Undocumented people falling between the cracks

·7 min read

WATERLOO REGION — In a cold living room with just a few pieces of furniture, Francois and his family sit anxiously reading a response from Immigration Canada.

After almost seven years of laying roots here, their application for permanent residency on humanitarian and compassionate grounds has been denied.

As undocumented people they are not eligible for support from local immigration service providers and have no protections as essential low-wage workers.

Living in a Kitchener neighbourhood that has been hit hard by the second wave of the pandemic, Francois and his family face constant stress.

“If we get the virus,” Francois trailed off, pressing his temples. “I really don’t want to get sick.”

Without a Social Insurance Number, Francois is not able to access the Canada Recovery Benefit, and must pay upfront for health care. Francois said that he and his wife endure chronic back pain, and are not able to afford to go to a walk-in clinic.

The Record has chosen not to use Francois’ last name.

The family didn’t plan on being undocumented when they first arrived in Canada. Their precarious position comes after a string of broken promises from an employer who said they would help Francois and his family get permanent residency, but didn’t.

“We are here but we aren’t visible,” Francois says. “No one cares about us.”

Francois and his family are just part of the many undocumented people navigating a system that doesn’t track them well, and those lost in its maze feel doesn’t care about them.

It is unknown how many undocumented people might be living here, according to Tara Bedard, executive director of Waterloo Region Immigration Partnership.

“We do not have very good or really any data on this for the region,” Bedard wrote in an email.

Francois, a fluent French speaker from East Africa, came to Canada in March 2014 under the temporary foreign worker (TFW) program to work at a plant, first in Quebec and then in Kitchener.

He said he brought his family with him because recruiters and the Kitchener-based company that hired him made a verbal promise to assist with his application for permanent residency. He said that promise was not fulfilled. He’s not willing to name the company, as he is worried about creating trouble for his friends who still work there.

“If you’re drowning, you don’t want your friends to drown,” Francois said.

Melanie Grant, a licensed immigration consultant and founder of Canadian Connection Immigration, said that TFWs like Francois who are hired for low-skilled positions run into these kind of problems at the end of their permits.

Grant said that while most TFWs do not plan to overstay, they are told, as Francois was, that if they stay they can get their papers. “But when they actually pursue that option, it doesn’t happen and they lose out on the period to leave.”

Grant said Francois did all the right things, including applying for an extension on his work permit. However, the person who initially submitted their extension mistakenly changed their status to ‘visitors’, which only permits them to stay in Canada for six months.

By the time Grant met Francois to explain that a study or work permit would have given them more time, it was already too late; the window to apply for these permits had closed.

Francois was able to get some information and support from the Working Centre, YMCA, and the KW Multicultural Centre. But it can be challenging for local immigration service providers to work with people who don’t fit the eligibility criteria for services they are funded to provide.

Francois and his family’s last resort was to ask to stay on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. Their application was rejected by Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada.

One of the categories Immigration evaluates to establish ties to the community is employment. For the last four years Francois, who was trained as a machinist, has been working as a line cook or dishwasher in kitchens. His wife is a housekeeper for a family in Waterloo. His daughter, recently graduated from high school and found work cleaning for a local construction company.

Francois and his wife were reprimanded for working without a valid permit and were criticized for lacking tax assessments or pay stubs to show for their work. Immigration said their inability to provide evidence of an extensive employment history weighed heavily against them.

Francois said when he was honest with prospective employers about being undocumented, he would get paid $9 to $10 an hour, “because they know they can get away with it.”

He learned to keep his status hidden and to ask only to be paid in cash.

“Here even dogs are treated better than us,” Francois said.

As they continue to apply for permanent residency, the family fears the government will find them and force them to leave.

“At this point, if they were to be detained, the next course of action would be removal,” Grant said.

Jenna Hennebry, associate director of the International Migration Research Centre at Wilfrid Laurier University, said that the TFW program’s shifting rules and complicated paperwork create conditions for some employers to exploit vulnerable workers.

“Having to juggle different administrative systems is something that employers aren’t keen on, and they say it becomes a kind of administrative barrier.”

Hennebry said that because relationships between local companies and recruiters who facilitate the flow of TFWs into the country are not well regulated in Ontario, there is no guarantee that incentives and promises made to TFWs will be honoured.

Francois said that he and his family are regular church goers and volunteer with the Working Centre. He said he is always willing to help his network of neighbours and friends.

“Whether that is moving, painting, making food, whatever it is, if my community needs me for help I will be there,” Francois said.

Although there was acknowledgement of the family’s social ties in Canada, the Immigration decision argued that “relationships are not bound by geographical locations” and that Francois and his family could “maintain their friendships via alternate means such as telephone, Skype, or emails.”

Hennebry said that the TFW program’s deepest flaw is how it reduces people to just workers.

“These are people that have relationships and family members and connections to communities that are part of the substance and fabric of our communities.”

While our region has become increasingly aware of migrant farmers, Hennebry said there is a gap in knowledge about TFWs like Francois in other industries, and undocumented workers are missing in the data completely.

She said that while the system that supports permanent residents and refugee families works well, it reflects an outdated understanding of how people are coming into the country.

“Now most people come here as students, or they come here as temporary foreign workers. We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of migrant workers in Canada, more than the numbers of permanent resident entries. Yet, when they’re stuck in limbo, we have no services to support them.”

Francois wants to stay in Canada, as he said it offers a better, safer future for his kids. “Back home we don’t have many opportunities, here there are so many more possibilities,” he said.

His oldest daughter has been admitted to York University, the only Canadian university that offers young people without legal status an opportunity to study and earn a degree. Drawing on her own experiences, she hopes to pursue a career in law and human rights.

Hennebry said that immigration service providers should be given more support to help people without status clear administrative hurdles instead of criminalizing them through detention and deportation orders.

“I think that there needs to be a broader conversation about how the temporary foreign worker program and the international student system links up with our permanent migration system, because currently it does not.”

Fitsum Areguy’s reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. Email fareguy@therecord.com Twitter @fitsumareguy

Fitsum Areguy, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Waterloo Region Record