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No Free Trade for People

No Free Trade for People

Posted by Bruce McDougall on August 27, 2014

Until the early 1900s, people could wander throughout North America without presenting a passport. No one asked them to declare their duty-free cigarettes or made them stand in line while a gormless security agent checked their underpants for a home-made bomb.

Even today, it’s hard to take seriously the border between Canada and the U.S. For many years, no one knew exactly where it was ( But if you’re one of the 120,000 people who have entered Canada illegally, you have to take the border seriously.

In August this year, a combined force of Canadian border-services agents, Ontario police and officers from the province’s environment and transportation ministries swept down on 21 unsuspecting newcomers to Canada as they made their way to work in a remote corner of Toronto. Most of them were from Latin America. Some of them were riding in vehicles targeted by transportation officials for safety inspections. Others were sitting in donut shops to wait for a ride to their jobsite. Working as roofers, painters and labourers, most of them had no immigration papers and were immediately driven to one of Toronto’s detention centres. Within a few days, five of them were deported.

“One of my friends just walked into the Coffee Time and opened the door. Two undercover officers moved in from the parking lot and asked for his ID. He was taken to two blue vans at a parking lot behind a bingo hall. There were other Spanish guys being detained there,” said a failed refugee claimant from Costa Rica named Oscar, who has lived underground in Toronto for nine years.

This is not the first time that government agencies have combined their resources to track down illegal immigrants. Each time they do, their heavy-handed tactics raise howls of protest from people who think Canada’s approach to immigration is unfair. “Instead of arresting people en masse, we need a proper way to regularize their status,” says Vilma Filici, former president of the Canadian Hispanic Congress.

To “regularize their status”, the law would have to accommodate people who break it. Canada’s bureaucracy takes at least 16 months to process applications from Latin Americans who want to come here as skilled workers with the intention of staying permanently. Alternatively, people can apply for a work permit, which takes one to three months to process, or come to Canada as a visitor, which takes eight days from Lima or Santiago, 13 days from Bogota, and 21 days from Mexico City. Unlike permanent residents, they have no right to social benefits or health care coverage or protection under Canadian law. Most galling of all to Canada’s Conservative government, they pay no tax on their income.

Yet Canada continues to admit almost 300,000 people temoporarily to fill jobs that no one else wants. “Many of these workers are temporary only in name, since they are used to fill long-term and even permanent vacancies,” says Delphine Nakache of the University of Ottawa and Paula J. Kinoshita of the Quantz Law Group, in a paper published by the Institute for Research on Public Policy.

Lower-skilled workers have very limited opportunity to migrate permanently, they say, and are often exploited by employers who violate safety and payroll regulations. “Public policy is at best indifferent to their integration and longer-term success.” Instead, they choose to live in legal limbo and, when demand falls for their services, public officials round them up and deport them.  

“The Canadian government supports international agreements that allow the free movement of capital, business and goods across the globe,” says an advocacy group called No One is Illegal. “While businesses are free to move across borders to find thriving economic conditions, these same agreements deny people the same type of free movement.”

In the meantime, the law prevails, and people who break it, whether they’re doctors, lawyers and entrepreneurs or roofers, painters, labourers and fast-food workers, will get punished. Assuming, of course, that they get caught.

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