Migration as Livelihood

Turid Sætermo

Turid Sætermo

PhD Fellow Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim
Email: Turid.satermo@svt.ntnu.no

There is a current tendency in international migration for countries to modify their immigration regulations in order to attract and admit high-skilled migrants, and exclude others (Docquier and Marfouk in Özden and Schiff 2006: 152-153). A common fear is that if immigration is left too open, the result will be an influx of less skilled workers causing problems for the economy, the social welfare system, for local workers’ salaries, etcetera. We saw results of such anxieties after the EU expansion in 2004, when many governments adopted special transition regulations in order to prevent an anticipated flow of workers from the East. The regulatory barriers were however easily penetrable for those with skills that were in demand. For these migrants, immigration is encouraged and facilitated. Countries compete to attract them. According to Robin Cohen (2006: 187), two countries, Canada and Australia, have perfected such systems of   ”immigration shopping”. This paper focuses on Canada´s attempts at controlling and directing its immigration by adjusting regulations and by creating special ”immigration vacancies” wherever there are holes in the labour market that need to be filled. I am particularly concerned with the complex networks of possible entry paths that migrants must orient themselves within, and on the consequent importance of path finders who are skilled in mastering migrancy, in this case, migration consultants.

The development towards filtering and “shopping for” immigrants according to level of education and work experience1 reflects changes in the labour market that can be linked to the transition to the so-called knowledge-based economy. Labor markets ask for candidates with expertise, and especially those with versatile, transferrable skills. High-skilled immigrants are therefore valuable for the economy, and countries try to construct immigration systems that make it simple and fast for these migrants to obtain work and residency permits. At the same time, a certain number unskilled immigrants are also let in to fill the slots in the labour market that native workers do not wish to fill, typically in low-paid, low-skilled, low-prestige occupations such as harvesting and cleaning. However, these migrants are often invited only on a temporary basis. In western countries there is an increased use of special programmes that bring to mind the “guest worker”- programmes of the 60s and 70s, that permit workers to come and carry out certain types of work for limited periods, but not to settle for good (Martin, Abella and Kuptsch 2006). The development in immigration policies is also closely linked to the electronic tools that governments now have at their disposal to predict labour market needs. Information networks, instant access to up-to-date statistics and research, and increased communication with employers, make it possible to predict and adjust to these needs much more accurately than before. The need to balance different economic, political and social considerations has led to sets of immigration rules that are extensive, complicated and changing regularly.

In this paper, I will first look briefly at the changes and adjustments that Canada has made in its immigration rules and policy in order to try to synchronize its immigration with the current needs of the labour market. I will then go on to look at how mastery of the migration process can be turned into a profitable asset for some individuals. This should be seen in relation to the fact that migrants tend to go where co-patriots have gone before them (Brettell 2000). Those planning to emigrate to Canada adapt to, and often learn to master and even juggle with the immigration regulations in order to realize their migration projects. A vaste range of possibilities exist for these people to inform themselves and learn from the experience of others when they prepare their emigration. For example, there are numerous web sites, blogs, discussion forums and internet networks that they can join and consult in order to obtain the information they need to optimize their admissibility. There are also people who specialize in helping others migrate, for example by identifying categories and geographic places where their chances are best, suggesting activities, courses and experiences that will look good on the application, and by training them for immigration interviews and so on. The responses to the ever-more complicated immigration systems are characterized by a lot of ingenuity, strategy and creativity.

The last part of this paper will be devoted to the story of Renata, a Venezuelan immigrant in Montreal, who has made migration her way of living. Her thorough knowledge of the immigration rules serves to aid others in negotiating the long and winding path to immigration. She has played a central role in the migration process for many Venezuelans in Canada, and her evaluations and recommendations are influential in important choices that her clients make. In this aspect, she is – along with all the other path finders operating in different migration systems – an important social actor in the intersection where individual situations and national regulations meet.

Canada has a long history of encouraging immigration and an established reputation for its “open arms policy” towards new settlers. The country has one of the highest per capita immigration rates in the world, and its immigration policy still rests on the idea of “populating the country”, not on restricting and protecting, as in most European countries. Even though its immigration rules have tightened, especially during the last decade, Canada continues to be the desired destination for very many migrants. This is clearly reflected in the composition of the population: A population census from 2006 showed that 19.8% of Canada’s present population are foreign-born2. And the numbers do not appear to be decreasing. 2007 was the year that Canada granted most residency permits in the country’s history3.

