On Thursday evening, U.S. President Barack Obama made a historic announcement which allows millions of illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.
Under Obama’s plan, those who have been in the U.S. for at least five years and that are parents of citizens or legal permanent residents would be eligible to apply and avoid deportation.
But what about Canada’s illegal immigrant problem? Should the Harper government be taking similar action?
According to a 2009 House of Commons immigration committee report, the number of illegal immigrants in Canada is hard to nail down: Estimates have ranged anywhere from 80,000 to 500,000.
The report, however, notes that Canada’s illegal immigrant population is a little different than the United States in that most illegal immigrants in this country have come over to Canada with some sort of status — as a visitor or as a temporary worker. In the U.S., many of the 11.2 million migrants have sneaked-in over their southern border.
"Different people react differently to being without status in the country," notes the report. "Some seek to take advantage of Canada’s refugee and social system by filing false refugee claims or fraudulently seeking social benefits. Periodically the media reports stories of people here illegally who repeatedly commit crimes and yet avoid deportation. Less often do we hear the stories of the untold thousands who find jobs under the table and quietly toil for years, often at jobs Canadians refuse, while they raise their children and integrate into Canadian society.
"Witnesses described for the Committee how such workers and members of their families are even more vulnerable than temporary foreign workers to abuse and mistreatment in the workplace, and marginalization in Canadian society. Fear of being reported to the authorities leads some non-status workers to tolerate substandard working conditions."
Colin Singer, a Montreal-based immigration lawyer pegs the number of undocumented Canadians at 200,000 suggesting that the majority of them live in the Greater Toronto area.
He wants the Harper government to follow Obama’s lead.
"I believe that a [Canadian amnesty] program could be introduced under a joint agreement between Ottawa and each of the provinces as they all have immigration agreements with Ottawa," Singer, the managing partner at Immigration.ca, told Yahoo Canada News.
Under Singer’s plan, the government would offer temporary work permits to those illegal immigrants that are currently employed. After a period of time — of maybe 12-24 months — they could then qualify for permanent residence outside the current programs. He’s predicts that such a program would appeal to at least one quarter of the illegal immigrants currently residing here
"This could represent some $150 million in direct annual taxes and ER contributions in the first year alone," he said.
"Plus, these individuals would eventually be able to sponsor their immediate family members and this would further increase income taxes, ER payroll taxes and HST consumption tax expenditures far beyond the income tax revenues.”
Canada has offered amnesty to some groups of non-status Canadians before.
According to a 2004 report — by the Joint Centre of Excellence for Research on Immigration and Settlement (CERIS), the Globalization and Autonomy Project, and McMaster University — there were eight such so-called regularization programs, targeted at specific immigrant groups, between 1960 and 2004.
"When the Canadian government changed the immigration law in 2002 they thought about introducing a regularization program," notes the report.
"However, nothing was implemented and non‐status people in Canada currently have almost no opportunity to regularize their immigration status. Today, the only official option for non‐status immigrants to get status is through a Humanitarian & Compassionate application. With an estimated 5 per cent success rate, however, this process is obviously far from adequate."
The argument against such a program is that it encourages more people to skirt the rules and immigrate illegally.
But according to Singer, that’s an “archaic” argument.
"The last amnesty in Canada I believe was in the 1980’s," he said.
"So a ‘clean up’ once every 30 years or so will in my opinion, not serve to increase illegal immigration," he said.
"We have enough safeguards and visa restrictions under the current government that will ensure the status quo for quite some time."
Don’t expect the government to take Singer’s advice any time soon, though.
"Our Conservative government is delivering on economic immigration, family reunification, and refugee protection," a spokesperson from Immigration Minister Chris Alexander’s office told Yahoo Canada News.
"We continue to take strong, principled actions to ensure that those who come to Canada and play by the rules have every chance to fully participate in Canada’s economy and Canadian society."