It’s a heady time to be a migrant justice organizer in Canada. The federal government has gestured towards modifying its immigration system, and migrant rights groups across the country have stepped up calls for mobilization to push Ottawa to transform a system they say is deeply unjust.

In September, thousands gathered in 13 cities, calling for “status for all.” Organized by the Migrant Rights Network (MRN), demonstrators took to the streets across the country as Members of Parliament returned to the Hill. 

“A regularization program will give an opportunity to people that have been contributing to Canada, contributing to the Canadian economy,” said Loly Rico, Director of the FCJ Refugee Centre in Toronto, a member of MRN. 

According to the federal government, there are between 200,000 and 500,000 undocumented persons living in Canada. Advocates say this number is inaccurate and out of date. Rico estimates there are around 200,000 people living undocumented in the Greater Toronto Area alone. 

“The only thing they need is a document,” said Rico. “And then they can feel the freedom to exercise all the rights that any permanent resident or citizen has.”

A coalition of more than 30 member organizations, MRN is pushing for a comprehensive and inclusive plan, which includes regularization for undocumented people and access to permanent residency for those with temporary status as students or workers. 

On the other side, trade associations representing industries worth billions are lining up to lobby the federal government. While details are scarce, lobbying records show industrial groups pushing for an immigration reform agenda that would maintain power imbalances between migrant workers and their employers.

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Rico told The Breach that it is a historic opportunity to address gaps in Canada’s immigration programs that leave so many—including thousands of refugees—in limbo. 

Caroline Michael estimates she has paid between twelve and fifteen thousand dollars to lawyers to help her achieve status in Canada.

Status, for life

Today, refugees, asylum seekers, international students, and migrant workers all risk losing immigration status by staying in Canada. Many start with temporary status and become undocumented, some are victims of human trafficking, and others fall prey to fake immigration experts promising support with obtaining documentation, only to disappear once they’ve been paid.

Caroline Michael, an undocumented healthcare worker who first came to Canada from Nigeria in 2018, fell prey to an unscrupulous immigration scammer. She paid a few thousand dollars in fees to someone she called a “fake lawyer,” who she said took her money and did no work towards her application for refugee status.

Michael came to Canada by herself, and with no network to support her as she began the process of obtaining refugee status. 

In the four years since, her applications for status have been rejected four times. Michael estimates she has paid between twelve and fifteen thousand dollars to legitimate lawyers who have been assisting her with the process. 

She is so stressed about her situation, she says, that she can’t eat or sleep, and feels trapped. “When you are held captive, when you are in a prison, you can’t move, you can’t even breathe,” she said.

Having legal status would allow Michael her basic rights, including being able to access health care, advocate for herself in the workplace, or get a driver’s license.

“I think it’s a moral obligation from the government and from every one that has been in a vulnerable situation, to really give them an option to stay in Canada,” said Rico.

The Migrant Rights Network is organizing monthly demonstrations across Canada. September 18, Toronto. Photo: MRN

The Liberals’ ambiguous agenda

Under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Liberals have promised steps toward regularization, but with pressure coming from migrant justice organizations, unions and corporate players, it’s difficult to know what the possible reforms will actually look like. 

Regularization is a policy mechanism used to “make regular” the immigration status of persons whose status has been deemed irregular, usually by granting status to people who are undocumented. A regularization agenda can also include the creation of pathways to permanent residency for those on temporary permits—including migrant workers and students—who are at risk of losing their status.

Depending on how the political winds blow, the Liberals’ approach could result in more limited regularization programs or something closer to the broad regularization that the MRN is calling for.  

Advocates warn that a limited approach would be discriminating and exclusionary, while continued  expansion of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program—which some corporate lobbyists are pushing for—is described as a hyperexploitative framework used to deny basic rights.

In December 2021, Trudeau sent a new mandate letter to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister Sean Fraser, in which Trudeau ordered Fraser to deliver on a number of commitments, including exploring regularization for undocumented workers, and expanding pathways to permanent residence for temporary foreign workers and international students, as part of Canada’s economic recovery from COVID-19. 

The following month, Liberal MP Randeep Sarai put forth Motion 44, which calls for a plan to expand economic migration, and for the creation of PR pathways for temporary foreign workers and international students. The motion required a plan be publicly released within 120 days of its passage. 

Motion 44 was adopted in May, about a month after the Liberals announced their plan to expand the widely-criticized Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP). The move was sold as part of Canada’s economic recovery from the pandemic, addressing labour shortages and bolstering key national industries. (Canada is the world’s fifth-largest exporter of agrifood).

On September 20, Minister Fraser tabled a response to Motion 44, a document titled Strategies to Expand Transitions to Permanent Residency. The 40-page report outlines five strategic pillars of the federal government’s immigration plan, but lacks concrete details regarding implementation. 

“There are very, very few details on the regularization program,” Vasanthi Venkatesh, associate professor in Law, Land, and Local Economies at the University of Windsor, told The Breach. “But historically, immigration law has been about creating demarcations between who deserves to be in and who deserves to be out.” As much as current Liberal rhetoric trumpets diversity and inclusion, there’s reason to doubt that they will follow through.

Trudeau’s first term as Prime Minister, Venkatesh explains, saw his administration reversing some Harper-era immigration measures—including citizenship rights, and healthcare for refugees. But at the same time, new restrictions were introduced.

