Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Should Edmonton become a sanctuary city for undocumented migrants?

A few weeks back, there was discussion of making Edmonton a sanctuary city for undocumented workers. The gist is that Edmonton would adopt a policy whereby Edmonton’s estimated 25,000 undocumented workers could access government services without being questioned about their immigration status (which triggers fear of deportation).

An interesting question the often comes up is why do foreign nationals stay in Canada after their official residency period has ended. I don't recall any specific research on that in Canada (although I also haven't looked very hard for it) but I did run across this article addressing the motives of undocumented agricultural workers in Idaho.

While most of the farmworkers in this study immigrated to the United States from Mexico for economic reasons, their reasons for staying are more decidedly social:
The reason that respondents have decided to stay is because they have greater social responsibilities, connections and ties to local communities, and a greater sense of belonging, which increases if they have family in the U.S. (p. 43)
The longer undocumented workers remain in the US, the greater the likelihood that they plan to stay in the US. Being married and/or having children also increases the propensity of workers to stay.

These findings ring true to me when tested against my (modest) experience with undocumented workers. Most came in hopes of a better economic life. As their residency permits expired, many stay, both because their families are better off with them working in Alberta and because they have put down roots. Staying without permission is seen as a better choice than returning to their home country. 

In 2016, Migrante Alberta estimated 80% of Calgary temporary foreign workers in low-skill occupations stay (at least for a time) after the expiry of their permits. Most remained employed in some capacity.

One of the challenges of being undocumented is accessing government services (e.g., health care, driver’s license, schooling). In January 2016, Alberta changed its health care policy in order to provide coverage to children born in Canada of undocumented workers, visitors, denied refugee claimants, and migrant workers. That said, fear of revealing undocumented status remains a barrier to accessing services. And a covered child’s parents must still pay for their own medical treatment out of pocket.

This policy leads to heartbreaking and profoundly unfair outcomes. For example, Maria Victoria Venancio was a temporary foreign worker who was paralyzed after being hit cycling to her job in Edmonton in 2012. Unable to work, her work permit was not renewed but she stayed in Canada for medical treatment. In 2015, the former Conservative government denied her health-care coverage. They could have provided her coverage but feared that would open the door to other undocumented workers expecting the same treatment.

Venancio was granted a two-year open work permit in 2015, allowing her to remain in the country legally. This, in turn, meant the province would cover her health-care costs. In 2017, she was granted permanent residency. While Venancio’s case offers hope in the most extreme cases, government policy continues to be a barrier to other undocumented people—most of whom are employed—in accessing basic health care.

-- Bob Barnetson

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