Canada’s cumbersome immigration system is leading to an “alarming” number of migrants being deported every day back to potentially dangerous situations, advocates have revealed.
The Migrant Rights Network released data last week showing at least 39 people were deported daily in the first half of 2023, despite Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s 2021 mandate letter calling for a regularization program.
Swathi Sekhar, an immigration and refugee lawyer, says that’s because migrants are forced to navigate an immigration system that is “very strict, very restricted, and limited to an extremely small subset of people who may qualify for permanent residence.”
In the end, “it is often in vain, because our system simply does not offer a viable, straightforward pathway to permanent residence for the vast majority of people who come to this country,” Sekhar said at a press conference where the information was released.
“It is very complex, very lengthy and extremely difficult to actually successfully get permanent residence at the end of that pathway.”
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There are an estimated 500,000 migrants with precarious and/or undocumented status including migrant workers, students and failed asylum seekers, who often face restricting regulations in their attempts to secure permanent residency legally, and most of whom fail to get it.
“Most low-wage migrant workers and students have no access to permanent residency — over 40 per cent of refugee claimants are denied,” according to the Migrant Rights Network.
“As a result, most migrants have to choose between leaving behind their friends, their jobs and their communities in Canada and potentially being forced to move to a country where they may face risk, or live in Canada undocumented, exploited and in daily fear of deportation.”
Many fall prey to the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), which receives around $46 million a year to deport them. That’s nearly $5,000 per person. In contrast, the Migrant Right Network’s secretariat Syed Hussan said providing settlement and integration services for a permanent resident costs approximately $3,900.
According to data obtained from the CBSA through a Freedom of Information request, 7,032 people were deported in the first half of 2023, nearly double the deportations in 2021 and 2022.
Mary Gellatly, a community legal worker at Parkdale Community Legal Services in Toronto, obtained the documents under the FOI.
“If this rate continues, by the end of this year, we’re looking at 22,000 people who will have been deported since this prime minister promised a regularization program for undocumented people,” she said.
“Many of these people could have avoided the horrendous experience of deportation if the government had moved on its 2021 promise to regularize undocumented people.”
A regularization program would help them apply for and receive permanent resident status, says the proposal by the Migrant Rights Network.
It would also require updating immigration policies to “ensure that all migrants including workers, refugees, international students and others are guaranteed permanent resident status [on arrival] so that they do not become undocumented.”
However, it has not been introduced to cabinet for discussion, a necessary step to finalize it.
Last week, Immigration Minister Marc Miller said he will be taking the issue to cabinet in the spring. However, he said, the program “will not address all the challenges of people that are here on a regular basis and undocumented.”
He also said there is “resistance” within Parliament about “how to approach a number of competing policies…notably in the context of the winds that have turned against immigration.”
In an email, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) spokeswoman Mary Rose said the department “has been engaging with academic experts and stakeholders, including the Canadian Council for Refugees and Migrant Rights Network.
“IRCC will also be informing our future policy decisions based on the lessons learned through recent innovative programs including the Out-of-Status Construction Workers Pilot.”
Tareq Abuznaid, 19, arrived in Canada in 2015 after escaping persecution in the West Bank first, then in Chile, where his family had first fled to. He says in Canada they finally felt welcomed, as they were not “shunned” for their religious beliefs or ethnicity.
Over the last eight years, he says, he and his family have given their “sweat, blood and tears to the community.” He graduated from high school and worked hard to enroll in university.
But in August, the government tried to deport them separately – Abuznaid, who was still 18 years old, to the West Bank, and his parents to Chile. For now, his deportation has been stopped because the government can’t get travel documents for him, but he says he’s still at risk of deportation any day.
“It feels like betrayal. There are almost no words for it,” he said.
“It feels horrible and honestly heartbreaking that they want to deport me back to a country that is being the victim of an active genocide, and another that doesn’t welcome me at all….It’s so disgusting and shameful that after all we’ve been through and after all we have given, they’re just willing to throw me and my family into a death sentence.”
Sekhar, the immigration lawyer, says the only option usually available to people is a humanitarian and compassionate application, though it is “an extremely discretionary category and has very low acceptance rate and many other criteria” that are difficult to meet.
“It is not a viable option,” she says. “Migrants are “forced out of status, because they have no other options, and then they’re forced to live undocumented, which is an extremely difficult and scary and precarious way to be living.”
Rajan Gupta, who lived and worked in Montreal for five years doing “everything by the book,” received a letter on Nov. 2 from the CBSA telling him that his application had been refused and he would be deported to India. He says he tried to explain that his lawyer had not kept him in the loop or told him about the humanitarian and compassionate application, but it didn’t help.
He said the CBSA deported him immediately, without allowing him time to close his bank account or take most of his belongings. He was not able to communicate with his employer or say goodbye to friends.
In India, he says he faces threats to his life from his sister’s ex-husband as well as from the government.
“I’m not able to work. I keep moving because I’m in hiding,” Gupta says. “I live in one place one weekend, another place another week, and I’m not able to work.
“I am depressed. I’m taking medicine for depression. Every morning, every night for a month, I have just been sitting at home.”
Sekhar says that while Gupta’s deportation experience is all too common, governments go to great lengths to obfuscate the process from the general public.
As a result, most people ignore the “extremely shameful and extremely violent” process that is undertaken to deport someone. The results are often catastrophic on a community-wide level, she says.
“Families and communities are torn apart, and it leaves a huge void in people’s lives.”
Fernando Arce is a Toronto-based independent journalist originally from Ecuador. He is a co-founder and editor of The Grind, a free local news and arts print publication, as well as an NCM-CAJ member and mentor. He writes in English and Spanish, and has reported from various locations across Canada, Ecuador and Venezuela. While his work in journalism is dedicated to democratizing information and making it accessible across the board, he spends most of his free time hiking with his three huskies: Aquiles, Picasso and Iris. He has a BA in Political Science from York University and an MA in Journalism from Western University.