“If you look at even the way the humanitarian and refugee grounds have worked, the government has worked towards benefiting certain countries, but has excluded others,” said Venkatesh. “There’s openness in terms of sheer numbers, but there are a lot of exclusions, or criteria, which automatically excludes groups of people, of racialized people, specific countries from the Global South and so on.”

A Toronto MRN demonstration in September. Photo: MRN

Temporary or permanent, that is the question

The fight to define Trudeau’s legacy in immigration policy is playing out in the streets and through inscrutable lobbying processes. Migrant justice groups, unions, and an array of business interests are making their case and bringing pressure to bear on the process. 

In the wake of a decades-long push for “status for all,” regularization and permanent residency could have a transformative effect on the lives of—according to an MRN estimate—up to 1.7 million people living in Canada. 

Whether it’s undocumented people, international students or migrant workers, that’s almost two million working and contributing to the economy without equal access to their rights or services. MRN members say a truly equitable regularization program must be broadly applicable, inclusive, and accessible. 

“As all the migrant justice groups have said, ‘status now, for all, and without demarcation,’ is the most non-discriminatory way to do this,” said Dr. Venkatesh.

While the reforms that migrant justice activists are pushing for would benefit many groups, working people are at the heart of the conversation, and their impact on Canada’s economy is a key element shaping this policy outcome.

Messaging from the Liberals continues to emphasize Canada’s economic recovery from COVID-19, and while hinting at progressive immigration reform, the government has simultaneously expanded the TFWP, which some workers have called “systematic slavery.” 

“It is morally bankrupt to expand a Temporary Foreign Worker Program, to bring people to jobs that we can’t recruit people for, [and] to not give them access to any mechanism [to] even imagine having permanent residency and status here,” said Fred Hahn, President of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Ontario.

While migrant justice organizations, labour organizations and business interest groups are pressing for regularization and PR pathways for temporary workers, others are focused on expanding the TFWP, and increasing access to the program for employers.

In an April media release, the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada (PCA) praised the expansion of the TFWP, and at least three separate lobbyists have had communications on behalf of the PCA regarding labour shortages and migrant workers since December. Members of the Edmonton-based PCA employ approximately 25,000 mostly-unionized construction workers across the country.

Many other organizations have sent lobbyists to engage with the federal government to communicate support for the TFWP, or address employer permits or labour shortages. Some of these include the Hotel Association of Canada, the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, the Canadian Construction Association, the Canadian Poultry and Egg Processors Council, the Canadian Meat Council, Entertainment Software Association of Canada, the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Canada’s Building Trades Unions, and the Canadian Pork Council.

The Canadian Construction Association and the Canadian Federation of Agriculture have also had communications registered in favour of changes that would improve pathways to permanent residency for migrant workers. Unifor and the Canadian Labour Congress are making similar requests.

Unions representing workers in the healthcare sector are also actively engaged in immigration advocacy. During the pandemic, the healthcare sector has seen a number of exclusive regularization programs, including a 2021 program which promised to accept 20,000 permanent residency applications from healthcare workers in Canada. But according to migrant rights groups, less than half of that number of applications were received due to barriers in process. Healthcare workers who are undocumented, or refugee claimants, were ineligible to apply. 

“There are undocumented [workers], there are migrant workers, who are now being relied upon to provide vital services,” CUPE’s Hahn told The Breach. 

“Those folks should, of course, like all others, have a clear, easy path to permanent residency. Period. Full stop.”

CUPE is one of 20 unions and labour organizations that responded to the MRN’s call for letters of support for regularization and status for all. Union locals have also done their part. Calgary’s CUPE Local 40 sponsored a Migrante Canada project delivering workshops on the situation of Temporary Foreign Workers in Canada, as part of the union’s Global Justice Fund. 

“It is unconscionable that we continue to abuse the labour of people and not recognize their status,” said Hahn. “That’s why we so strongly support the Migrant Workers Network and status for all.”

But if the countervailing push by big business to maintain access to cheap, precarious labour via temporary permits (like through the TFWP) is successful, the result will exclude groups like seasonal agricultural workers (who, through one of the streams of the TFWP have historically been denied pathways to permanent residency and citizenship) from regularization. 

“Status for all” has been the MRN’s overarching demand. Photo: MRN

Regularization works

There are numerous international examples (in Ireland, Portugal, Spain, to name a few), of blanket amnesty programs regularizing status for undocumented people across entire countries. 

Former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau implemented a regularization program in 1973, granting status to almost 40,000 people. In the mid 1990s, another federal program regularized around 3,000 people in immigration limbo because the government rejected their refugee claim, but had also deemed their home countries too unsafe to deport them. 

Last year, the federal government worked with the Canadian Labour Congress to implement a small program granting status to 500 construction workers in the Greater Toronto Area.

For healthcare workers like Michael, inclusive immigration reforms to address labour shortages is the only sensible policy. Ontario is currently facing a shortage of 50,000 healthcare workers, according to a recent report. Deporting undocumented healthcare workers makes “zero sense” according to CUPE’s Hahn.

“Sometimes I just can’t figure out what’s going on,” said Michael. “You have what you are looking for right now, so why don’t you go ahead and fix things for the people here, and let them do the job they are doing?”

For its part, MRN and its members are making the most of the current context, and pushing hard for the adoption of immigration reform before the next federal election. The Network has planned monthly actions until the end of 2022, with an event being planned for mid-November in Ottawa, and across the country on December 10, International Human Rights Day. The latest event took place this past weekend, with hundreds visiting the offices of 32 of the 39 federal Cabinet Ministers, in eight provinces, on Sunday.

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