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Supporters gather in front of a banner that reads "Regularize Everyone. Status for All."

Supporters gather at a rally in Edmonton on Sept. 18 to demand a regularization program that provides residency and status for all migrants. (Brett McKay)

Brett McKay | September 30, 2022

Think back to when the COVID vaccines were being rolled out. Imagine that rather than evaluating the benefit of getting a Pfizer dose over Moderna, you were weighing the risk of remaining unvaccinated during a pandemic and the chance you would be detained if you went into a clinic to get the shot.

Or, your boss has been skimming off your paycheques and forcing you to work in unsafe conditions. If you complain, you’re out of the job. If you report him to the government, he may be fined while you are deported.

These are the types of dilemmas facing an estimated 500,000 undocumented people Canada. They are part of the 1.7 million people in the country living with precarious status – precarity that deprives them of access to healthcare and other services they’ve paid into over their years in the country, and that makes them vulnerable to forms of exploitation most Canadians would rather believe don’t happen within our borders.

We have long needed a comprehensive, inclusive, and permanent program for regularizing migrants. It’s something migrants and advocates have been demanding for years, and a proposal that is now being taken seriously in the House of Commons.

In a mandate letter to the Minister of Immigration, the federal government signalled it wanted to build on existing programs and “explore ways of regularizing status for undocumented workers who are contributing to Canadian communities.” With this mandate, Canada has an opportunity to address the human rights disaster that its current policies create and reproduce.

The majority of people now without status immigrated through available legal channels like the temporary foreign worker programs. Since the “low skilled workers” category was added to the TFW program in 2002, the number of industries relying on this type of labour have grown steadily. As of 2019, TFWs accounted for about 4% of employment, but make up 10% of workers in accommodation and food services and 15% of agricultural workers.

What makes this program uniquely prone to abuse is the way workers are tied to a single employer who has the power to renew or terminate the contract that allows these people to legally stay and work in Canada. If it doesn’t pan out with that employer, the worker either goes home or stays without status. Reports of unsafe and outright illegal working conditions are common, as are stories of sexual harassment and exploitation from employers who hold the latent threat of firing over workers’ heads.

“So, you have women working, essentially in sexual slavery here,” Alvin Finkel, president of the Alberta Labour History Institute, told me in an interview earlier this summer. “You have both men and women forced to do work that violates human rights laws in this country – violates labour laws in this country.”

Is it any wonder people are willing to take their chances in underground networks rather than be subjected to this treatment?

Precarious migrants and undocumented workers haven’t fallen through the cracks in Canada’s immigration system. Rather, they are people who have refused to go willingly into the last phase of the country’s cyclic deportation economy.

For a nation made of immigrants, it might come as a shock to Canadians that the country didn’t have a department of Immigration until 1952. Prior to that, immigration was variously a responsibility of the Departments of the Interior, Agriculture, Mines and Natural Resources. When the harvest or the industrial project was through, so was the worker’s time in Canada.

As is the case today, laws preventing this did little to curb the practice.

“For years immigration authorities broke the law with impunity in order to protect Canada from those they deemed “undesirable,” historian Irving Abella said in the forward to Whence They Came: Deportation from Canada 1900–1935. “Canada’s record in deporting immigrants was by far the worst in the entire British Commonwealth.”

This is the legacy on which Canada’s present treatment of migrants is built.

A regularization program that grants permanent residency to undocumented and precarious migrants would immediately improve the lives of hundreds of thousands in our communities. And it would be a major policy shift away from an economy that treats migrant’s labour as a resource to be extracted, and their lives a byproduct to be swept outside our borders.

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