• Thu
  • Jul 31, 2014
  • Updated: 6:36am
The Hongcouver
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 January, 2014, 9:24am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 January, 2014, 4:54pm

‘Immigration prison’ sentence for would-be Canadians is about to get longer


Ian Young is the SCMP's former International Editor. A journalist for more than 20 years, he worked for Australian newspapers and the London Evening Standard before arriving in Hong Kong in 1997. There he won or shared awards for excellence in investigative reporting and human rights reporting, and the HK News Awards Scoop of the Year. He moved to Canada with his wife in 2010 and is now the SCMP's Vancouver correspondent.

There’s a common term in the Chinese immigrant community for the period of residency required before applying for Canadian citizenship.

“Yiminjian”, or “immigration prison” conveys both sentiment and meaning that might surprise non-Chinese Canadians who tend to see residency here as a privilege coveted by those unlucky enough to have been born anywhere other than the Great White North.

Instead, for many Chinese immigrants, the mandatory three years of yiminjian is not something to be enjoyed as the start of a new life in Canada. It’s something to be endured. For these immigrants, the real goal of immigration is a Canadian passport - then it’s back to greater China to get on with making a living.

Now, the “prison sentence” looks like it is about to get longer.

Canada’s conservative government said on Monday it plans to introduce a new Citizenship Act in the current session of parliament, which began this week. Details have not been unveiled, but Immigration Minister Chris Alexander said he wanted to extend the current residency requirement, that immigrants must have lived in Canada for three out of the four years prior to an application for citizenship.

“I think the balance of considerations is in favour of a longer requirement,” Alexander told the National Post last month. “There’s only one way of truly understanding what it means to be Canadian, what it means to participate in Canadian life, and that is by living here.”

Alexander didn’t say how many years he wanted applicants to have lived in Canada, but an immigration lawyer cited by the National Post suggested four out of six years, coupled with the submission of at least two income tax returns.

The term [yiminjian] is highly evocative of immigration as a prison sentence that has to be served before freedom...
UBC researcher Sin Yih Teo

One of the goals is to reduce the backlog of citizenship applications, which has created a two-to-three-year wait time for processing. But Alexander said he also wanted to crack down on passports of convenience. “There will be a few measures in the Citizenship Act to make sure that we're not open to abuse.… I think all Canadians would agree, there's no room for cheating in this process,” he told CBC News last week.

Returning to live in China immediately after getting a Canadian passport might not exactly be cheating, but it’s debateable whether it’s a desirable path for new citizens. The very existence of the term “yiminjian” suggests that plenty of Chinese immigrants don’t really want to live in Canada.

The concept of immigration prison has been widely cited in academic research into the phenomenon of return migration to Hong Kong and mainland China. But it’s little understood in the wider community.

UBC researcher Sin Yih Teo described yiminjian in her 2007 study of skilled Chinese migrants in Vancouver. She even incorporated it into the title of her paper: “Vancouver’s newest Chinese diaspora: settlers or ‘immigrant prisoners’?”

“The term [yiminjian] is highly evocative of immigration as a prison sentence that has to be served before freedom – in the form of a Canadian passport – may be obtained,” Teo wrote.

Teo found that fewer than one-third of the Chinese migrants she interviewed had decided to stay in Canada after getting their passports.

She continued: “I found that there was a clear divide between those who had yet to decide whether they would stay in Canada and those who would stay for 20 years and above. The common refrain among those who had yet to decide was ‘taking one step at a time’ or ‘wait and see’.”

The sentiment of yiminjian is not limited to the current wave of mainland migrants in Canada; many Hong Kong migrants who flocked to Canada in the wake of the Tiananmen massacre were similarly inclined.

In his book Millionaire Migrants, a keystone study of rich Chinese migration to Canada and elsewhere, author David Ley wrote of Hong Kong and Taiwanese families who struggled to replicate business or career success in Vancouver.

“In these distressing conditions, immigrants describe their status [while waiting for Canadian passports] in the telling metaphor of imprisonment or immigrant jail,” Ley wrote.

Are the planned citizenship reforms intended to deter reluctant Canadian residents from seeking citizenship? Alexander did not single out any particular community as targets – but would-be return migrants to greater China would be well served to watch closely.

