Documenting the ‘Undocumented’

by Ronalee Carey Law

February 2024


On February 27, 2024, I had the pleasure of supervising law students doing advocacy work with Members of Parliament. The event, called LobbyCon, was organized by the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers. This year’s topics included climate migrants and a program to provide permanent status to individuals in Canada who are ‘undocumented.’

We hear of issues with ‘illegal aliens’ in the USA, but in Canada, the problem is under the radar for most. One reason may be that it is hard to know how many people entered Canada irregularly or came to Canada with valid visas but are now without status. The number I have heard most often is that an estimated 500,000 people in Canada do not have valid temporary or permanent status in Canada and survive in the informal economy.

There are a myriad of reasons why people ‘fall out of status’ after arriving in Canada. A missing document from an application to extend a work permit, a breakdown in a marriage leading to the withdrawal of a sponsorship application, being provided bad advice from a shady unlicensed consultant, and not having a safe home to return to are just a few of the reasons that have led people to my office. Often, the only option is an application for permanent residence based on humanitarian and compassionate considerations. However, only 13,500 individuals will obtain permanent status in Canada through the ‘H&C program’ this year, and next year, the program is being cut to 8,000 applicants. IRCC does not publish acceptance rates for this program, but they are declining and could be as low as 30%.

Not having status in Canada puts individuals in a precarious position. A lack of employment rights, no access to health care, and being afraid to call the police for help are just a few problems individuals experience. Some communities in Canada (Ottawa not being one of them) are known as ‘sanctuary cities’ and have policies that permit individuals to receive local services regardless of immigration status.

However, undocumented individuals are a problem for Canadian society, as well. There’s no way to pay your income taxes when you don’t have a SIN, and your employer pays you in cash!

Recognizing the issues caused by a lack of status, in 2021, the Prime Minister, in his mandate letter to then Minister of Immigration Sean Fraser, instructed IRCC to ‘Build on existing pilot programs to explore further ways of regularizing status for undocumented workers who are contributing to Canadian communities.’ The ‘pilot programs’ mentioned include a current program for construction workers in the Toronto area and a pandemic-era program for healthcare workers. The idea has historical precedence; similar programs have been instituted for failed refugee claimants whom the Canadian government decided not to deport (1994-1997), for individuals who had been in Canada for at least five years (1983-1985) and for those who were economically established (1973).

It is currently unknown what type of program the Canadian government will institute. It could be as limited as expanding the construction workers program to other parts of the country or broader. Advocates and academics are weighing in, trying to influence policymakers.

The Members of Parliament my group of students met with (one Conservative and one NPD) told almost identical stories about attending community events where their constituents expressed concerns about newcomers causing a housing shortage and driving up the cost of living. Neither agreed with these views but recognized that ‘selling’ a policy for undocumented workers would be difficult. These individuals are already housed in Canada and contributing to the shadow economy; regularizing their status would not cause a further strain on the housing market and would allow them to participate in the regulated economy. It’s a win–win situation for Canada and the migrants. However, in today’s political climate, we’ll have to see how far the government Liberals are willing to push the Canadian public.