Photo: flickr/2010 Legal Observers

Jose Figueroa, who is courageously defying an immigration warrant to detain him, is a symbol of the arbitrary and exclusionary nature of Canadian immigration and refugee laws.

Jose has been in Canada since 1997 and was approved in principle for permanent residency. Years later, he received a deportation order for his prior membership in a group Canada claims is an organization that engages in acts of “espionage” and “terrorism.” 

That organization is the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), which fought against U.S.-sponsored dictatorships in the 1980s and is the current elected government of El Salvador. 

Unable to work and forced into sanctuary, Jose has effectively been separated from his family, including his two Canadian-born children, for the past year. “My children have been put in a position of vulnerability even though they are Canadian citizens,” Jose says in an interview. 

“Their rights as individuals and as Canadians have been violated by the decisions made by different immigration officials.” 

Jose and his family’s despair and precarity are not an exception.

While Canada is often cast as a liberal counterpoint to aggressive U.S. immigration enforcement tactics, the U.S. has actually pointed to Canada as the model to implement for U.S. migration policy. This is because Canada has perfected a system of managed migration to ensure the steady supply of cheap labour within neoliberalism while entrenching racialized citizenship. 

From permanent residency to permanently temporary 

Canada currently accepts more migrants under temporary permits than those who can immigrate permanently. Permanent residency for refugees, skilled workers and family members is restricted, citizenship is becoming harder to get and easier to lose, but the migrant worker program is exploding. 

These changes are drastic. The number of family-class immigrants dropped by 10,000 in the first four years the Conservative Party of Canada formed government.

According to Avvy Yao-Yao Go, Director of the Metro Toronto Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic, “Thirty years ago, family-class immigrants made up the majority of all immigrants. Today, they account for less than 20 per cent of the total intake.” 

The Conservative government has instituted a quota of 5,000 applications (note, not acceptances) on the sponsorship of parents and grandparents. This comes after a complete two-year moratorium on reunification with parents or grandparents.

In order to even qualify, the government has imposed stringent income requirements and families have to sign a 20-year financial undertaking. This means that for two decades sponsored parents and grandparents cannot access social assistance without returning it.

As an alternative to family sponsorship the government is lauding its new “quick” Super Visa Initiative, a temporary visa that requires the purchase of private Canadian health insurance. 

All this makes family reunification a privilege for the wealthy. 

For other family sponsorships, such as reunifying with partners or children, there are similar barriers.

As of August 2014, children over the age of 18 can no longer come as a dependent family member. Spouses must now arrive on a two-year conditional probationary visa before gaining permanent status. This increases the vulnerability of immigrant women in abusive relationships as it makes their legal status contingent on staying with abusive partners. 

The situation is equally dire for refugees. The number of refugee claims has decreased by 50 per cent and the number of accepted refugees has dropped by 25 per cent. Between 2006 and 2011, Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), tasked with immigration enforcement, carried out 83,382 deportations.

Due to the Conservative’s Refugee Exclusion Act, refugees are contending with a discriminatory two-tier system based on nationality. Countries like Mexico are classified as ‘safe’ — making it essentially impossible to seek asylum irrespective of one’s individual circumstances. Swept aside by the successive Immigration Ministers as ‘bogus’, Canada fast-tracks deportations of refugees from these ‘safe’ countries. 

The Refugee Exclusion Act also sanctions mandatory detention for refugees classified as ‘irregular arrivals’, including children over the age of 16.

Over the past ten years there has been an average of 11,000 migrant detentions per year, including up to 807 children detained each year behind razor-wire fences and barred windows. Migrant detainees spent a total of 183,928 days (that’s over 503 years) in immigration detention last year simply for administrative offences. Some are incarcerated indefinitely.

Until migrant justice organizers launched a campaign securing his release, an Iranian refugee, for example, was detained for six years because he refused to sign documents consenting to his own deportation. 

Over one-third of migrant detainees are crammed in provincial prisons, including maximum-security facilities, where they sometimes spend up to 18 hours a day in cells. 

