Why Canada must act urgently to give undocumented migrants legal status

Since the Canadian government announced in December 2021 its intention to address the estimated 300,000 to 600,000 migrants living without authorization in Canada, civil society organizations and migrant representatives have called for Ottawa to deliver a broad and inclusive regularization program that gives status to undocumented people.

Advocates like the Canadian Council for Refugees have argued that the current situation is mostly due to changes and gaps in immigration policies, and that the government has “an obligation to offer pathways to permanency for those who have been pushed to precarity.”

Undocumented migrants’ major economic and social contributions have been highlighted, along with the need to end their abuse and exploitation.

A lot has been written on why a regularization program is needed, but less on what an effective program should look like. To do so requires a better understanding of those who live among us without status and without access to basic rights in Canada. Yet, as our research has shown, the composition of the undocumented migrant population in Canada is diverse and complex.

Migrants, undocumented people, supporters and activists march in Toronto in September 2023 demanding permanent resident status with an aim to end discrimination and exploitative workplace practices.

Examining migrant experiences

In 2018, our team received funding from Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council to conduct a five-year project examining temporary migrants in Canada and their lived experiences in this country.

We sought to study the multitude of legal statuses held by temporary migrants and explore why and how migrants move in and out of authorized legal status.

The project involved field research conducted between October 2019 and June 2022 in four provinces: Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario and Québec. It focused on cities (Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto, Montréal and Vancouver) but also included smaller communities in all four provinces (Brooks, Nanaimo, Windsor and Québec City, respectively). The research team conducted interviews with 148 migrants with lived experiences of having temporary work authorization, losing status and attempting to gain or regain secure immigration status.

Migrant participants came from 35 countries and had diverse experiences. For example, some had entered Canada as temporary migrant workers while others had arrived as refugee claimants, visitors or international students. Additionally, 63 interviews were conducted with key stakeholders (for example, municipal civil servants, researchers, migrant representatives and “on-the-ground” practitioners such as legal and other service providers).

Two findings are worth noting.

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Varying experiences

First, temporary migrants’ trajectories are far from being linear and predictable. In line with other recent research, these trajectories involve multiple and time-consuming shifts in legal status, such as authorized to unauthorized, study permit to work permit, work permit to temporary resident permit and open-work permit to employer-specific work permit, to name a few.

In their struggle to retain or regain their right to stay and work in Canada, 66 per cent of the migrant participants switched at least three times from one temporary migration status to another. This means there is no clear relationship between arriving in a specific immigration entrance category and losing status once in Canada.

Second, status changes — if successful — mainly involve changing from one temporary status to another and rarely lead to permanent residence; they can also lead to being without status.

At the time of the interviews, 80 per cent of migrant participants had no permanent status, while only 20 per cent had obtained permanent residency or citizenship. This means that many study participants had failed in their attempts to regularize their status, whether through an application for permanent residence or even another temporary category.

This reflects what recent research and policy reports note about the very limited pathways to permanent residency for people without status. This is important because precarious status is linked to marginalization in communities and vulnerability to exploitation by employers.

People stand in a line across a city street carrying banners that read Status for All.
Migrants and supporters participate in a rally for equal rights outside the Hamilton Convention Centre in Hamilton, Ont., ahead of a Liberal cabinet retreat, in January 2023.

Legal limbo

The government recently announced it’s pausing its regularization plans, but there’s no room for further delay. Regularization is urgently needed now to provide a concrete solution to the legal limbo currently experienced by the many people who have no status.

As our findings suggest, and as has been advocated by both civil society and migrant rights organizations, small and narrow regularization measures are not the answer. Canada needs a regularization program that isn’t limited to a specific category or profile of temporary migrants. It should be straightforward and safe for all applicants by leading directly to permanent residence.

Read more:
Status for all: Pathways to permanent residency in Canada need to include every migrant

Temporary migrants will continue to lose status, and face heightened vulnerability, as long as the key components of migrant illegalization are not properly addressed.

Beyond regularization, it’s crucial that the federal government recognizes and addresses the many structural problems of the current migration system that result in migrants living and working in Canada without authorized immigration status.

These include, among others, employer-specific or “tied” work permits, delays in immigration proceedings and the lack of legal aid for temporary migrants.

Listen to ‘Don’t Call Me Resilient’ podcast flashback episode: Shattering the myth of Canada ‘the good’ — How we treat migrant workers who put food on our tables

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