Photo: Flickr/Alex Guiford

The federal government has warned the thousands of temporary foreign workers (TFWs) whose work permits are expired yesterday, April 1, to comply with the new law by leaving the country or be dealt with accordingly.

“Let there be no mistake: We will not tolerate people going ‘underground.’ Flouting our immigration laws is not an option, and we will deal with offenders swiftly and fairly,” said Immigration Minister Chris Alexander and Employment Minister Pierre Poilievre in a statement.

Four years ago, April 1, 2015 was set as the deadline for TFWs in low-skilled occupations to either become permanent residents or return to their home countries as a means to encourage employers to hire Canadians.

The new “4-in-4-out” rule states that any TFWs who have been here for four years must leave the country and cannot return for another 4 years.

“Employers have had four years to find alternative employees. Similarly, temporary foreign workers have had four years to pursue pathways to permanent residence,” said the statement by Alexander and Poilievre.

They emphasized that the nature of the TFW program was always “to be temporary” and the option to “explore the many pathways to permanent residency” as offered by the Express Entry and Provincial Nominee Programs are open to all temporary workers.

However NDP MP Jinny Sims argued that these is where the problem lies. “The thousands who are asked to leave today have spent years raising their families and have played by the rules by applied for permanent residency. Some are at their last stage of getting approved and now they’re being punished for it,” said Sims.

“Its not their fault that it takes four to five years to process. For the federal government to snatch this away from the most vulnerable at the last minute is cruel. These are human lives after all who should be allowed to stay until a decision is made,” she added.

John McCallum, Liberal Critic for Citizenship and Immigration, also said, “We think those who are already here and whose applications are already in place should be allowed to stay.”

British Columbia froze the immigration program for TFWs on March 31, 2015 because of the rise in the number of applications, resulting from the new federal limits.

No new applications will be accepted until July 2 in order to tackle the backlog.

For many low-wage workers, the provincial system for immigration is the only path to get permanent residency.

“It’s inhumane and it’s bad for Canada’s reputation as the country that welcomes newcomers,” said McCallum. “The Conservatives were letting way too many temporary foreign workers initially, and now they’ve swung the pendulum too far the other way.”

Citizenship and Immigration Canada has refused to provide exact numbers about how many worker permits expire today and how many people will be affected, stating that the number “is not publicly available.”

Groups opposing the mass exodus continue to ask the government for more time. The Chinese Canadian National Council (CCNC) urged the federal government to extend the work permits of TFWs for another 12 months, estimating that some 10,000 or more will be affected by the April 1 deadline alone.

“Given that extensions have been announced for some 1,000 TFWs who had applied for permanent status before July 1, 2014, it is prudent now for the federal Government to extend this reprieve to ALL TFWs facing the 4-year rule,” said Victor Wong, CCNC Executive Director said today.

Syed Hussan, a member of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, said that the federal government has created “a mass state of coercion which is forcing human beings who have invested time and money to return home in debt.”

This is just the beginning according to Hussan. Part of the additional changes made in June 2014 includes a cap that limits the proportion of low-wage temporary foreign workers that a business can employ, forcing Canadians to be considered first for the job.

This transition measure will be reduced to 20 per cent beginning July 1, 2015 and reduced again to 10 per cent on July 1, 2016.

“It is expected that this measure alone will cut in half the number of low-wage temporary foreign workers once fully implemented,” wrote Marie-France Faucher, a media representative for Employent and Social Development Canada.

“Canadians are welcoming and generous but we need to ensure that we’re putting Canadians first and standing up against potential abuse of our immigration system,” said the statement by Alexander and Poilievre.

Fatima Syed is a Master of Journalism Student at Ryerson University. You can follow her at @fatimasyed401