Immigration is divided into three categories: refugees, family reunification, and the largest group, economic or independent skilled migration, which accounts for more than 50% of all immigration (Martin, Abella and Kuptsch 2006: 27). Migrants in this last group are selected on the basis of their skills and education/training, and those who expectedly have the greatest potential for occupational integration are favoured. This way of differentiating migrants according to skills - as opposed to ethnicity, which had previously been the main selection criteria - is part of a development that began slowly in the 1960s. In order to single out the well-educated ones, a system of point assessment was established in 1967 in which one needed 67 points to be eligible for permanent residency. Points are scored by having a high education, work experience relevant to one`s education, language skills and so on4. The Citizenship and Immigration Canada`s web site provides an online test that potential immigrants can take to get an indication of their score.

This system has since been adjusted, because it was judged not well enough adapted to filling the needs of the labour market. Canada risked having a surplus of highly educated immigrants and a shortage of workers with technical skills. In 2002 the authorities therefore worked out the List of specific occupations that are currently in need of personnel, upon which they now base their selection of immigrants. The list served to increase the value of technical skills and competencies, and the aim, as it was stated by then Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Diane Finley, was to bring in people with the right mix of skills to address both long and short-term labour market needs5.

At present, a whole new model of immigration seems to be emerging through what is called the Canadian Experience Class, which is based on the idea of temporary migration being a path to permanent residency. Temporary migration is increasingly used to cope with labour shortages in Canada, as it is in many other countries. This tendency is reflected in, for example, the growing proportion of granted residencies that are temporary rather than permanent. The list of occupations where employers are allowed to use temporary foreign labour has also been extended to include many more occupations. The Canadian Experience Class programme resembles the already existing Live-in Caregiver Programme in that it gives workers the possibility of obtaining residency after a certain period of work in Canada. The difference is that it focuses mainly on skilled and high skilled occupations. The programme can be seen as a way for highly skilled temporary workers to remain in Canada while applying for permanent residency. However, it can also be interpreted as a way to introduce yet another filter, since in addition to having the required skills and competencies, migrants now also have to demonstrate in practice that they can adapt and succeed in the Canadian labour market before they can apply for permanent residency.

In addition to the federal immigration rules, many provinces also have their own specific programmes related to their internal labour markets, and the province of Quebec has its very own imigration system. This means that prospective immigrants must deal with the system at both federal and provincial levels. For example, Saskatchewan has a program to attract truck drivers, Quebec has a program to attract nurses, Yukon has a program that welcomes anyone who wants to start a business, etcetera. In the federal system there are four categories where you can score points. Quebec, for example, has 12. The province accords, among others, 4 extra points for those willing to settle in more remote villages in the province, 4 extra points for each child, and up to24 points if you speak French.

Categories, sub-categories, special programmes, provincial programmes, and different ways to calculate points, make the regulatory side of immigration a difficult landscape to navigate. Moreover, while it is a complex and many-sided system for a non-lawyer to comprehend, it is at the same time crucial not to make any wrong decisions that may delay the migration process for months and also cost money. One may not fit into any of the given categories and may need to look for ways of filling the criteria. Conversely, one might fit into several, but discover that there are different consequences attached to each of them. Many, therefore seek advice from professionals or from those who have the lived experience of having migrated. Knowing how to migrate, then, is a special competence that can be offered as a service to those back home with migration ahead of them.

Migrants often follow the routes of previous migrants, in large part as a result of exchange of experiences, information and contacts (Massey et al. 1998). As guides in this flow there are numerous consultants, organisations, articles, internet sites and groups, etcetera, ready to answer the questions of those who intend to migrate. The following section deals with one of these, Renata, a Venezuelan migrant in Montreal, who has turned her mastery of migration into a livelihood. Renata used to work as an engineer in Maracaibo, as did her husband. They made the decision to migrate to Canada with their three children in 2003, looking for stability and predictability. To help them with the application, they got in touch with a company of immigration lawyers in Canada. At the same time, Renata began informing herself about the immigration procedure and about life in Canada, as a way to try to control the more uncertain sides of the big decision they had made, as she put it. She actually informed herself so well that others who considered emigrating began coming to her with their questions. Renata and her husband soon “converted” from clients to representatives of the immigration lawyers` company. At this point, in the aftermath of the oil strike that saw 20,000 people lose their jobs, there were so many people in Maracaibo interested in migrating that it seemed like a good idea to open an office there. The deal was that Renata and her husband would recruit clients and then the lawyers would come 2-3 times a year to hold seminars and information sessions.