One of these detainees was 42-year Mexican refugee Lucia Vega Jimenez. An undocumented hotel worker in Vancouver, she was detained by CBSA after transit police racially profiled her based on her accent and believed “she wasn’t originally from Canada.” Even when Lucia showed CBSA officers her scars from past incidents of domestic violence, they proceeded with processing her for deportation. She hanged herself while incarcerated in CBSA custody and died shortly thereafter. 

On top of escalating deportation and detention rates, many refugees are facing limited legal options including no right to appeal, while drastic cuts to the Interim Federal Health Program mean no access to basic health care.

In a rare move for the profession, doctors across Canada occupied federal MP offices to protest these cuts that, according to Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care, “place the pregnancies of refugee women at serious risk, cause denial of treatment for sick children, and deprive refugees with cancer of coverage for chemotherapy.” Even though the Federal Court of Canada handed down a monumental decision this year calling the cuts unlawful and unconstitutional, the government is appealing the decision.

Currently, there is also a Conservative private member’s bill to deny social assistance to a majority of refugees that is quietly making its way through Parliament. 

For the few refugees and migrants who do become permanent residents or citizens, the battle for secure legal status doesn’t end there. The Immigrant Criminalization law that passed last year allows for deportations of thousands of permanent residents who have been convicted for minor offences including traffic offenses.

And the new Stealing Citizenship law makes it possible to revoke citizenship from dual nationals or even from Canadian-born children who have the possibility of accessing dual citizenship. In a shocking precedent, Ottawa-born and Canadian passport-holder Deepan Budlakoti is facing deportation. 

Ideology of migrant exclusion

As current Immigration Minister Chris Alexander told Parliament “By making changes to the system, our government is ensuring immigration is protected from those who are seeking to abuse taxpayer-funded health care, welfare and other social benefits.”

Here we see the ideological foundation of these various changes.

Family-class immigrants and refugees are considered economic burdens draining the public system. Hence, their entry is either restricted or tied to conditions such as signing financial undertakings and denial of public health care and social assistance. Yet numerous studies indicate that migrants use social assistance less than the Canadian population.

Furthermore, such comments erase the immense subsidy to the Canadian economy that migrants provide — like, for example, grandparents performing childcare and domestic labour so that mothers can enter the paid work force. 

Moreover, the idea that migrants are only worthy if they can contribute to the paid work force is morally repugnant and dehumanizing.

The Conservative government has ended the Federal Skilled Worker Program and a new ‘Expression of Interest’ system has been implemented. Like an online dating system, employers cherry pick from a pool of immigration applicants, selecting those they want to come to Canada permanently as workers. Those who are favoured are wealthier English-speaking migrants with university degrees in one of only twenty-four accepted occupations.

Human dignity should be inherent, not dependent on how much or how well migrants are labouring to serve the colonial Canadian state or the capitalist economy. This dehumanization is heightened in the post 9/11 era where racialized immigrants and refugees, like Jose, are readily cast as ‘security threats.’

Racism, therefore, underpins the many myths and justifications given for the increasing denial of permanent residency to migrants. 


Canada as a model of managed migration

It is this racism and classism that sanctions the migrant worker program of indentured labour. The number of temporary migrant workers in Canada has tripled from 101,100 to 300,210 over the past decade.

Migrant workers are indentured to a single employer, don’t have guaranteed access to social services or labour protections despite paying into them, work long hours and are often paid less than minimum wage, and are not granted permanent residency upon arrival.

As migrant worker Noé Arteaga puts it, “It’s modern day slavery.”

This model of managed migration that favours temporariness over permanency is not, as some might contend, a reflection of a ‘broken’ immigration system. The denial of permanent residency to migrant workers –- overwhelmingly of colour — is precisely what makes them precarious and exploitable, and hence an ideal workforce for state and capital interests.

“It’s not that global business does not want immigrant labor to the West,” author David McNally observes. “It simply wants this labour on its own terms: frightened, oppressed, vulnerable.” 

This reality stands as a stark counter to the myth of Canadian benevolence and the veneer of Canadian multiculturalism. Indeed, for the few skilled workers Canada is willing to accept as permanent residents, the Conservative government has openly vocalized a preference for immigrants that are ‘culturally compatible‘ (read: white).

