.
When the Canadian government told me I could not move to Canada.

Canada uses a points system to figure out who qualifies for "Express Entry" — which is the pool employers can use to hire people, and from which the government accepts (some) skilled immigrants who don't yet have job offers. The points system is supposed to score how well you'll integrate in Canada (with factors like language and "adaptability") and how much you can contribute to the Canadian economy (via education, experience, employment, and age).

Crucially, if you don't already have a job offer in Canada, it also looks at whether you have enough money saved up to support yourself until you find one. This is where I washed out. I don't have $9,199 US ($12,184 Canadian) in cash savings — and that's the bare minimum to qualify for Express Entry.

In the service of journalistic enterprise, I went through the process again and — sorry, Canada! — pretended I had the requisite savings. With that out of the way, I managed to make it through.

That doesn't, however, mean that if you have more savings than I do as a young journalist, you can get into Canada on a breeze.

The points system heavily favors younger workers and penalizes older ones. That puts a big hitch in the system: The people who are most likely to have accrued savings, graduate or professional degrees, and work experience have much higher standards to meet. I'm qualified for Canadian residency as a 28-year-old, but I wouldn't qualify, with my equivalent experience, at the age of 42.

Most importantly, Express Entry is just a pool of potential immigrants — you have a better chance than most of getting into the country, but you're still limited by the targets the government sets. And this year, the government of Canada is making it much harder for skilled immigrants to come — for a reason that any American who wants to go to Canada to begin with can hardly get mad about.

Canada is making it harder for Americans (and other immigrants) to come so it can take in more Syrian refugees

Prime Minister Trudeau has made a big deal out of Canada welcoming thousands of refugees from Syria. (He even met Syrian refugee children at the airport, as you may have seen if you know any progressive women between the ages of 20 and ever.)

And his government is working aggressively to put that in place. It is basically doubling the amount of "refugee and humanitarian" immigrants it's admitting, raising its target from 29,900 in 2015 to 59,400 in 2016.

But those slots have to come from somewhere. In particular, they're coming out of the allotments for economic immigrants — particularly skilled immigrants.

Canada is planning to cut the number of economic immigrants it allows in 2016 by about 11 percent. And while there isn't exactly an apples-to-apples comparison for the programs that work through the Express Entry pool, the best estimates are that Canada will admit 20 percent fewer highly skilled immigrants at the federal level this year than it did last year.

This probably isn't going to be a one-year thing, either. There are a lot of Syrian refugees out there, and the number of highly skilled immigrant admissions has kind of been leveling off anyway.

It's impossible to overstate how ironic this is. The fact that Canada welcomes Syrian refugees, while American governors have been fighting to reject them, is exactly the sort of thing that makes some Americans want to move to Canada to begin with.

Canadians think your "asylum" jokes are cute, but give them a break

It's tempting, from this side of the US/Canada border, to think of fleeing to Canada as a refugee act: Surely a Trump administration would be so terrible that it would count as persecution, or at least as a humanitarian outrage on the level of the draft.

Please don't.

It is vanishingly unlikely that an American could successfully claim asylum in Canada. The country has granted it to exactly one US national in each of the past two years. Even then, as a spokesperson for the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada explained, it's probable that the asylum seeker in question was a child of people who were seeking asylum because they were persecuted in another country — not someone who was claiming to have been persecuted in the US.

Could that change under a Trump administration? Possibly. But as Neda Maghbouleh points out, Canada's commitment to honest-to-goodness refugees makes Canadians a lot less sympathetic to the idea that "life under President Trump" constitutes humanitarian persecution.

Welcome bags assembled by a Canadian group for Syrian refugees.
Welcome bags assembled by a Canadian group for Syrian refugees.
Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty

"There is so much support for the government facilitating the migration of Syrian refugees here," Maghbouleh says, "There is actually a real day-to-day connection people have with Syrian refugees or other people who are sponsored migrants.

"Because that's very realistic and that's something you can see evidence of all day, it almost makes the American pathway for refugee status even more silly, in a way. Because the refugees that are being sponsored now are coming from such tremendous chaos and trauma. I don't see people talking about the American thing in a realistic way, because we have evidence all around us of what refugee-ism looks like around the world."

The people who'd be under the most danger aren't the people who can move, or joke about it

This isn't to say that a President Trump wouldn't necessarily pose a genuine threat to anyone. But the people to whom he'd pose the biggest threat aren't the ones making "move to Canada" jokes — they're the ones who already fear for their safety.

"All my friends, no matter what their racial background, make jokes on social media," says Maghbouleh. "But the people who have reached out to me to have a substantive conversation about 'I want to get out of here,' the common denominator, no matter what industry they're in or whether they're women or men or whatever, they're people from racialized communities."

A Syrian refugee arriving in Canada.
Would you be as happy as this man is? Really?
Melissa Renwick/Toronto Star via Getty

That includes Maghbouleh's own parents, who are Iranian immigrants living in Oregon. "I'm literally scared for them sometimes," she says. When she formally got permanent Canadian residency, in March, the first thing she did was Google "how to sponsor grandparents" (on behalf of her Canadian-born child). But because Canada doesn't treat family reunification as a high priority, it will take until 2022, or later, for her to bring them over. "We're going to have to make it work," she told her parents, "because I'm not going to be able to get you here until after the next president has served their first term."

The recruiters at Sortable are actually operating on similar logic. Yeah, they're open to recruiting Americans — but their chief target is actually immigrants in America who want an easier path to citizenship (and a bigger guarantee of safety). "That demographic is a little more open to it," says Chris Reid.

In general, though, the immigrants coming to Canada from Silicon Valley aren't the ones who need protection either. "The Americans I see here are like professors. Or they're people who work for Google," says Maghbouleh. They're "the people who would have been insulated from a lot of the BS that's going to happen in the US."

As for the people who won't be insulated … they'll have a much harder time getting to Canada. Under Canadian law, non-US citizens can't leave the US to claim asylum in Canada — they're supposed to apply for asylum in the US first, since Canada has designated it a "safe country." And because the people who'd be most vulnerable under President Trump often aren't fluent in English, or highly educated, the Express Entry pathway isn't going to be as open to them either.

If the people who have the luxury of fleeing from the US to Canada were to, somehow, do so en masse, they'd be leaving the vulnerable ones behind.

"We're the ones who get to come to Canada," Maghbouleh sums up. "We're the people who needed this pathway into Canada the least."

Clarification: This article has added an explanation of the "NAFTA visa" that allows US citizens with job offers in technical fields to enter Canada for up to three years.

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