In the beginning we observed and learned from the lawyer and her assistant. How they did their interviews, which questions they asked, what one needs to consider in the point system. Which variables. First we learnt, then we became more independent. Finally the lawyer no longer had to come to Venezuela, it was us who held the seminars, we signed the contracts, answered the questions, and so on. It took about a year and a half. The difficult cases were sent to Canada and the final applications were always handled by the lawyers”.

There were up to 300 people present at each seminars. They had all registered in advance, sent their CVs and been pre-selected by Renata. Those who became really interested in migrating to Canada arranged an individual appointment with her and together they would go through their options.  She would make her recommendations of what they should do in order to maximize their score. Sometimes it meant taking a course, learning a language, completing a degree, or waiting a year to get more work experience. Or, it could be to accept location in a far-off village for at least one year after arrival in Canada. It could even be to have a baby now instead of later, since that would give 4 more points in the province of Quebec. Renata got to know all the pathways that could lead one into Canada. Many people who were interested in migrating could not, because they did not have enough money or were sure not to qualify. At the time there were three such Canadian companies present in Venezuela and they all had more than enough clients.

Renata and her husband were granted permanent residency in 2006. They received their visas in May and moved to Canada in August. Renata had already decided that she would continue to work for the lawyers and thus insure an income also after the move. It would give her the opportunity to work independently, allow her to travel often to Venezuela, and to be flexible when it came to spending time with her children. Thus, during the first year after migrating she spent five months in Canada and seven months in Venezuela.

We left Venezuela with our three kids, as if it was a vacation. We rented an appartment in Montreal, got installed, and then I went back to Venezuela for three months, to work and to sell our house, our car, our things. I was away from my family, but that was the price to pay for our decision. At least, the kids could start school in August”.

When I first met Renata in Montreal, she was in-between two trips to Venezuela. She was also taking a course to become an authorized immigration consultant. When she obtains this diploma, she can function as a legal representative for her clients and will not have to be associated with a lawyer. Renata loves the occupation she has had for 6 years now, and she has never considered returning to engineering, which was the basis for her being granted residency in Canada. Renata, then, can be seen an example of migrants who create their own professional trajectories, in spite of systems that try to control and shape immigration according to the specific needs of its labour market. Through her work in migration she remains close to day-to-day life in Maracaibo. However, it also anchors her in Montreal and Canada, not least through the various trajectories of her clients.

The clients of the company I work for, more than 300 families and individuals, many of them who have come to Montreal call me, write to me, visit me. Some have become my friends. It is nice. I have friends everywhere, in all the provinces. They were not my personal clients, but I was the one who dealt with them, who explained things to them. For every visa that arrived it was a personal victory for me, not just a victory for the company. Every immigration interview that was passed was a personal satisfaction. People called me to tell me their visa had arrived”.

Renata has played a key role in the migration process for many migrants. She has counselled them in important decisions and helped them overcome regulatory obstacles in the application process, and prepare practically and mentally for the big move. She has followed some of them from the moment they decided to migrate, accompanied them through the long and often frustrating waiting periode, and she continues to have contact with them as they resettle and remake their homes.

The more complex immigration rules become, the more the skill of mastering migrancy is in demand. The world of migration is full of pathfinders and “little helpers” like Renata; individuals or groups who formally or informally aid others in filling the requirements of the different migration systems, and preparing them for a new life. Access to this competency and support, whether economically or through social networks, is a decisive factor for many prospective migrants. It is therefore an important aspect of today`s migration.


1. Age and health could also be added

2. Source: Statistics Canada: ”Immigration in Canada: A Portrait of the Foreign-born Population, 2006 Census: Immigration: Driver of population growth”.

3. i.e. close to 430,000 permits. Source: Citizenship and Migration Canada, News release 2008.

4. For example, a PhD or Master’s degree is worth 25 points, while Secondary school diploma or less gives you no points at all.

5. Source: Citizenship and Migration Canada: Annual Report to Parliament on Imigration, 2007.



Brettell, Caroline B. (2000). Theorizing migration in anthropology: The social construction of networks, identities, communities and globalscapes. In: Migration Theory. Edited by C.B. Brettel and J.F. Hollifield. London: Routledge, pp 97-135

 Cohen, Robin (2006). Migration and its enemies. Global capital, migrant labour and the nation-state. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company

Massey, Douglas S. et al (1998). Worlds in Motion: Understanding International Migration at the end of the millennium. New York: Oxford University Press

Docquier, Frédéric and Marfouk, Abdeslam (2006). International Migration by Education Attainment 1990-2000. In: International Migration, Remittances and the Brain Drain. Edited by Çaglar Özden and Maurice Schiff. New York: Palgrave Macmillan