And other countries are taking note. Employment authorization programs put forward as part of comprehensive immigration reform policy in the U.S. are based on the Canadian temporary foreign worker program.

As immigration expert David Fitzgerald writes in the pages of Washington Post: 

“People look to Canada as a model for their success at making temporary workers truly temporary. But the way they are prevented from staying is by socially isolating them to an extreme degree, controlling their movements and systematically preventing them from interacting with Canadian society. From a labor rights perspective, it’s troubling, but it’s appealing to policymakers because it keeps the workers temporary.”

Migrant justice movements rising

A growing national network of migrant worker advocacy groups is pushing for permanent residency status upon landing for all migrant workers. At the same time, they are engaged in daily advocacy with migrant workers on issues of labour rights, safety standards, recruiter fees and access to social benefits.

For example, migrant workers in the agricultural program contribute $3.4 million to employment insurance benefits but aren’t able to fully access those benefits. This year, as a result of community and labour mobilizing, over 100 migrant workers challenged those regulations and won the parental benefits long owed to them.

The past two years have also brought invigorated energy into Sanctuary City movements across the country. These movements are creating community spaces where undocumented migrants can access critical services such as health care, women’s centers, transit and education without the threat of deportation. They are also pushing to prohibit municipal employees from requesting or sharing information about immigration status to federal immigration authorities.

Last year, after over a decade of grassroots mobilizing across service sectors, the city of Toronto declared that all city services would be accessible to undocumented migrants. Hamilton soon followed suit. Now there are similar campaigns in Montreal and Vancouver

While Sanctuary City movements create safe spaces for migrants, they do not stop the escalating deportation and detention apparatus.

To make visible the hidden crisis of migrant detention, 191 migrant detainees in Ontario have been on a historic strike over the past year. They are demanding a basic freedom: to not be detained indefinitely and freedom for the wrongly jailed.

The United Nations agrees; the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions recently released a report in favour of the campaign demand to end indefinite detention. Migrant justice organizers in Vancouver have also mobilized to expose migrant deaths in detention such as that of Lucia’s, as well as to oppose the exploitative filming of migrant arrests and detentions by a TV reality show. In a significant victory, the company was forced to stop its filming of CBSA’s inland enforcement teams.

And all across the country, communities are slowly breaking this regime of exclusion apart by fighting against individual detention and deportations. From the church basement in which he has been forced to take refuge, Jose continues to challenge his deportation order in the media, in the courts, and in the streets. Gradually, he is winning; most recently, with a Court decision in his favour to temporarily stop his deportation. 

One thing is clear — these diverse movements emphasize grassroots community mobilizing as well as an intentional framework of ‘migrant justice’ rather than the ‘immigrant rights’ discourse more commonly adopted in the U.S. Migrant justice movements in Canada tend to be more critical of the state, which is inherently violent with its foundation in settler-colonialism, racism and imperialism locally and globally.

As Andrea Smith writes in the preface to Undoing Border Imperialism, “A liberatory vision for immigrant rights is one that is based less on pathways to citizenship in a settler state, but one that questions the logics of the settler state itself.”

Therefore rather than advocating only for specific policy reforms that uphold the state’s right to distinguish between good and desirable migrants versus bad and undesirable migrants, these movements coalesce around the abolition of border controls themselves as well as solidarity with interlocking struggles for the freedom to stay, move and return.


This article is part of a Media Consortium collaboration on immigration reform. For more articles, please follow #TMCimm

Harsha Walia (@HarshaWalia) is a South Asian activist and writer based in Vancouver, unceded Coast Salish Territories. She has been involved in community-based grassroots migrant justice, feminist, anti-racist, Indigenous solidarity, anti-capitalist, Palestinian liberation, and anti-imperialist movements for over a decade. She is formally trained in law, works with women in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, and is the author of Undoing Border Imperialism (2013, 2014). 

Photo: flickr/2010 Legal Observers

Harsha Walia

Harsha Walia

Harsha Walia is a South Asian activist and writer based in Vancouver, unceded Coast Salish Territories. She has been involved in community-based grassroots migrant justice, feminist, anti-racist, Indigenous...