Is Canada Welcoming the Stranger?
Recently, two reports were tabled in Parliament that highlight problems in Canada’s current immigration and refugee practices. Jason Kenney, Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, offered the Annual Report to Parliament on Immigration, which includes immigration targets for 2010. The total number of immigrants accepted in 2010 will remain the same as in 2009. However, immigration and refugee advocates were dismayed to see that the targets for refugees and family class immigrants will decrease next year, while the number of economic class immigrants will increase.
The minister’s spokesperson suggested that the decreased refugee target is merely a matter of an understaffed Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) unable to process large numbers of applications in a timely fashion in the past few years. Therefore, next year’s target will go down, but the target is set to increase in following years now that the IRB is fully staffed again.
However, the same annual report also revealed that the success rate for refugee claims has decreased 56% since 2005, suggesting that there is more than a simple structural problem occurring. Fewer refugee claims are being approved. Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council of Refugees, believes that Canada is becoming far less welcoming of refugees.
Kenney has suggested that changes to the immigration and refugee system are forthcoming, and should include the evaluation of applicants on the basis of country of origin, rather than solely on the merit of individual context. There are concerns about applicants being sent back without a fair hearing.
Temporary Foreign Workers
Last week, Auditor-General Sheila Fraser also presented her fall report to Parliament. Fraser criticized decisions within the immigration system for provoking big changes with little thought for the consequences. In particular, she says the government is not doing enough to curb abuses of the Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program, leaving the employees particularly vulnerable.
A Toronto Star investigation published the same day found that many workers are exposed to workplace abuses, including violation of safety regulations. As a result, some workers leave their employers to find other work, without a legal permit. Many other workers remain in Canada after their work permit expires in order to escape crippling poverty at home or to pay off debt accumulated in the process of coming to Canada. As a result, the number of undocumented workers in Canada is estimated to be between 200,000 and 500,000.
The TFW program has exploded in the past four years. What began as a small initiative to bring in low-skilled labour has become an employment stop gap as employers bring in cheap labour to fill jobs in construction, the oil sands, the service industry, agriculture and caregiving. In 2008, the number of temporary foreign workers granted new permits was close to 200,000, almost equivalent to the number of immigrants granted permanent residency.
While Canada is relying on the work of these low-skilled labourers to keep our economy humming, they are not welcome as new citizens. Most of the participants in the program – with the exception of caregivers – are not allowed to apply for permanent residency. They are good enough to work, but not good enough to stay.
Minister Kenney has indicated that changes to the TFW program will allow workers a four-year work permit, but will then ban them from another work permit for six years. This cycle suggests the workers themselves are disposable – Canada does not care about their economic circumstances or need; new workers can be found from other locations to take their four-year turn filling the gaps in the Canadian economy.
This highlights a reluctance on Canada’s part to welcome the stranger as a new Canadian. While our immigration priority is for economic immigrants, we will not even take the low-skilled workers who have put in time here, working for low wages, as Canadians. Furthermore, we are not taking steps to ensure they are protected and treated well while they are here.
An unwelcoming country?
What does this unwelcoming stance say about us as a country? The Bible includes welcoming the stranger as one of the important ways we are called to love our neighbour as ourselves. Can we seek the common good in Canada while simultaneously treating immigrants like economic pawns? Can we promote public justice while failing to protect the most vulnerable?
The Auditor-General’s report provides a timely warning to Canadian decision-makers: we need to think carefully about the consequences and impact of big decisions to our immigration program. Otherwise, we risk losing our primary purpose of welcoming the stranger in our rush to boost the economy. Our priority – even when we cannot accept every person who applies for immigration or refugee status – should be to treat all people with dignity and care.
The immigration reform package expected later this year could include some of these steps. Ensuring that the IRB has sufficient resources and personnel to do its job well could speed up the process for acceptance while not keeping people here for years before a denial and deportation order is issued. Implementing the refugee appeal board called for in the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act could help to ensure that all refugees receive a fair hearing. Allowing all temporary foreign workers to apply for permanent residency would be a fair step for those who have given their labour to our economy. A fair and appropriate balance also needs to be found between economic, family class and humanitarian immigration.
Together, these measures could go at least part way towards creating an immigration system that truly welcomes the stranger.
Chandra Pasma is a former CPJ Public Justice Policy Analyst.
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