Yalnizyan: Allowing undocumented immigrants to stay and work in Canada — permanently — would benefit us all

Rather than another piecemeal change to immigration policy, the government needs to move from the narrow Permanent Residents focus of annual planning and expand that to include targets (i.e., caps) on temporary workers and students and align a global permanent and temporary resident immigration plan with housing, healthcare and infrastructure capacity.

Not convinced that the economic benefits will be as strong as Armine suggests and we would be largely increasing the numbers of lower-paid and lower-skilled, rather than the higher-skilled needed to improve productivity.

It would also be helpful to have more accurate numbers on the number of undocumented, including visa overstays as the US regularly does as the figures cited by advocates have never been rigorously substantiated (CBSA should be able to collect information on visa overstays):

Want higher pay? A bigger economy with more household purchasing power? More revenues for public programs? Less exploitation of people at work and in society?

It’s all possible. Everyone can win, but the argument is counterintuitive, and may challenge your notions about fairness, process, and who gets to be Canadian. Stay with me on this.

The problem

Canada has long issued permits for people to temporarily come work and study in Canada, but the recent growth in this practice is staggering. By the end of 2022, in the name of fast-tracking solutions to labour shortages for business, the number of temporary foreign workers increased by 50 per cent compared to 2021, to almost 800,000 people.

In less than a generation, there has been an 8.5-fold increase in the numbers we permit to temporarily come work and study here, to 1.6 million in 2022 from 189,000 such residents in 2000. There was no public debate if this was good policy.

Colleges and universities now rely on the high fees they can charge international students, and we now take for granted the endless army of permanently temporary workers who chop and clean in restaurant kitchens, erect and renovate buildings, clean at night and care for your loved ones during the day.

We don’t know what share of temporary residents come here hoping to stay, but the complex maze of rules and conditions — requiring multiple applications and precise timing — guarantees some people will find no pathways to permanence, and others will run out of time trying.

Some leave, some are deported, and some live among us without official status. That opens the door to all sorts of bad economic outcomes. In 2007, the RCMP said between 200,000 and 500,000 were undocumented. It’s surely higher today, given how we’re expanding the inflows. That’s bad for them, and it’s bad for us. 

The fix

The solution is a regularization program for those who have simply overstayed time-stamps on their authorized entries, or whose official authorization is about to run out, with either no path to permanence or a tortured one, at best.

We need them, and they want to be here. Let them stay. Permanently.

Let me show you what this could mean for just one person.

Meet Sam

Sam (I have changed his name to protect his identity), came to Canada from India in the spring of 2019 as a bright and hopeful 17-year-old international student, legally permitted to study and work here.

His parents borrowed the first instalment of $8,500 for his $25,000-a-year, two-year business degree at a southern Ontario college. He worked part-time at a gas station, where he made $900 a month, covering his rent ($550), food and bus fare, but not much else. He, too, had to borrow money to cover the costs of education. 

When COVID hit, he was worried he’d fail because online learning was such a disorganized disaster, so his boss suggested he switch immigration status from international student to temporary foreign worker. The boss introduced him to an immigration “specialist” who charged $3,500 to prepare a Labour Market Impact Assessment, $2,500 for a work permit, and a $1,000 fee.

The specialist bungled the application process, leaving Sam in legal limbo after almost a year of waiting. Meanwhile, he was working 50 hours a week, for cash. It was half the minimum wage. He knew what his rights were, but could not enforce them.

Desperate to avoid deportation, he applied for a temporary work permit through the International Mobility Program. Another year, another negative result because of filing mistakes, another $3,000.

Sam was exploited by everyone: the post-secondary system, his employer, the immigration specialist. He is terrified of staying. He’s terrified of going.

As an undocumented worker, he can only find cash jobs that are dirty, dangerous and difficult. Returning to India would mean he would never earn enough to repay his loans.

I met Sam through the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, whose ambitious and strategic advocacy on this issue has built pressure on the federal government to make good on its promise to deal with a problem of its own making. A move is expected soon.

That could mean a lot of things. All involve better economic outcomes. How much better? 

By the numbers

According to a 2021 study by the Center for American Progress, regularizing the undocumented in the United States could add $1.7 trillion in GDP over the next 10 years and 439,000 jobs over and above the work done under the table by the roughly five million undocumented workers in the U.S.

(Canada is a country more reliant on newcomers than the U.S.; and while I was unable to find such analysis here, similar dynamics apply, on a smaller scale.)

It is estimated these workers would see about $4,000 more a year in the first five years after becoming a permanent resident (a 10 per cent increase), and $14,000 more annually in the next five years (a 32 per cent increase).

That’s because regularization permits workers to find better jobs, better opportunities, and the chance to openly use their skills. Status also gives people access to education and health care, and protection by labour standards lessens workplace injuries and illness.

Then there’s the payoff: better-paid workers and those no longer in the underground cash economy pay more sales taxes, property taxes (embedded in rents), and income taxes, supporting more public goods.

Regularization = better jobs + stronger public services + more economic resilience. It’s beautiful math. 

Win-win-win … when?

Regularization is a common practice in Europe, but it hasn’t happened in Canada since 1973. 

When Pierre Trudeau regularized almost 40,000 people, 60 per cent were undocumented residents, but 40 per cent were those seeking transition from temporary to permanent status, mostly international students and visitors.

It was a legacy move, securing decades of newcomer support for Liberals, but it was not an obvious thing to do. In 1973, unemployment was rising due to the first global oil price shock.

David Moffette, professor of immigration policy at the University of Ottawa, underscored a surprising fact: “Nobody politicized the issue. Nobody said, ‘Don’t let these people in.’ There was no trace of opposition to the program.” The reality was that these people were already living and working here. Nobody wanted a growing population of the undocumented in Canada. We’re at a similar moment.

Locking the doors isn’t enough

The recent closing of Roxham Road and all unauthorized entry points to Canada locks the back door; but unauthorized entries (roughly 40,000 people in 2022) have never been the main source of undocumented populations. The vast majority become undocumented by overstaying time-stamps on authorized entries.

The federal government is aware.

Immigration Minister Sean Fraser’s mandate letter requires he build on pilot projects his government created in 2021-22 to regularize the status of some undocumented workers in critical sectors like health care and construction.

The take-up has been underwhelming, with these projects welcoming fewer than 10,000 people into the Canadian family, largely due to highly restrictive rules. Therein lies the clue for what comes next, and it looks a lot like the program of 1973: accept those who are already here — working, studying and contributing to communities across Canada — who want to build their lives here.

As the economy slows, providing permanent resident status to the undocumented and those holding temporary permits would maximize their economic and fiscal contributions.

That’s the business case. 

The humane case is an even easier one to make.

Instead of creating impossible Catch-22 situations for Sam and hundreds of thousands of people just like him, we could unlock his future — and in so doing, ours.

Source: Allowing undocumented immigrants to stay and work in Canada — permanently — would benefit us all

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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