“Dreamers” in Canada need protection, too

It would be helpful having more accurate estimates on the numbers rather than the anecdotal wide range. The numbers are important to assess what policy approach or approaches are more appropriate and or needed:

Thursday’s long-awaited U.S. Supreme Court decision rejecting the Trump administration’s bid to end the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program was met with sighs of relief on both sides of the border. The plight of so-called “Dreamers” — youth and young people who were brought to the U.S. as children who remained with no legal immigration status — is a well-known and heartbreaking story. Despite most often having had no role in the decision to migrate, nor having remaining connection to their previous country, these young people are vulnerable to deportation. Anti-immigration advocates accuse them of “cheating the system.”

While we gasp at this close call in the U.S., the truth is that Canada is no better on this issue. In fact, non-citizens brought to Canada as children are perhaps in a worse position. We have no DACA-equivalent legislation to provide protection from deportation or temporary work authorization to our “Dreamers.” We do not even have a public discourse on the issue.

While the term “Dreamers” invokes idealistic accounts of overcoming odds and happy endings, the people this term refers to are in fact real people living real lives. Like other children, they have gone to school, made neighbourhood friends, and developed views of the world based on their Canadian lives.

As the pandemic has laid bare, while migrants are essential to our communities, they are so often exploited and excluded. Migrants face barriers to health care, education, decent work, family unity and equal rights. While legalization theoretically enables “Dreamers” to access K-12 education, many require the intervention of lawyers and community advocates to enforce that right. As they grow up, they discover they cannot work legally, access supports such as OHIP and OSAP, enrol at most universities and colleges (or if they are admitted, face elevated international fees). Without SIN numbers, they cannot access CERB or CESB. Seeking professional support or calling the police, always a perilous choice for racialized groups, risks exposure to immigration authorities.

These barriers not only close doors to opportunities that other Canadians take for granted, they force these young people into precarious employment, housing and social situations that make them vulnerable to abuse. To protect themselves and their families, they work to “fly under the radar.” Living as an undocumented person carries huge psychological weight. In this case, that weight is carried by children and youth.

Consider “Marla,” who was brought to Canada at the age of 4. She has lived in the GTA for 18 years. An academic star throughout school, she was completely unaware of her insecure immigration status and what that meant until she was mid-way through high school. The revelation was harsh. While her friends entered university, she had to abandon her own university ambitions and instead enter precarious factory employment.

Since 2012, DACA has enabled approximately 800,000 young adults to work lawfully in the U.S.. How many undocumented childhood arrivals do we have in Canada? We do not actually know. Estimates of the number of people living in Canada without legal immigration status vary from 20,000 to 500,000, but there is no estimate of those who arrived during childhood. The existence of childhood arrivals is seldom even acknowledged.

Therefore, hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of young people across the country are living in marginalization and vulnerability. They also cannot contribute to our communities and economies in the ways they wish. And this despite the significant investments we have made in them (e.g., education, emergency health care) — and they in us.

Do we need quantifiable numbers before we act? No. Agencies working with migrants and young people know of enough people like Marla to know their predicament is real.

If the Canadian government finally decides to provide protections to this special group, we must not blindly accept a DACA-like model. Despite applauding Thursday’s decision, we know that DACA is insufficient. It defers removals but does not provide a pathway to citizenship, effectively leaving young people in limbo. It also creates a hierarchy of entitlement due to strict inclusion criteria. A made-in-Canada solution would need to address these glaring deficiencies and embrace childhood arrivals as equal and welcome members of our society.

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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