Ottawa working on program to regularize status of 500,000 immigrants
The federal government is aiming to create a program that will provide a path to permanent residency for up to 500,000 immigrants who are working in Canada but do not have official standing.
The program would have unprecedented scope and apply to people whose visa or work permits had expired, and to those whose refugee applications may have been denied or blocked due to a moratorium on deportations to their country, according to Radio-Canada.
"We're looking into ways to regularize people who live in Canada with a precarious status," a government source, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Radio-Canada.
Up to 500,000 people could be eligible, according to the source, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
In his mandate letter to Immigration Minister Sean Fraser late last year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked Fraser to "further explore ways of regularizing status for undocumented workers who are contributing to Canadian communities."
Immigration Ministry spokesperson Rémi Larivière confirmed that work to complete that mandate "is underway," and that the ministry is consulting with university researchers, experts and industry advocates.
Ministry officers have approached several advocacy groups in recent weeks and over the summer to consult them on the program, Larivière said. Potential criteria and a launch date are still unknown.
"We're hoping for an inclusive program that will help many people, but it's still vague," said Hady Anne, a spokesperson for the Montreal-based Solidarity Without Borders.
While there have been programs to regularize the status of immigrant groups before, none have included so many people, says Rivka Augenfeld, a lifelong refugee advocate and the former president the Table de concertation des organismes au service des personnes réfugiées et immigrantes, a working table of Quebec immigration organizations.
"It's never been seen," Augenfeld said of the forthcoming program's expected scope. But she warned that for it to be effective, the program will need "the will of a good minister as well as the prime minister's support."
Temporary workers and asylum seekers would not be able to apply — including the thousands who have crossed at Roxham Road in Lacolle, Que., an unofficial crossing point increasingly popular among migrants entering Canada from the United States.
There is a large backlog in processing asylum applications, meaning many people wait years before even having a chance to tell their story before an Immigration and Refugee Board judge.
Lisa Middlemiss, the president of the Canadian Bar Association, says that while the new program would be a positive step for people with precarious status who've lived and worked in the country for years, it could appear unfair to migrants who have temporary status in Canada without the possibility of obtaining permanent residency.
"It's ambitious and interesting, but it could generate a lot of frustrations," Middlemiss said.
Larivière, the ministry spokesperson, said Ottawa would "continue to support inclusive immigration programs that meet Canada's economic needs and fuel our growth."
Would Quebec buy in?
Advocates such as Augenfeld and Anne fear Quebec's government could intervene to limit the program within the province.
During the pandemic, when the federal government created a program allowing asylum seekers working in health care to apply for permanent residency, Premier François Legault's government objected to expanding the criteria to workers who did not directly care for patients, such as cooking staff and cleaners.
The move excluded thousands and was strongly condemned by immigration advocates.
In the spring of 2021, Legault also declined to participate in another federal program offering essential workers and graduates a new pathway to permanent residency.
Legault was re-elected on Monday with a resounding majority of 90 out of 125 seats in the National Assembly.
He came under fire leading up to the election after he associated immigration with violence and extremism and later said it would a "bit suicidal" for Quebec to increase its immigration levels, insisting that accepting more immigrants entails a threat to the French language.
"We're worried Quebec will complicate things," said Anne of Solidarity Against Borders.
Augenfeld also raised the possibility that Quebec could "throw a wrench" into the plan for immigrants in the province.
Because the program is expected to include people from countries for which Canada has moratoriums on deportations, Haitian nationals, largely based in Quebec, could qualify.
Frantz André, who has helped hundreds of Haitians apply for asylum in the province, hopes Legault will be more open this time around.
"We're hoping he'll be more generous," André said. "These people have been living in system that is broken for too long. They've demonstrated that they are real citizens."
Reached by Radio-Canada, the Quebec premier's office declined to answer questions on the topic.
"We've had no information from the federal government on the subject," a spokesperson said.