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‘This is our only hope’: Undocumented migrants risk arrest to make their case in Ottawa


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‘This is our only hope’: Undocumented migrants risk arrest to make their case in Ottawa

Rose Celest always fancied the idea of visiting the picturesque Rideau Canal and seeing the gothic architecture of the Parliament buildings in Ottawa, but the Canadian capital just seemed so out of reach for the Toronto woman.

In her 14 years in Canada — the last nine spent as an undocumented migrant — the former live-in caregiver’s travels have been limited to accompanying her employer’s family to their cottage in Collingwood and to their hometown, Montreal.

Celest avoids leaving her tiny apartment, except for work, to prevent any encounter with authorities — and possible deportation to her native Philippines.

So it was a big step for her to sign up for a town-hall meeting with Canadian politicians, in order to advocate for a so-called “regularization plan” giving her and some 500,000 undocumented migrants a pathway to permanent residence so they could come out from the shadows and have a life.

“I’m scared but excited and happy to go. I want them to listen to us and know our suffering,” said Celest, 60, who came here in 2009 but became non-status in 2013 after her work permit expired. “It’s not only me. We are many and we need to speak up.”

The federal government has been developing a regularization plan — one of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s mandates for Immigration Minister Sean Fraser since December — to address the issue of undocumented workers in precarious and exploitative jobs, and tackle an underground economy.

The town hall scheduled for Monday at an undisclosed venue in Ottawa is a final push to lobby parliamentarians to go for an “uncapped and inclusive” plan that can benefit as many of those who have fallen through the cracks and out of status in the complex and at times disjointed immigration system.

“These people are living in incredible desperation. Every day of delay means bosses abusing you. You may be facing domestic violence. A landlord is overcharging you. Your kids are turned away from school. You can’t put food on the table and you’re hunted by police and immigration enforcement,” said Syed Hussan of the Migrant Rights Network, which organized the town-hall meeting and fundraised for the workers’ Ottawa trip.

“Some of them have active deportation warrants against them and they are going to be speaking with the immigration minister and other politicians. This is an incredibly brave and courageous thing for them to do. It’s a matter of great urgency.”

Some 100 undocumented migrants from across Canada will drive, fly or take chartered buses to Ottawa, where they will meet with Fraser, cabinet members and other MPs.

A lot of the undocumented migrants work in construction, cleaning, caregiving, food preparation and agriculture. Some are failed refugee claimants, while others arrived legally as visitors, international students and temporary foreign workers but overstayed; many have been here for years, contributing to Canada’s underground economy.

Celest, an active member of the migrant workers’ movement in Toronto for a couple years, said her life has been consumed by her immigration woes, which make her stressed, depressed and sleepless.

“It’s hard not to think about my status all the time. I am scared every time when I leave my home but I have to work to support my family,” said Celest, who last saw her two sons, now 36 and 24, in 2011 when she returned home to for a visit.

She could’ve applied for permanent residence then, after meeting the minimum two-year live-in employment requirement, but she did not because she was too preoccupied by her marriage breakdown from being separated from her family for so long. She missed the window to apply.

Still, she felt she had to stay because the job prospects in the Philippines were so bad and she still had two sons and seven siblings to support back home.

With no other options for permanent residence, Celest said it boosted her spirits when she first learned earlier this year that the Liberal government intended to work on a plan to regularize undocumented workers.

“It gives us hopes and hopefully we won’t be disappointed,” said Celest, who has a bachelor’s degree in science and was an elementary teacher in her home country before she left to look after others’ families.

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Trying to find the courage to talk about one’s lack of status is tough for Romeo Tokpah, so he had to sit and think about the invitation to the town hall before committing himself to the event.

The 34-year-old arrived in Canada for asylum from Liberia via the United States in 2017 and has worked two full-time jobs as a nursing aid and forklift driver in a warehouse — showering and napping at work between jobs — to support three orphaned siblings back home.

In December 2020, Tokpah was thrilled when Ottawa introduced the time-limited Guardian Angels program to reward permanent residence to asylum seekers working on the front line in health services during the pandemic. However, the restrictive requirements made him ineligible; his refugee claim was refused last year and the subsequent appeals have failed.

“We are all afraid we would be disappointed again. It’s the hardest decision for many of us to travel to Ottawa,” he said. “But it would be a dream come true if we can all get our permanent status in Canada. This is our only hope.”

A member of several local migrant-advocacy groups, Tokpah has been meeting regularly with other undocumented workers to strategize and plan the trip to Ottawa. Special security arrangements have been made to protect participants from the risk of apprehension by authorities through the support of advocates, lawyers and social workers on board.

“We are nervous but this is too important for all of us and we want to have a say in what this regularization program should be,” he said. “We have a lot of questions. We want to know if it’s going to be safe for us at work, if we’re going to finally reunite with our families and when the plan is coming.”

Danilo De Leon, a participant coming from Edmonton, has already been on authorities’ radar, having been required since 2017 to report to the Canada Border Services Agency in person every other Wednesday and twice a week by phone. Canada has been renewing his work permit yearly but refused to grant him temporary resident status, leaving him in limbo and depriving him of health care and other government services.

As a truck driver, the biggest challenge was to get time off from work to make the trip. He wouldn’t be able to do it if his boss didn’t step up at the last minute and offer to cover two shifts.

De Leon started his activism shortly after he arrived from the Philippines in 2009 as a janitor under the temporary foreign worker program. He organized a campaign to form a union at his workplace and later founded Migrante Alberta to advocate for migrants’ rights in the province.

“The thing is, we are vulnerable from the abuse by employers, by (job) recruiters, by consultants and by immigration lawyers because we are undocumented,” said the 51-year-old father of two girls whom he has not seen for almost a decade.

“We’re working. We’re paying taxes. We’re contributing to Canada. We are not a burden to Canada even when we lose our status,” he added. “The abuse must stop.”

Abu Hena Mostofa Kamal can’t wait for the 16-hour trip from Thunder Bay for a chance to be heard in Ottawa and, is grateful for the support from the local community — two of his Canadian friends are taking time off and driving him there.

A former international student from Bangladesh, the 22-year-old was forced to quit his studies at Lakehead University in 2020 when his family could no longer support him as a result of the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.

Last year, with his study permit fast expiring, he was able to apply for permanent residence under a special pathway introduced for international graduates and migrant workers who have accumulated a minimum of 1,560 employment hours in designated essential jobs.

While Kamal is waiting for his permanent residence application to be processed amid a huge immigration backlog, he fell out of status. In May, he was called in by border agents and issued an exclusion order for overstaying his study permit.

“We have been living in temporariness for so long and we hope our politicians will do the right thing and include everyone in the plan,” said Kamal, who has started local programs to welcome international students and shovel snow for seniors since arriving in Thunder Bay in 2018. He’s has also volunteered in a homeless shelter and soup kitchen.

“We’re excited to think about the opportunity to reunite with our family, have our basic rights and not live in the constant fear of getting removed. We just want to have a normal life and move ahead.”

Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung

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