The Hongcouver blog, is devoted to the hybrid culture of its namesake cities: Hong Kong and Vancouver. All story ideas and comments are welcome. Connect with me by email ian.young@scmp.com or on Twitter, @ianjamesyoung70 


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This article is now closed to comments

We don't want immigrants coming to Canada or using our passports! Many Canadians like me are getting angry about being used by the world. We aren't the easy meat we used to be!
I'll leave judgement to the individual, but it's a glaring oversight by the author that there is no mention of the fact that foreigners can never obtain a HK passport and that to obtain a permanent residency in HK a foreigner has a seven-(consecutive)-year wait in the 'yiminjian'.
To anyone used to a middle class existence in Asia, especially in the warm parts like Hong Kong, living in Canada is likely to be a profound shock due to, amongst other factors, weather and taxes. Despite what most resident Canadians believe (most of whom have never lived elsewhere) it is not, in my view, a very pleasant place to live. On the one hand, I can sympathize with the 'immigration prisoners'. On the other hand, if they want the benefit of a Canadian passport - tough titty.
Ian Young has seriously misrepresented Sin Yih Teo’s description of yiminjian, or “immigration prison.” Far from it being a snooty metaphor used by Chinese millionaire transnationals for the Canadian residency requirement, Teo explains that it’s actually descriptive of the painful experience almost all Chinese immigrants have on coming to Canada. She details life marked by almost universal underemployment, significant social isolation, stressful domestic anxieties, and “thwarted dreams,” a list to which we could add poverty – 51% of people who live in poverty in Vancouver, for example, are Chinese immigrants.
“More often than not,” Teo writes, “I was struck by [immigrants’] stoic acceptance – not of defeat – but of their present experiences as challenges to be overcome,” of their “quiet courage amidst despair.” She concludes: “The immigrants’ experiences during the critical three years [of permanent residency] determine to a large extent whether they become settlers or released ‘immigrant prisoners.’”
This is a very different picture of Chinese immigrants than the one Ian Young paints. It suggests that if the Immigration Minister honestly wants people "to really understand what citizenship is about, what the country is about," then he’ll provide better resources for immigrants and help facilitate their success, not merely make their ‘sentence’ longer. His values will soon be apparent.
Hi Schuh: I don't regard yiminjian as a snooty metaphor for anything; it merely connotes an unpleasant experience. Nor do I suggest that it only applies to millionaires. And I'm certainly not trying to paint one picture of Chinese immigrants, who come in all shapes and sizes. Finally, I neither contradict nor rely solely on Sin Yih Teo's very comprehensive explanation of what is implied by yiminjian; as I said, it's a commonly used term, and it will likely be encountered by anyone who spends time with Chinese immigrants in Canada
I wonder how many Lebanese will be affected.
Or for that matter, other middle-easterners who hold dual passports,
and are permanently living in or near conflict zones.
O, land of blue unending skies,
Mountains strong and sparkling snow,
A scent of freedom in the wind,
O'er the emerald fields below.
To thee we brought our hopes, our dreams,
For thee we stand together,
Our land of peace, where proudly flies,
The Maple Leaf forever.
Long may it wave, and grace our own,
Blue skies and stormy weather,
Within my heart, above my home,
The Maple Leaf forever!
O, Maple Leaf around the world,
You speak as you rise high above,
Of courage, peace and quiet strength,
Of the Canada that I love.
Remind us all, our union bound
By ties we cannot sever,
Bright flag revered on every ground,
The Maple Leaf forever!
The residency requirement should be 18 years. If you're not sincere in wanting citizenship, you shouldn't get it. Period.
It's more and more obvious that Canada is selling its citizenships. Would be Canadians need to declare worldwide income into Canada - for more years now. And if you leave the country and stop paying taxes, Canada reduces services - and eventually strips the citizenship off (after one generation). It's no way to build a globally-integrated economy.
For people who've achieved Canadian citizenship, the mothership would always be Canada. When the other country is all shot to hell (China's CCP loses control?!), the educational achievements, the children, the multiple languages, the entrepreneurial skills, the gold.... this all comes to the Maple Leaf. Treasure your immigrants Canada!
Right. This is Canada selling its citizenship - by requiring immigrants to pay income tax, which is likely to mean that they are working in Canada, have to in some way, interact with Canadians and learn the language, at least absorb the culture a bit.
If Canada is really selling its citizenships, then it should just offer a bounty for it - maybe $100k CDN and then you're citizens immediately.
If the immigrants see Canada as mothership, then why are they going elsewhere to work? Why do they only rely on Canada when the "other country" is shot to hell? Why do they leave their children here to grow up in a Canadian environment, while the parents are nowhere to be found, not guiding their child through? If they're entrepreneurs, why aren't they starting business in Canada, and instead return to where they're from to run their business?




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