In December 2021 mandate letter to the new Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, the Liberal government has tasked him with exploring “ways to regularize the status of undocumented workers who contribute to Canadian communities”.

Sean Fraser said since he is working on designing a regularization program that can help solve this problem.

In May, MEPs adopted Motion M-44 urging the government to devise a plan to provide permanent residency to temporary foreign workers. If planned and executed correctly, these programs could be a historic opportunity to improve the lives of up to 1.7 million people living in Canada without secure status.

Action required

In July 2021, migrants and defenders in MontrealToronto, Edmonton and St. Catharines held rallies demanding that programs be inclusive, comprehensive and permanent.

Now the question is whether the government will create a program that can provide status to all undocumented and temporary residents through permanent residence permits, or whether it will create a small token program that will fail to solve correctly the problem.

There is a lot at stake.

The most industrialized countries host a significant number of undocumented residents. It is an institutionally produced phenomenon that occurs when migrants seeking security, work, love or community encounter immigration and refugee policies that offer only limited protection to asylum seekers. asylum and precarious and temporary permits for immigrants. Canada is no exception.

Our immigration system is focused on temporary and conditional permits, many of which lack a clear path to permanent residency and citizenship. Every year, more migrants are entering Canada on temporary permits than the permanent ones. This leaves them undocumented when their permit expires.

Strategies to circumvent our international obligations towards asylum seekers, including the Safe Third Country Agreement and a obsolete definition of “refugee” also leaves many people without protection or official status to remain in the country.

Without addressing these root causes, regularization programs are only a temporary solution to a problem created by institutions. However, these programs have enormous positive results for migrants and society.

A woman cries as she takes part in a protest outside the Federal Court of Canada building for a hearing regarding the designation of the United States as a safe third country for refugees in Toronto in November 2019.

Current in the EU

The regularization is a common political tool in the European Union. France, Italy, Spain, Ireland, the UK, Poland and many other countries all regularly implement regularization programs.

Spainfor example, implemented ad hoc programs under conservative and progressive governments which regularized more than a million people between 2000 and 2006. He then launched a permanent permanent mechanism to provide status to undocumented residents.

Whereas less common in Canada, regularization programs have been implemented in the past. Under the government of Pierre Trudeau in 1973, some 39,000 people were regularized under the Status program adjustment.

A man comforts a woman, who has her hand on her face as she cries.
An Algerian man comforts his wife as she covers her face during a 2002 press conference in Montreal. The couple were deported by Immigration Canada after finding refuge in a church in the city, but were eventually granted permanent residency.

But so far, the Canadian approach has been extremely restrictive, limiting access to relief programs to specific nationalities or people with specific family or work situations. A 2002 program which only granted status to 900 Algerians is a good example of the Canadian government’s lack of ambition.

The mention of “undocumented workers” in Fraser’s mandate letter makes us fear that this restrictive trend may continue.

Benefits, potential policy pitfalls

Regularization programs have many advantages.

For migrants and those concerned about their well-being and their rights, these programs can provide security, stability and access to rights and family reunification.

For the government, a well-designed program can “reset” the growing population of people without status or at risk of losing it, remedying a problem produced by years of policies favoring temporary and conditional permits.

Regularization can also be a boon for the economy and the labor market by allowing workers to move from precarious jobs to more stable and better jobs in sectors where their skills are most needed.

A man works in a farmer's field among rows of seedlings.  A tractor is in the background.
A worker from Mexico plants strawberries on a farm in Mirabel, Quebec, in May 2020.

Read more: How we treat migrant workers who put food on our tables: Don’t call me Resilient EP 4

For regularization programs to be effective policy tools, they must be inclusive and comprehensive. Here are some potential pitfalls:

1) Imposing an arbitrary low cap on the number of permits available, while useful for budgeting and staffing purposes, would make the program inaccessible to most.

2) Limiting the program to undocumented workers in specific sectors would serve the sole purpose of meeting labor market needs while failing to recognize the contributions of undocumented residents in all sectors of the economy and society. The “Guardian Angels” initiative — a program that offered a pathway to permanent residency for a few asylum seekers who worked in very specific healthcare jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic — taught us that such an approach risks imposing criteria restrictive occupations that would disqualify many workers.

3) Providing only temporary and conditional permits would be counterproductive, as these permits are largely responsible for the growing number of undocumented residents in Canada.

This is a historic opportunity to tackle a long-standing problem and begin to rethink our model of immigration and refugee reception.

Over the next few months, we will see if the government intends to use this political tool to its full potential or settle for a small token program that will not lead to long-term structural change.