My family and I are just back from Canada. We visited Toronto last year and Winnipeg this year, and we’ll probably head back there a couple more times – possibly to Montreal or Ottawa or Vancouver – before the children’s passports expire.

The first thing you notice in rural Canada, particularly in the grassy plains of Manitoba, is the vastness – farm fields stretch outward to distant tree lines, roads stretch onward to widely spaced, sparsely populated villages – and the Midwestern-style friendliness. In the cities, you notice the immigrants.

Canada has a long history of welcoming people from all over the world, and it shows. I love the farmers markets, especially, because you can sample in one morning (as we did) Icelandic cake, Latin American churros and European-flavored empanadas, Brazilian fried cheese with an Indian mango chutney, traditional Canadian bannocks with saskatoon berries, locally made beers and ciders, and on and on.

Driving along the outskirts of Winnipeg, you pass clusters of apartment buildings and development after development of cookie-cutter houses, all signaling the population boom that has pulled the country out of its impending demographic winter (due to low birthrates) and infused the economy with small businesses while simultaneously cranking up the cost of living and housing and making medical care (beyond emergency care) all but impossible for newcomers to secure.

I was curious about how the society was coping and bought a copy of Maclean’s (a Canadian news mag) with a provocative theme: “41 million Canadians: How the rush to grow Canada’s population is testing the country’s limits.” I expected a biased, politicized preach, but the range of stories instead offered a kaleidoscopic view of newcomers, what motivated them to leave their homelands, their victories and challenges.

What was obvious: In the past, Canada had an effective system for welcoming and integrating immigrants, something the modern United States has not managed to accomplish. Although the sheer number of immigrants appears to be overwhelming the Canadian system at the moment (evinced by emergency shelters at 300- and 400-percent capacity, and a nameless man dying in the Toronto cold, waiting to be admitted to one), the population as a whole (many of them first- and second-generation immigrants themselves) supports immigration.

A story on Prince Edward Island was particularly interesting – in my mind, it looks like the romanticized, Edwardian setting of Anne of Green Gables (my sisters and I watched the movies endlessly in childhood – they have great appeal for word-nerd girls like me), but the more modern Island of 20 years ago had struggles recognizable to northern Wisconsinites – aging population with low birthrates, an economy dependent on tourism, low-paying jobs and the accompanying brain drain – many young adults go away for college, get jobs in cities and don’t return until retirement.

To draw more people, the Island offered a quick path to legal residency – in two years, a man or woman from elsewhere could work a menial job and become a permanent resident – but then educated immigrants would seek better jobs in big metro areas and move away. Thus, the Island has both a ballooning population and a revolving door – so now, there are government proposals to welcome immigrants with targeted, needed skillsets – in trades, the medical industry and childcare – in hopes of raising the doctor-to-patient ratio and spurring construction (the pace of new arrivals far exceeds housing) while also slowing the overall acceptance rate of new residents.

Here in the U.S., we are back into presidential election season, and immigration will once again be hotly debated. We citizens can expect a lot of shouting, name-calling and accusing, but little in the way of practical solutions to problems that are greatly affecting the lives and well-being of many thousands of people.

This would be a marvelous opportunity for Democrats and Republicans to collaborate on identifying and solving some of those problems – perhaps by finding (as they have in the past) less populous regions or businesses willing to provide support services and a path to permanent residency to secure needed labor – and showing the world the American dream is still there, up for grabs, for people willing to work hard for it.

The difficulties individuals and families endure in seeking to improve their lives in a new country – particularly if they are not wealthy or educated – is something we’ve all likely encountered in our own family histories (I’m told my maternal grandfather’s immigrant ancestors, houseless, burrowed underground like animals to survive their first winter here). In just a generation or two, those same immigrant families will give back plentifully to their new countries.

It’s no surprise that faith-based groups are a big part of Canada’s current approach to caring for its newcomers; here in the U.S., we do likewise. I’ve spoken with priests and pastors, Vinnies and others who are among the first to step up when there’s a need, and immigrants need a lot of support. Here in our diocese, Hispanic ministry provides some of those services – helping in practical ways with citizenship documents and language classes – but also in meeting spiritual needs for catechesis, sacraments and more.

I enjoy going to the Spanish Mass at St. Mary’s in Altoona – it’s a packed house with a joyful, vibrant and varied community – and feeling the universality of the church, and the sense of our shared humanity, in even a small, mostly homogenous Wisconsin city.