Sunday, July 3, 2011

Life in the underground

The exact nature of illegal immigration makes it difficult to establish the actual number of illegal immigrants in any country. At least two of them are now out in the open, from between 7 and 20 million illegal immigrants estimated to be living in the United States.

In an article in The New York Times magazine, Jose Antonio Vargas, who shared a Pulitzer Prize for the coverage of the Virginia Tech massacre, came out of the backwoods to admit he was an undocumented immigrant after turning 30 early this year. He wrote: “I’m done running. I’m exhausted. I don’t want that life anymore.”
Jose Antonio Vargas, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, admits  in the New York Times
 magazine that he was an undocumented immigrant in the United States. Please click to
view his website "Define American" at
Vargas wrote that his Filipino mother sent him to live with his grandparents in the United States because she wanted to give him a better life. He was 12 years old when he left the Philippines and only after several years did he realize that he was living in the United States with false documents. Although fearful that his undocumented status could soon be exposed, Vargas was able to finish school and pursue his dream of becoming a journalist by lying about his status and with a little help from people who became his mentors and supporters.

Meanwhile, Elisha L. Dawkins, a US army and navy veteran, is now in jail because the government wants to deport him after they found out he lied in his passport application. Dawkins served with distinction in Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay, although he has never ever been an American citizen. Coming to the United States from Bahamas as an infant, he was raised to believe he was a bona fide American citizen.
Elisha Dawkins, shown in Baghdad in 2007, is accused of lying on a passport application
and has spent a month in jail. Photo by Senior Master Sgt. Brian Boone -US Air Force
In general, illegal immigrants in the United States are in search for well-paying jobs, which in most cases are the type of work the average American citizen would not like to do. These are “underclass” jobs that include harvesting crops, unskilled labour in landscaping and construction, house-cleaning work in hotels and restaurants, all of which have a disproportionate number of illegal workers. Many of them would be willing to take these “underclass” jobs because they still pay relatively higher wages than those in their home countries.

Imagine if all these undocumented workers would voluntarily confess in public as what Jose Antonio Vargas has done because they’re fed up with living in the underground. They probably would not attract the same sympathy or stir up a false sense of honesty or courage to speak up, not having the cache of a Pulitzer prize-winning writer. Without a doubt, the Department of Homeland Security would have swiftly rounded them up and put them on the next flight to their home countries.

Canada, with a more liberal immigration system in place, would have from 200,000 to 300,000 illegally staying in the country. These are mostly people who came by approved visa but overstayed after their visa expired, and those who came as refugees but failed to establish their claim as convention refugees.

By and large the Canadian immigration system is so dysfunctional and works against illegal immigrants. Canada wants the best of the best—those with university and post-graduate degrees—but the jobs available are trades people and low-skilled workers who have no hope of entering Canada under the current points system which favour academic qualifications and not skilled trades. The current system, therefore, is an inefficient way of meeting the demands of the labour market. Besides, applications for immigration for skilled workers take 5 to 6 years to process and that’s a long time to wait.

To stave off illegal immigration, the Canadian government has shifted its focus on recruiting temporary low-skilled workers whose applications can be processed much faster to fill in labour shortages. But temporary foreign worker programs are inherently exploitative. Based on Europe’s experience with similar guest worker programs, they could lead to more serious social issues like racialization and poverty.

A work permit ties the worker to a specific employer and a specific location, creating a relationship of dependency that imitates indentured servitude. Under programs such as the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, the Live-In Caregiver Program and the Temporary Foreign Workers Program which includes the Low-Skilled Pilot Project, temporary foreign workers are at the mercy of their employers, a situation that makes these workers vulnerable to exploitation.

At present, temporary foreign workers in Canada are authorized to work for four years cumulatively, after which they must return to their home countries. If they want to come back to Canada under this program, they must wait for another four years before they can apply, which appears like a clear strategy set by the Conservative federal government to keep low-skilled immigrants out.

Given the exploitative nature of temporary work and the lack of opportunity for temporary workers to acquire permanent residence or simply improve their working conditions in the future, it might be better off to go underground and work as illegal immigrants. With a little luck they could eventually apply for permanent residence if they have found an opportunity that underscores their education and skills or if they have met the right partner to marry and be sponsored for permanent residence. But these situations are very few far and between.
Illegal immigrants chase false hope to Canada. Photo courtesy of New York Times.
 A Mexican  illegal immigrant packs his car moving out of a motel in Windsor, Ontario.
Please click following link to view Canada's Conservative Party advertisement in the
last federal elections:
After the 9/11 terrorist attack on the New York Twin Towers, US immigration authorities tightened up travel to the United States. One Filipino woman was caught by the new restrictions imposed by the United States government. She and her husband both held work permits but she needed to go home to the Philippines because her parents were sick. She left her husband and children in California and decided to return after 9/11. She was refused entry and her immigration papers were invalidated. After she was ordered deported, she entered Canada and attempted to re-enter the United States first from Vancouver and later from Toronto, where she was both refused.

Although returning to the Philippines with her husband and children was an option, she thought she would never have the same economic opportunity to find a well-paying job and give her children a better future. Realizing it would be futile to enter the U.S. in order to reunite with her family, she decided to take the long route to permanent residency in Canada—find work as a caregiver, divorce her husband, remarry a Canadian and get sponsored as a permanent resident.

After ten years since 9/11, by now she would either be a permanent Canadian resident or citizen. But her connection with her family would have been effectively broken and her relationship with her Filipino husband crushed while she continues to nurse hopes she can go back to the United States to reunite and live with her family.

The are other stories about many visitors from the Philippines and South America who came to Canada during the papal summit in 2002 but who decided to stay—first, by claiming refugee status when their visas expired, and living in the underground when their claims were refused. Some of them have been successful in obtaining permanent residence through marriage to Canadians while others are probably still undocumented without status, but contributing to the economy nonetheless.

It may actually cost more for the government and to employers to deport illegal immigrants who are already working in the country. Removing them will choke healthy industries that have relied on their labour, which in the long run can seriously undermine the country’s economic interests.

It is estimated that the number of illegal foreign workers in Canada could reach a high of half a million. The Ontario Construction Secretariat has estimated that the province alone loses over 1.5 billion dollars in unpaid taxes and premiums annually to the underground immigrant economy. That’s a lot of revenue lost.

Deportation and stricter border controls are the easiest solutions but not necessarily the most effective in curbing illegal immigration. Granting amnesty to those already in the country is only a stop-gap measure and not a permanent solution.
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Illegal immigrants are simply willing to work undesirable jobs even for unusually low wages and many employers are taking advantage of this situation. Opening up the borders for low-skilled immigrants and hiring them as temporary workers without any pathway to permanent residency and all the protections and rights afforded to native-born workers or citizens is not going to stem the flow of illegal immigrants. Besides being exploitative and reducing temporary foreign workers to a disposable workforce, many will choose to go underground and this could lead to other serious political, economic, social and ethical issues.

If temporary foreign worker programs are inherently exploitative and there exists a real need in the labour force, people should be allowed to enter Canada with rights as permanent residents. This is a much better approach than continuing with temporary foreign worker programs, deportation or stricter immigration controls. The key issue the government must address is the creation of pathways to permanence, anything less would be a continuing human rights violation.

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