Plan by the Liberal government to legalize up to 200,000 workers could die

Posted by admin on May 16th, 2005

Toronto Star. Plan by the Liberal government to legalize up to 200,000 workers could die. Workers live out of a suitcase, trying to keep ahead of police and immigration

A plan to legalize thousands of undocumented workers in Canada’s underground economy would be in jeopardy if the Liberal minority government falls as a result of a non-confidence vote on Thursday, says Immigration Minister Joe Volpe. The Toronto MP has already signed off on a final draft of the long-anticipated “regularization” plan, which is now “in the queue” for the cabinet’s feedback and approval – provided there isn’t an election call. The issue leaves in limbo many of the 100,000 to 200,000 undocumented workers living under the radar in Canada, as well as employers facing shortages of the skills some of them bring.

“Here we’re now at the 11th hour because the opposition is trying its best to create a controversial environment, and we are faced with a situation where all this hard work may go asunder,” Volpe told the Toronto Star from Ottawa. “We’re bringing things closer to a point where some decisions could be made.”

Juan Sierra, a construction-union outreach worker, said he has fielded calls from hundreds of undocumented construction workers since Conservative leader Stephen Harper vowed publicly to bring down the Liberal government in mid-April.

They’re worried the plan to legalize their status in Canada will go down,too.

“They are really freaked out by the prospect,” said Sierra, of the Labourers’ International Union of North America. “Their hopes were so high because Volpe has promised that this is a priority for the government. If nothing happens, their hopes would be destroyed totally.”

According to Vilma Filici, president of the Canadian Hispanic Congress, part of a community coalition that has been negotiating with the government, the two sides had a consensus on the basic plan.

“We are very concerned that this (plan) won’t happen if there is a vote of non-confidence by the opposition in the parliament,” Filici said. “With a new government, we’d be back to the drawing board again and start from scratch.”

Filici fears a Conservative government could dump the plan as, he says, the Tories tend to view undocumented workers more as security risks than as potentially valuable contributors to Canadian society.

Daniel Castro, his wife and their two teenage sons from Argentina are among those living in limbo. The family arrived here in early 2001 and had their refugee claim rejected last May.

Together they earn $6,000 a month, which they take in cash. Savings are stashed under a mattress because they’re afraid to keep a bank account. They don’t get to know neighbours because they move every few months to keep ahead of immigration authorities.

When eldest son Walter was robbed of his pay at gunpoint near Jane St. and Lawrence Ave. W. last summer, the 18-year-old didn’t dare go to the police.

“Our life is between work and home, but we are grateful when we see everyone home in one piece at the end of the day,” Daniel Castro said. “We pray the family will still be together the next day.”

Their lives are typical among those in the underground economy, who do jobs Canadians often consider undesirable, particularly in construction, the hotel and hospitality industries, domestic help and general labour. They don’t qualify for social assistance or employment insurance, and if they get sick they pay for care out of pocket.

They literally live their lives out of a suitcase – often for years – fearing every moment that they will be stopped on the street by police and deported from Canada. Authorities sometimes sweep down on construction sites, where undocumented workers help fill a shortage of skilled workers.

A string of broken promises by Volpe’s predecessors, who never seemed to stick around long enough to deal with the issue, has left the underground community skeptical of the government’s goodwill.

In March 2003, then immigration minister Denis Coderre told civic leaders in Toronto he was keen to work with employers to help solve the shortage of legal skilled workers and deal with undocumented immigrants. “We have to make sure that every partnership will work,” he said at the time.

Judy Sgro also met with community and trades groups during her 14-month tenure in the job to discuss “regularizing” undocumented workers.

Nothing was delivered.

“We just want to live a normal life, but it appears that Canada thinks that it is easier to keep people like us illegally here in the country than to deal with the issue head-on,” said Luis Vargas, 43, who came from Mendoza, Argentina, in 1988.

“Every time you have a new minister, they always say they will help. But all they want is some cheap labour for the economy. They want to give us no benefit.”

In fact, Vargas, a failed refugee claimant, has been a successful construction subcontractor in Canada since his arrival and hired three others: one undocumented and two with refugee claims still active. His company makes about $150,000 a year.

“We are no criminals,” said Vargas, who, with wife Monica Pedano, is facing removal from Canada and separation from their Canadian-born children Natalie, 15, and Michael, 13.

“We work hard and we don’t cost the government anything. All we are asking for is an opportunity to live a normal life.”

Despite the public perception that most undocumented migrants are here for economic reasons, Alberto Gonzalez, 36, says he left Uruguay because he was harassed by drug dealers he had identified to police while working as a bartender.

“The (Canadian) refugee board did not believe me and rejected my claim (last June),” said Gonzalez, who hasn’t seen his wife and 10-year-old son since he arrived in 2001.

“We don’t have a life. You just keep moving and don’t see an end.”

His story is echoed by Mauricio, a Costa Rican who went underground after his refugee claim was denied in January 2003. The 34-year-old engineer, a graduate of the Universidad Autónoma de Centro América, testified against some bank robbers at a 2001 trial and later felt intimidated into leaving Costa Rica quickly, rather than waiting for Canada’s years-long immigration process.

“My wife was punched on the streets and the police said they couldn’t offer 24-hour protection to my family. But Canada didn’t believe us. We had no choice but to go underground,” explained Mauricio, who didn’t want his full name used. His wife works at a Tim Hortons using a friend’s Social Insurance Number.

“Living in Canada is like living in jail. We have nowhere to go. We have no liberty.”

All 29-year-old Martin wants is a better future for his 2-month-old daughter. Her birth followed a miscarriage that, in addition to the emotional toll, brought a hospital bill of $4,500.

Martin, another Argentine afraid to be identified, said undocumented migrants are not “jumping the queue” in the usual sense, since most would never qualify under the immigration points system, geared as it is toward immigrants with higher skills or money to invest.

The refugee system doesn’t always serve justice, and legitimate asylum seekers do fall through the cracks, he added. “It is not a crime to try to improve one’s life by working hard,” he said. “We have paid the price in our own ways. I think we deserve the respect and dignity as human beings.”

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