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

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 January, 2014, 9:24am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 February, 2016, 11:52am

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 [email protected] or on Twitter, @ianjamesyoung70