Perhaps, it’s finally time to stop hiding
Canada’s 500,000 undocumented immigrant workers could gain a new path to permanent residency through a program under development by the Canadian government to tackle the underground economy.
It is a turning point for some of the 500,000 undocumented immigrant workers who are often in exploitative job situations in construction, cleaning, caregiving, food processing and agriculture.
Undocumented workers in Canada face a range of vulnerabilities, including poor mental and physical health caused by social isolation and abusive working conditions. Now the federal government might soon be coming to their aid.
The new program builds on a previous smaller-scale initiative that helped undocumented construction workers obtain permanent status in Canada, and follows a December mandate letter to the immigration minister to explore more ways to regularize undocumented residents.
It is unclear how many undocumented workers could be granted permanent residency under the new program. But it’s the start of the process.
“I would say this is the most historic and unprecedented opportunity for migrants in the country in half a century,” said Syed Hussan, executive director of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change.
Rough life for undocumented immigrant workers
The human rights implications of living without status are profound,” says a 2017 paper from the Toronto Metropolitan Centre for Immigration and Settlement.
The vast majority of undocumented residents came to Canada legally, only to later lose status because of issues with student visas, temporary work permits, or asylum claims, advocates say.
Those issues are born out of an increasingly temporary immigration system, where many residents struggle to extend short-term permits and gain permanent residency.
Permanent immigration status would bring undocumented residents out of an underground economy rife with wage theft and abuse, make health care and other social services more accessible, and help address record-high job vacancies, say advocates.
“It is a moment for the creation of a fairer society,” said Hussan. “These people live here. They work here already.”
Aidan Strickland, press secretary to immigration minister Sean Fraser, said Ottawa is considering “inclusive” measures to help undocumented workers, following a series of “bold and innovative” programs that put 90,000 temporary workers and international graduates on the path to permanent residency during the pandemic.
In submissions to Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada, the Migrants Rights Network (MRN) addressed a series of questions from government in July on blueprints for regularization – including how to incentivize undocumented residents to participate, what settlement supports might be needed, and what role grassroots organizations should play in the process.
Among MRN’s proposals are a moratorium on deportations and detentions and a free application process that can be easily completed without immigration advisors.
The MRN submission says 44 per cent of undocumented residents surveyed through its network were previously refugee claimants, while a quarter were formerly temporary foreign workers.
Canada ‘s temporary immigration system comes under scrutiny
Ottawa’s shift toward a temporary immigration system has made it much easier for migrants to fall through the cracks and lose status, said McMaster University political science professor Peter Nyers.
“The challenge of that, of course, is that when these temporary permits expire, some people go back to their countries of origin, but for a variety of reasons, other people stay,” said Nyers.
The number of temporary foreign workers in the country jumped from 66,000 in 2000 to 429,000 in 2018, according to a report from Statistics Canada — a 550 per cent increase.
The study also found that permanent residents are increasingly being selected from Canada’s pool of those with temporary work permits.
Even well-designed immigration policies are “not going to stop international movement,” said Nyers.
Undocumented workers are more likely to experience low wages, injuries, and even fatalities on the job – and have little ability to advocate for themselves.
Regularization programs are rare in Canada but not new. In 1973, then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau opened a one-time Adjustment of Status Program and granted permanent residence status to some 39,000 migrants from more than 150 countries.
In 2002, about 1,000 Algerians — failed refugees deemed to be at risk if deported to their tumultuous homeland — were allowed to stay in Canada after years living in limbo.
Then, in 2020, Ottawa launched a small-scale program with the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) to grant permanent residency to 500 undocumented construction workers, primarily in the GTA.
Undocumented workers can add $1 billion to Canadian economy
While undocumented residents already contribute to the tax base through consumer purchases, regularization could mean an extra $1 billion remitted in income tax, as well as Employment Insurance and Canadian Pension Plan contributions, added Hussan.
“This allows those people to access rights and assert their rights and have protections,” Hussan said. “We are bringing people into the family of rights.”