NOII: Out to change ‘regressive’ immigration system

Posted by admin on Oct 2nd, 2008

Nicholas Keung, Immigration/Diversity Reporter, Toronto Star. Oct 01, 2008 04:30 AM

Weeks before this summer’s Status for All rally in Toronto, Sultana Jahangir knocked on apartment doors in Crescent Town urging neighbours to march in solidarity with migrants and refugees. This spring, after Ottawa tabled the controversial immigration reform bill, Faria Kamal handed out flyers and helped organize public forums in opposition to the changes. And in January, when a failed refugee claimant, a quadriplegic, was due for deportation, Gurratan Singh Dhaliwal helped organize a protest in his Sikh community. Jahangir is a Toronto community worker and mother; Kamal, a clinical psychology postgraduate student from Markham, and Dhaliwal, a Mississauga law student. All are part of a grassroots social movement spreading across the GTA and other Canadian cities to put immigrant and refugee issues high on the political agenda.

In this election campaign they want political candidates to address, in particular, the plight of Canada’s 200,000 undocumented migrants – an issue seemingly too controversial for any party, including the Conservatives who promised in the last election to address it.

Called No One Is Illegal, the once fringe community group with chapters in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver has grown in popularity since its 2003 inception. Its crusade for undocumented migrants have made headlines and earned it recognition in the mainstream.

Tomorrow, the group is staging a rally to demand all political parties commit to supporting non-status women fleeing violence.

“We don’t have a permanent office. There is no salary. We just want to come together to make the community strong,” said Jahangir, a group member since her arrival from Bangladesh 15 months ago.

The organization advocates for “no detention, no deportation and status for all,” and is deemed a radical group for its close ties to the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty and anarchist movement, as well as its uncompromising mandates and in-your-face political rallies. Some of its members were once arrested for taking over an immigration minister’s local office.

“I think they have brought to light issues that nobody wants to recognize in our immigration system. They show Canadians that the emperor has no clothes and let them see a reality that our government and employers (of migrants) want to deny,” said immigration lawyer Amina Sherazee, who has assisted in several of the group’s legal cases.

The group, with an enlistment of 1,000 Toronto members, has successfully campaigned for individuals facing deportation from Canada by “shaming” authorities in the media; framed public debates on illegal migrants by popularizing the term “non-status people;” and pressured the Toronto District School Board to pass a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when dealing with children of non-status migrants.

With no organizational hierarchy, up to 50 core members meet biweekly at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education building on Bloor St. to debate and strategize.

In addition to poverty, it fosters alliances with labour rights causes and anti-war campaigns.

“All these issues are intersecting and they go beyond ethnic divisions. It is its fluidity and dynamic nature that makes it a real grassroots organization,” said Dhaliwal, 24, who was born and raised in Newfoundland.

The group’s core members are mainly first- and second-generation immigrants. “We speak to our own communities in our own languages. There is trust and cultural understanding there because you are from the community,” said the Bangladesh-born Kamal, 21.

The Toronto chapter was born in response to what founding members saw as a growing “regressive” immigration system after the 9/11 terrorist attacks – and the ineffectiveness of established groups whose hands were tied because of reliance on government funding.

Despite its enthusiasm and idealism, the group sometimes draws criticism for being out-of-touch with reality, with its “open border” philosophy, turning people off with its radical viewpoints.

“They seem to have this ideology that the other organizations are too mainstream and corrupt to push for real changes,” said Janet Dench, Canadian Council for Refugees’ executive director. “But they have certainly made a big impact on sensitizing young people to engage in immigrant issues. And I take my hat off to them.”

The group’s energy has made the immigrant advocacy work refreshing, said Victor Wong of the Chinese Canadian National Council.  “For those of us from the so-called traditional NGOs, if you ask the government for a loaf of bread and get two slices, you declare a victory,” Wong said. “What’s so appealing about (them) is that they are trying to create a new system, instead of looking at what could be improved. It reminds us as activists that we shouldn’t compromise too much so we lose our ideals.”

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