An internal government document, obtained under the Access to Information Act, shows that Ottawa has contemplated an amnesty program to grant legal status to at least 10,000 undocumented immigrants living and working in Canada’s vast underground economy.
The program, known as “special measures,” was proposed in 2001 but not included in the new Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, implemented in January, 2002.
Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Judy Sgro is now reviewing the detailed proposal and consulting immigration lawyers, unions and other “stakeholder” groups, including Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, to resolve the question of how to deal with the tens of thousands of illegal workers who toil in Canada’s twilight economy.
“We are looking at addressing the issue of undocumented workers and aware there is a shortage of certain kinds of [legal] workers in the labour market,” France Bureau said on behalf of the minister yesterday. At least 10,000 undocumented drywallers, carpenters, house framers, painters and carpenters are working in the Greater Toronto Area alone, Andy Manahan of the Universal Workers Union, Local 183, said in Toronto.
The federal government estimates there may be as many as 100,000 illegal immigrants across the country.
They often earn less than their Canadian counterparts and live in fear of being deported or denied access to health care, housing and schooling for their children.
Some entered Canada as tourists and overstayed their visas; others failed in refugee claims and slipped underground.
“In the early summer I spoke with the minister, and she was positive that this was a worthwhile thing to do, and that action would be taken to help regularize the status of undocumented workers, notwithstanding the security concerns of CSIS and the RCMP,” Mr. Manahan said.
Richard Kurland, the immigration lawyer who obtained the draft report under access-to-information legislation, said it may be more difficult for a minority government to bring in such a program.
“There is also a changed security environment.
“Critics may say you are rewarding queue-jumpers, while security analysts will say by emptying the pool of illegals you are providing fewer places for terrorists to hide.”
The eight-page draft proposal notes it would cost $13.6-million to process 10,000 applicants under a one-year “special measures” program, and as much as $120-million for 100,000 applicants.
The proposal concedes that the public’s openness to such a program is “not expected to be high given concerns about irregular migration and opponents’ arguments that Canada is becoming a haven for criminals and terrorists.”
The program could be detrimental to “our relationship with partner law enforcement agencies (RCMP, CSIS) if we are deemed to be ‘soft’ on illegals,” the report states.
However, it makes clear that those involved in smuggling people or any other criminal enterprise would be exempt from the program.
Eligible applicants would include people with a record of arrival showing they had been in Canada for three years, as well as those with no record of arrival who had been here that long, including the so-called “illegal underground population.”
The report says that the program would want to convey that “we have worked very hard to convey the message that the new legislation will ‘close the back door.’ “
Applicants would undergo face-to-face interviews with specially designated immigration officers and would have to demonstrate that they had successfully integrated into Canadian society, found work and not relied on social assistance in the past year.
Unsuccessful applicants would be offered letters of introductions to missions abroad to reapply to come to Canada.
In some cases, they would be removed from the country.
Mr. Kurland suggested that the program may have been shelved temporarily for security reasons after the terrorist hijackings of Sept. 11, 2001, in the United States.
“An amnesty program could dramatically reduce the scope of the illegal environment in Canada,” he said. “The pool of illegals becomes smaller, making it more difficult for terrorists to hide.”
Last year, then immigration minister Denis Coderre raised the idea that legal status could be extended to undocumented workers who are part of the Ontario construction sector.