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The Wrongs of the Canadian Immigration System

December 2012, Toronto - Some believe that the Canadian immigration system is fair and generous. It isn't. And Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney are swiftly making it even worse.

They are underhandedly taking apart the so-called 'objective' points-based system. They are moving quickly to get rid of its 'humanitarian' part: the refugee process. In its place, they are setting up temporary work programs that are designed to push most migrants into vulnerable, precarious and temporary jobs without access to services or the ability to unionize.

Today, the only means to apply for permanent residency from outside the country is as a spouse. That too, is not open to all, certain applicants will only get temporary residency for the first two years!

In 2008, for the first time, more people (over 300,000) entered the work force on exploitative temporary work programs than with access to permanent residency. Today, there are over 480,000 people entering the country as temporary workers without access to the most basic benefits. Migrant workers can now legally be paid 5% - 15% below the average wage.

At the same time, there are over 500,000 undocumented people without access to good jobs, healthcare, education, childcare, housing, shelter justice or dignity living in Canada, most of them in the GTA.

Under Bill C-50 and C-56 and others, Immigration Minister and officers can arbitrarily decide who can come into Canada and who cannot. The family reunification program has been modified to actually deter reunification. Currently, there is a moratorium on parents and grandparents getting a visa.

Temporary migrant workers are permanently temporary. Many can stay up to four years in Canada without having to leave to renew their work permit but are unable to apply for permanent residency. At the end of the four years, they are forced to leave and cannot return on any visa for another four years.

Refugee acceptance rates have been cut each year, and halved in the last two decades. As of November 1, 2012, 68% of refugee applicants had been denied in the fiscal year 2012. The Conservative government passed wide ranging changes to refugee laws, which allowed the government to designate certain countries as "safe". Applicants from countries deemed safe will face an expedited process with only 60 days to prepare their case and only 40 days to find and file evidence. Also, instead of a relatively impartial board member deciding claims, claims will be decided by a civil servant. Application forms recounting one's life conditions have been removed, replaced with an 'informational' interview conducted by a civil servant 10 days after they make their claim. The new rules also make it so that a person losing their refugee claim is ineligible for either a Temporary Resident Permit application or a Pre-Removal Risk Assessment Application until a year after they lose the claim - while enforcement will be mandated to remove them within this year.

The new rules also take out all questions of risk from the Humanitarian and Compassionate application. For years, immigrant rights groups have called for an establishment of a Refugee Appeal division, as one was created under the Liberals but never implemented. The carrot of such an Appeals division was used to convince many organizations to support changes to refugee policy. The appeals system is a paper application void of any real appeal hearing, while other egregious portions of this Bill, including $500 million dollars in immigration enforcement have been implemented.

In 2008/09 the United Nations set a goal of 560,000 resettled refugees in OECD countries - of these, Canada accepted about 11,000, most of whom were applications from inside the country. At the same time, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees announced that Syria, Lebanon and Jordan accepted 885,000 Iraqi refugees between them.

In August 2010, nearly 500 refugee claimants arrived on MV Sun Sea off the coast of British Columbia. Instead of allowing them access through the refugee determination process, they were jailed. Families were broken apart with children seized by the Ministry of Family and Child Services. Such events showcase the vindictiveness and arbitrariness of the entire refugee process.

The latest attack is Bill C-31. Bill C31 gives the Minister the power to single out for special punishment refugees who are suspected of having fled their country by means of smugglers. These punishments are harsh and inhumane. Asylum seekers suspected of using a smuggler will be subject to mandatory detention for the first year after arrival, with no chance of review, including for children. They also will not have the right to appeal a negative refugee decision. In addition, they will be prohibited from obtaining permanent residency for a period of five years after obtaining refugee status. This means these refugees will be held in limbo, not be allowed to leave the country nor sponsor their family members, effectively separating them from their families for a period of time well beyond those five years. At the same time, even more refugees will now be denied healthcare.

Canada champions itself as a beacon of progressive immigration and settlement policy as it moves towards a temporary immigration system. Yet the reality is that migrants of color earn 40% less than their white counterparts. In Toronto, the number of immigrants who are poor has grown by 125% over the past 20 years, and almost 60% of poor families are from racialized groups.

Immigrant neighborhoods are underserved and marginalized. Immigrant families have little access to recognition of credentials attained in their home countries, good jobs, or to services such as affordable childcare. Many immigrants sacrifice themselves and their aspirations for the betterment of their children. Despite these sacrifices, second and third-generation immigrants remain in exploitative jobs, are pushed out of schools and universities, are targeted by the police, and are unable to fully access opportunities promised.

Even more than immigrants with full status, temporary migrant workers and people without any documents face exploitative and precarious work and living conditions. In December 2009, four migrant workers fell to their deaths in Toronto working in unsafe conditions. In September 2010, two migrant workers died while working at an Apple processing facility. Migrant workers are not allowed to bring their families, forced to be alienated in the new communities they contribute to.

In the last few years, immigration enforcement has carried numerous US-style workplace raids, arresting hundreds at a time and forcibly deporting them without due process. The enforcement arm of immigration targets non-status people that it considers most vulnerable - women at shelters and people at community gardens. These tactics push already vulnerable undocumented people into situations where they face greater risk and exploitation.

People are being targeted at work, sometimes after their IDs are arbitrarily checked on streets, or when their doors are kicked in at night. Families, including children, are held in detention centres for months, even years, and deported without access to the lives they’ve built or contact with their friends and relatives.

In the face of this onslaught, a dramatically new way of imagining migration is required. A full and comprehensive regularization policy that would give full immigration status to all undocumented people, accompanied by the ability to gain full status on arrival for migrant workers is a first step. These changes must be accompanied by a cessation of wars, development projects and corporate interventions in countries around the world that create many of the conditions of displacement in the first place.

As we strive to create a federal program for status, we must fight for regularization from the ground up. We need to push immigration enforcement out of our cities, and ensure that all social services, health benefits and welfare wages are available to all people, irrespective of immigration status. We need to build a Sanctuary City.