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Canada’s undocumented workers could gain a new avenue to permanent residency through a program under development by the federal government to tackle the underground economy. It is a pivotal turning point for some of the 500,000 undocumented residents estimated to be in Canada. Many work precarious and often exploitative jobs in construction, cleaning, caregiving, food processing and agriculture.

Undocumented residents face a range of vulnerabilities, including poor mental and physical health caused by social isolation and abusive working conditions. “The human rights implications of living without status are profound,” says a 2017 paper from the Toronto Metropolitan Centre for Immigration and Settlement. 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. “We’re absolutely committed to delivering on this mandate item,” said a government source familiar with the program in development. The source was granted anonymity in order to speak freely with the Star. “The work is currently underway to deliver and build on our existing programs to explore ways of regularizing status for undocumented workers in Canada.”

Research and consultation on the topic took place this summer, according to documents reviewed by the Star. “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. Three experts consulted as part of the research process told the Star they believed the program would likely focus on workers in particular sectors, rather than taking a broader-based approach. But advocates are strongly urging Ottawa to adopt an expansive program that will “meet the needs of migrants and the needs of the Canadian economy and community,” said Hussan. 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, Hussan said. 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, did not respond to specific questions about the scale and parameters of the regularization program. But Strickland 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 seen by the Star, 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.

“What we are generally calling for is a full and comprehensive regularization program,” added Hussan. 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. Jess, who spoke to the Star on condition of using her surname only, became undocumented after fleeing poor conditions on a Nova Scotia farm last year where she was hired as a migrant labourer, she said.

After her escape, she applied for an open work permit from the federal government through a program available to temporary foreign workers experiencing abuse. According to her application, her employer denied her medical care after an injury she believes was caused by backbreaking work picking strawberries. “The living conditions were bad,” the application reads. “There were 20 people living in the house and there was only one main bathroom.”

Ottawa rejected her application, she said, even though permits were granted to her fellow workers who fled the same farm. As a result, she lost her legal status in Canada. “It destroyed me, to be honest,” she told the Star. On top of struggling to find work to support her two children in Jamaica, losing status has caused mental anguish, she said. “I suffer a lot from it,” she said. “I can’t sleep.”

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 has 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.

“People still move because they’re driven by war, by economic needs, by love and by family. States will accumulate a certain amount of a population that’s without status and undocumented over time.” That impacts the entire labour market, said Sheila Block, Senior Economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ Ontario Office. Undocumented workers are more likely to experience low wages, injuries, and even fatalities on the job –and have little ability to advocate for themselves, Block notes.

“That depresses wages and working conditions for other low-wage workers as well, because there is somebody who will take that job for less money and in more unsafe conditions.” 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. Bea Bruske, the CLC’s president, said the program has helped address unfilled jobs and brought undocumented workers out of the “shadow economy.”

“I think for employers, it’s a benefit as well in terms of evening the playing field,” she added. Block said future regularization initiatives should be as expansive as possible. “If you truly want to lift the floor for everyone, then what you want to do is have a broad regularization (program), so that you don’t just shift the exploitation from one area of the labour market to another.” European countries have implemented such programs “without any documented negative impact on the economy or social life,” say MRN’s submissions to the immigration ministry.

In Ireland, the justice department recently initiated a scheme that granted undocumented residents the right to work –and full citizenship after a five-year waiting period. The program means Irene Jagoba, 47, can return to the Phillipines to see her children for the first time in a decade and a half. Jagoba left her home country in 2008, finding work in Ireland as a child minder and sending money home to help pay for her own family’s education and medical bills. “I left my kids in a very difficult situation. My son has a congenital heart disease,” she told the Star. Jagoba, who was one of the regularization program’s first beneficiaries, calls the initiative “life-changing. “While her early working years in Ireland were low-wage and shrouded in fear, she is now a real estate agent, marketing manager, and advocate for migrant rights.

The initiative was praised for being relatively barrier-free: there was no cap on the number of applications, and no language requirements to qualify. So far, the program has received over 5,100 applications and granted 1,128 permissions to successful applicants, the Irish justice department told the Star.  As in Canada, many undocumented residents in Ireland arrive in the country legally but lose status due to unforeseeable circumstances. Albert Bello, 38, came to Ireland from Malawi on a student visa. After just three weeks, according to Bello, his college was shut down by the government for regulatory breaches.

The college never repaid Bello his tuition fees, he said. He got a job to earn enough money to enroll in a new school, but by the time he applied, his temporary permit had expired. Now, with the legal right to live and work in Ireland, Bello can finally return home to marry his fiancee in September. “I’ve been taken out of bondage,” he said. In Canada, Nyers believe it’s an opportune moment for a regularization program.

Government policies to resettle displaced Syrians in 2015, and now Afghans and Ukrainians, have opened Canadians’ eyes to migrant issues, he said. Meanwhile, the pandemic shed light on essential, frontline sectors where undocumented residents often find work. Hussan said advocates were also emboldened by a series of targeted, one-off policies implemented throughout the
pandemic to help temporary residents in immigration limbo gain permanent residency.

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.”

Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung

Sara Mojtehedzadeh is a Toronto-based reporter covering work and wealth on the Star’s investigations team. Follow her on Twitter: @saramojtehedz

CAPTION: Canada’s undocumented workers could gain a new avenue to permanent residency through a program under development by the federal government to tackle the underground economy.Syed Hussan, executive director of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, said “I would say this is the most historic and unprecedented opportunity for migrants in the country in half a century.”Jess, who spoke to the Star on condition of using her surname only, became undocumented after fleeing poor conditions on a farm. She applied for an open work permit from the federal government through a program available to temporary foreign workers experiencing abuse, but was denied, she said.With the legal right to live and work in Ireland, Albert Bello, 38, can finally return home to marry his fiancee in September. “I’ve been taken out of bondage,” he said.Under a program in Ireland, successful applicant Irene Jagoba, 47, can return to the Phillipines to see her children for the first time in a decade and a half.

CREDIT: Sara Mojtehedzadeh Nicholas Keung