Moving to Canada? Better get a lawyer

The Canadian-U.S. border is pictured in Stanstead, Canada. The old political punchline about moving to Canada if an election goes the wrong way is more than a joke to some -- and a lot harder to pull off than most people suspect.

It's an oft-told political joke: “If things don’t go my way, I’m moving to Canada.” You hear it every election, but do people actually mean it when they say it?

There's a chance Hannah Frame might be one of those people. She'll be watching the upcoming election very closely from her dorm at Kalamazoo College in Michigan, as the outcome could have major ramifications for the rest of her life.

"I don’t want to live in a country whose fundamental policies I disagree with, and I at least bear some responsibility for living in and perpetuating a system that eventually could hurt me and my neighbors," Frame said.

Frame says she's worried about what might happen if Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is elected. It could mean the end of the Affordable Care Act, she said, and it could mean going backwards on progress made on immigration, and these are issues she feels strongly about.

She’s not threatening to head north on Nov. 7th. She'd like to finish out college here, and she's got three and a half years to go. But from the sounds of things, she’s pretty set on living in a place that thinks and acts like she does.

"Especially being in Michigan, Canada is right across the border," she said. "It's not super far from home for me."

But Michael Niren, managing partner of Niren and Associates Immigration Lawyers in Toronto, said it's not that easy.

"You can't just up and decide, you know what, I'm gonna move up north and pack my bags," Niren said.

According to Niren, a lot of people are surprised when they hear they have to go through a great expense and a jump a lot of bureaucratic hurdles to become a permanent Canadian citizen. First, Niren says government fees for Canadian residency applications start as high as $1,500, getting more expensive depending on if your spouse or children move with you. And that's not including what it will cost to enlist help from a lawyer like Niren. The total cost depends on the case, he said, but it can be at least a few thousand dollars.

And then it starts to get complicated.

If you have a family member waiting for you, that’s one application system. If you have an actual job offer, that’s a different category. If you’re a single, working American who just wants out, Niren says they’ll ask you lots of questions.

Not a lot of job experience? Your application gets marked down. Over 40 years old or have a bad medical history? Your application gets marked down. Criminal background? Your application gets marked way down. And when it's all said and done, it might just be the case that Canada doesn’t want you.

"The government wants to ensure that people who come to Canada contribute to the economy, who will make an impact – a positive impact in Canada economically or culturally," said Niren.

No matter how difficult the process, somewhere between 7,000 to 10,000 Americans have become permanent residents of Canada since 2007, according to government numbers.

But it's opportunity, rather than politics that's luring them there, according to Demetri Papademetriou, president of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

"It is, you know, the opportunity to actually grow in your job, opportunities for your family and children, a system that seems to work, social protections that make sense," he said. "All of those things enter into the mix."

Papademetriou says for some Americans, the state of the U.S. economy makes the grass in Canada really seem much greener.

"The fact that Canada was not hurt almost at all, or at least not in a significant way by the crisis in 2008, you put all those things together and you find most of the explanation," he said.

But for many Americans who make the move up north, Papademetriou says it won't really be a permanent thing; once they advance their careers, they often return to the U.S.

So what does this mean for people like Hannah Frame?

"Obviously moving is a huge hassle but I’m going to be setting up a new home and I want to set up a home somewhere I feel comfortable," Frame said. "And for me, I think it would be worth it to set up in Canada."

But she says if it doesn’t work out, California could be an option. It’s still pretty progressive, and she’s heard the weather’s better there, too.

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