Temporary immigration pathway for essential workers and graduates excludes too many, critics say

Politics

A group that advocates for the rights of migrants is pushing for changes to a recently announced short-term immigration program, calling it unfair, exploitative and exclusionary.

A pre-pandemic in-person citizenship ceremony.(Stephen Lubig/CBC)

A group that advocates for the rights of migrants is pushing for changes to a recently announced short-term immigration program, calling it unfair, exploitative and exclusionary.

Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino announced last month a new immigration pathway that will allow up to 90,000 essential workers and international graduates already in Canada to convert their temporary status to permanent status.

The program — which will begin accepting applications on Thursday — is a rare opportunity for low-wage, low-skilled workers to obtain permanent residency and, eventually, Canadian citizenship through an immigration system that normally prioritizes highly skilled workers.

But the Migrant Rights Network says a huge number of workers, students and recent graduates with temporary or no documented immigration status don't meet the application requirements. The group says those who do qualify are scrambling to obtain the necessary language test results and other required documents as they compete for a limited number of first-come, first-served spots.

"Any belief that the program would finally ensure rights, protection and dignity, even for workers in low-waged work, has been short-lived," the group wrote in a report released today.

"Refugees, undocumented people and hundreds of thousands of other migrants have realized that the program exclusions and requirements shut them out."

That criticism targets an initiative the Liberal government hopes will help it accept 401,000 new permanent residents — after a year when travel restrictions and a processing backlog caused by the pandemic slowed immigration significantly.

Canada welcomed 184,624 immigrants in 2020 — the lowest number for any year since 1998, according to Statistics Canada. The pre-pandemic target set by Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada for 2020 was 341,000 new immigrants.

Under the temporary pathway, the immigration department will take up to 20,000 applications for temporary workers in health care, 30,000 applications for temporary workers from a list of jobs deemed "essential" and 40,000 applications for international students.

Survey of migrants

When the program was announced, the Migrant Rights Network created an online tool to help migrants find out whether they qualified for the program. The tool also allowed them to share information about their personal immigration situations.

The group says over 3,000 migrants filled out the survey and it analyzed some of those results in its report, which is not scientific or nationally representative.

Many reported they don't meet the qualification requirements for one of the following reasons: they're undocumented because they overstayed a temporary visa or their work permit lapsed, they're a refugee claimant, they're an international student who hasn't graduated yet, or they're a temporary resident in Quebec.

Others don't qualify because they have medical issues or past criminal convictions, or because they don't have valid eligible language test results proving they are proficient in English.

"The federal government has created a short-term program for a few that excludes many," Syed Hussan, executive director of Migrant Rights Network, told a press conference today. "What we need is permanent status for all."

Hussan said people in Canada who don't have permanent status have limited access to labour rights, health care and education. He was joined at the press conference by several migrants who don't qualify for the program.

Abdoul is a Montreal resident who only gave his first name because he is undocumented and fears backlash from his employer and being reported to immigration enforcement.

He said through a translator that he lost legal status after arriving in Canada as an international student in 2015. Abdoul said he has worked in a variety of jobs since then — as a mover, in warehousing and construction — and experienced "inhumane conditions" at the hands of employers who took advantage of his undocumented status.

He cited as an example having to climb thirty-foot tall ladders without protection or safety gear. On one occasion, he said, he fell off a ladder and injured his foot but had to continue working because he lacked access to heath care and insurance.

"This program is unjust because it solidifies the divide that already exists between undocumented people and other precarious migrants and people with status in Canada," said Abdoul.

Barriers to application

The Migrant Rights Network's survey also flagged a number of barriers faced by migrants who do qualify for the program — the difficulty involved in booking English language tests at one of two approved testing centres, for example.

A second barrier is the fact that many workers don't have enough money saved up to pay high fees for a permanent residency application, or to pay immigration consultants and lawyers to help them navigate the system.

"Collectively, this means that people who do not speak English, people who don't have good jobs, people who don't have money, people who are stuck abroad, primarily low-wage, working class essential workers, are being pushed to the bottom of the line," said Hussan.

He called on Mendicino to sit down with his group to make the program more accessible. The minister's office declined an interview request.

Raj Sharma, an immigration lawyer at the Calgary law firm Stewart Sharma Harsanyi, said his firm is working with about 40 clients to help them apply for one of the three streams.

Sharma said that while a program for graduates and essential workers is welcome, the language requirement is causing unnecessary headaches, particularly for those who graduated in Canada from a post-secondary program taught in English.

"The international graduates, for example, entered Canada on language testing," said Sharma. "It's unnecessarily strict to require a language test."

Sharma said he expects the 90,000 spots to fill up within a matter of days.

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