It’s time for a migrant regularization program that leaves no one behind
December 16th will mark one year since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a mandate letter to Immigration Minister Sean Fraser, calling on him to implement a regularization program that would ensure permanent resident status for undocumented people living and working in Canada as well as increase access to permanent resident status for migrant workers and students.
This promise is a direct result of decades of organizing by migrants, which has continued even in the face of COVID-19. Throughout September, October, and November, organizers around migrant justice have kept up the pressure on federal politicians to actually enact a regularization program that would provide status – without exception – for people who are currently living in the country undocumented, a number which may be as high as half a million. In September, the Migrant Rights Network, a network of organizations – including the Council of Canadians – fighting for migrant justice across Canada, held rallies in cities around the country, calling for #StatusforAll. In October, the network held more actions at the offices of 32 cabinet ministers in multiple provinces. And on November 14, nearly 100 undocumented migrant leaders will take the fight to Ottawa, calling on the government and leaders from all parties to meet with them and move immediately to implement a regularization program that will ensure permanent status for all undocumented people in the country.
Migrant rights are human rights
Status for all is a call for justice that resonates with many of the values that the Council of Canadians defends fiercely. The denial of permanent resident status for migrants – a denial that stems from the failures of immigration policy – results in a legal underclass of people who are living, working, going to school, raising families, and participating in community while in a state of manufactured precarity. It is undemocratic and creates conditions where people are vulnerable to exploitation and denied legal recourse when their human rights are violated. While undocumented people – who are frequently racialized and working in low wage positions – are the ones who suffer the most from Canada’s refusal to grant them permanent resident status, this two-tiered system of citizenship impacts everyone. It weakens workers’ rights and occupational health and safety standards, poses a threat to public health, and creates conditions in which human rights, like health care, secure housing, the right to refuse unsafe work, and more, are treated like privileges, things that employers and the government can give or withhold at will.
Having a class of worker that is denied equal rights and status with other workers while typically being paid minimum wage, as happens with many undocumented people and with the Temporary Foreign Workers Program, contributes to employers’ ability to keep wages artificially low for all workers, regardless of their immigration status. Having a class of worker that cannot seek legal recourse for withheld wages or unsafe working conditions drives down labour standards for all workers and contributes to an overall threat to public safety. Raising the minimum standards for health and safety and wages for migrant workers means raising work standards for all workers, across industries and immigration status. When workers have equality and equity, they have more bargaining power and greater solidarity.
Irregular immigration status is a failure of policy, not of the people
There are many reasons people end up in a situation where their residency in Canada is irregular. According to the Migrant Rights Network, which estimates there are at least 500,000 people in Canada in the precarious and untenable position of being without legal status, “almost all” undocumented people started out with temporary authorizations, be that through work and study permits, or refugee claimant permits. Migrant people typically pursue many avenues to permanent residency prior to the expiration of their permits, but the limited routes to citizenship and permanent residency, especially for low-wage workers, the high cost of legal and other fees for pursuing status, and the existence of unscrupulous and predatory immigration scammers mean that many people exhaust their options quickly. Then, they’re left with the choice of leaving their communities and relationships in Canada to return to a country where they may face war, discrimination, the impacts of the climate crisis, or a lack of economic opportunities, or remain in Canada without permanent resident status.
Without permanent resident status, undocumented people are often denied even the most basic rights, including health care and the right to advocate for themselves at work.
Access to health care is a right-to-life issue
Undocumented people are also denied access to health care, which poses a profound threat both to the lives of irregular migrants as individuals and to public health as a whole. Canada’s discriminatory treatment of undocumented people seeking treatment for health conditions has been condemned by the United Nations and Canadian courts have found merit in claims that demand guaranteed access to health care for irregular immigrants. In August, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice denied the Canadian government’s attempt to dismiss a claim from Nell Toussaint, a formerly undocumented immigrant from Grenada who has lived in Canada for 23 years. Before Toussaint became a permanent resident in 2013, she had tried, unsuccessfully, to access Canada’s Interim Federal Health Program, which is supposed to provide health care for refugees, asylum seekers, and detained people. She brought her case to the Minister of Immigration, who denied her. When she attempted to appeal the decision, the Federal Court and Federal Court of Appeal declined to support her claim. Her health problems worsened without treatment, and she was left with diabetes, blindness, a lower limb amputation, and an anoxic brain injury following a stroke. In 2018, human rights lawyers took Toussaint’s case to the UN Human Rights Committee, which found that Canada must take immediate action to ensure that no one is denied health care because of irregular immigration status. Her case demonstrates the catastrophic consequences of Canada’s denial of health care, which has been found by the UN to constitute a denial of the right to life.
Climate crisis makes #StatusForAll more urgent
As the impacts of the climate crisis worsen, we will see more and more people left with no option but to flee their homes. Ensuring the rights and status of migrants, including those impacted by climate change, and making sure they have equal access to health care and safe living and working conditions is a critical part of climate justice. High inflation and rising food and housing insecurity, the ongoing impacts of the pandemic, and more frequent and more devastating weather events due to climate change make it more – not less – urgent that we defend human rights and ensure that there is no class of people that can be legally exploited and discriminated against. Migrant workers are on the frontlines of the climate crisis, often working in environments like agriculture and transportation that expose them to weather conditions that are hazardous and potentially deadly.
The call for status for all is a call for justice and democracy. It is a pressing issue for all concerned with climate justice, human rights, and fairness.