01/20/2014 05:12 EST | Updated 03/23/2014 05:59 EDT

2013 Immigration Changes and Victories in Canada

While Harper lies to the media, Ministers Kenney and Alexander are out touting the next wave of destructive immigration changes. Now is a good time to look back and reflect on what changed in immigration in 2013, and the ways that migrant justice activists fought back.

Speaking to a secretive media junket earlier this month, Stephen Harper insisted Canada should focus on "bringing in permanent residents who have equal rights with Canadians." If you haven't been paying attention, you'd think that Stephen Harper has been fixing immigration and opening up Canada's doors these last seven years. He hasn't.

While Harper lies to the media, Ministers Kenney and Alexander are out touting the next wave of destructive immigration changes. Now is a good time to look back and reflect on what changed in immigration in 2013, and the ways that migrant justice activists fought back.

1. Tories continue their attack on migrant workers

Though exact numbers are yet to be made public, the number of migrant workers with limited rights increased in 2013, except those in the Live-In Caregiver Program (LCP). LCP workers are the only migrant workers deemed low-skilled with some access to permanent residency, and the Tories are shutting them out. The total entries of Live-In Caregivers have fallen from a high of 12,955 in 2007 to 6,242 in 2012. A public outcry over two cases, the RBC hiring fiasco and the HD Mining cases, forced Harper and Jason Kenney in to damage control mode in mid-2013. The 5%-15% legalized wage discrimination against migrant workers was quickly outlawed, but the rest were just cosmetic changes that did little to address migrant worker demands.

2. Families lose immigration status:

A moratorium was in affect on all parent and grandparent immigration to Canada throughout 2013. Some parents and grandparents could visit, but not stay. Mid-year the government announced an end to the moratorium, to take effect in January 2014, but with severe limits. Only 5,000 parents or grandparents would be allowed to immigrate, and sponsors' would be financially responsible if their parents and grandparents went on social assistance for 20 years (it used to be 10).

Minimum incomes needed to sponsor family members were increased by 30%. Immigration Canada is now proposing that the age of children eligible for sponsorship be decreased from 21 to 18. This is a major blow. Most migrants in Canada are denied full status and are thus separated from their families. The few poor and working class migrants that have won the right to access citizenship, like Live-In Caregivers, are suddenly seeing their hopes of one day being reunited with their families shattered. Thesechanges will keep families apart.

3. More double punishment, more surveillance, more arbitrary Ministerial power:

Bureaucrats now have the ability to take away permanent residency status from anyone serving a sentence over six months. This is double punishment; migrants are paying twice the price for the same crimes, first jail sentences and then deportations. Over 200 such immigrants who have had their permanent residency or refugee status taken away went on strike in a prison in Lindsay, ON, demanding an end to their indefinite immigration detention in September 2013.The Minister of Immigration now has wide-ranging powers to take away temporary status (student, migrant worker, refugee claimants) from migrants for undefined "public policy considerations."

The affect is chilling. With political protest fast being criminalized, migrant workers demanding their rights might lose their temporary status for protesting. Criminal law already disproportionately jails racialized people, so these new laws will take away immigration status from racialized communities, particularly from people of African descent. Controversial new changes means citizens of 29 countries must now provide biometric information to enter the country. Also in 2013, Justice for Migrant Workers launched a complaint with the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD) against Ontario Provincial Police's racist targeting of migrant workers through mass DNA collection. The Supreme Court of Canada did give a minor victory to advocates throwing away the guilty-by-association denial of status to refugee claimants in Ezokola v Canada.

4. Little changes touted as massive victories:

A small program that would only allow 3,000 immigrants in the trades to come to the country was touted as a massive shift. The immigration system is skewed towards access for wealthier migrants with university degrees. This program acknowledges that's a problem, but does little to actually change things. Temporary foreign workers already in the country are barred from applying for immigration status under this program.

5. Migrant workers vs Recruiters, the fight continues:

Expansion in temporary immigration streams has given birth to an exploitative and unregulated global recruitment industry that is impoverishing workers and their families. With the Feds reducing rights and protections to migrant workers, provinces are stepping up. In May 2013, Nova Scotia's laws against recruitment came into force and in October 2013, Saskatchewan followed suit. Lagging behind, Ontario's Wynne government introduced legislation to extend existing recruitment protections to all migrant workers rather than bringing regulatory amendments in to force. We at the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change continues to urge that much more needs to be done.

6. Provinces and Cities stepping up, but also putting up hurdles:

As the Feds take away full immigration status from most, they are also working to take away the benefits that immigration status is supposed to provide. The denial of full healthcare to refugees was big news in 2012. Under pressure, Quebec, Ontario and other provinces have begun to fill in some of the gap. This doesn't extend to migrant workers unfortunately. As I write, Ontario is spending tens of thousands of dollars to take away healthcare from two migrant workers who have won their right to access it. Faced with hundreds of thousands of city residents living without immigration status, Toronto declared itself Canada's first Sanctuary City in 2013, promising access to most city services to undocumented Torontonians, other cities are expected to follow suit.

7. No refuge for refugee claimants:

The basic principle of refugee determination is assessment of danger to the individual. With the so-called Refugee Exclusion Act coming into force in December 2012, that principle was thrown out. Now assessments are based on country of origin. 37 countries have been declared "safe" and claimants from those countries are being quickly denied status. As a result, refugee claims to Canada have dropped in half. Canada was so insistent on keeping refugees away that Citizenship Canada paid for billboards to put up in Hungary discouraging Romas from applying to come here.

8. Few federal benefits, a few more rights to organize:

In November, 2013, Employment and Social Development Minister Jason Kenney took heat for tweeting "Just wrapped up a meeting with several staff members, at midnight. Good thing they're not unionized." Kenney oversees the Temporary Foreign Workers Program, under which most migrant workers across the country are unable to bargain collectively. In 2013, agricultural workers and UFCW in Quebec won a major victory, winning the right to unionize. Kenney is unable to take away these rights, but he is spearheading an attack on employment insurance, which like everything else, will impact racialized and migrant workers the most. But in 2013, over a 100 seasonal agricultural workers won new hearings for their Employment Insurance parental benefits claims which had been turned down. More changes are still needed to ensure full EI benefits for migrant workers. Federal laws allow employers to quickly get rid of workers resisting abuse and exploitation, in 2013 Adrian Monrose fought back, winning $25,000 from Double Diamond Acres Ltd who were found guilty of referring to employees as "monkeys" and firing Adrian who stood up against the name-calling.

9. The difference between temporariness and temp workers:

2013 saw migrant workers hit the news over and over. Be it outsourcing of one of RBC's local divisions that was misreported as foreign workers taking Canadian jobs, or miners from China coming to work in British Columbia, mainstream media (and sometimes even progressives) failed to focus on the the shift to temporariness in the immigration system (where in refugees, families, those convicted of a crime, poor people, etc. are all losing immigration status) instead targetting temporary foreign workers.

As a result, many argued for a reduction in the number of temporary foreign workers, rather than an expansion of full immigration status. Calling for an end to temporary foreign worker programs means shutting down one of the few ways that migrants can come to Canada. That's not what migrant workers want, and that's not what families need. 2013 was a year of many debates as all kinds of organizations struggled to speak about these issues without pushing migrant workers under the bus. In 2014, that work will likely continue.

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