Seeing the invisible

On Feb. 21, the Toronto City Council passed a motion declaring Toronto a “sanctuary city.” According to the Toronto Star, the motion establishes a formal policy allowing undocumented individuals access to city services regardless of status. The statistics surrounding illegal immigration in Canada are unclear, but current estimates by Professor Peter Showler, director of the Refugee Forum at the University of Ottawa, conclude that between 35,000 and 120,000 undocumented immigrants live in the country.

Discussion of legislation to address a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants has not been introduced to Parliament in recent years. With an estimated foreign-born population of 6.8 million, Canada is known as an immigrant-friendly destination, but there are still issues that the undocumented face.

South of the border, the issue has seemingly reached a tipping point. Immigration reform has not only been addressed in Congress, but has also seen overwhelming support from activists, labour unions, employers, and the president himself, all of whom are demanding comprehensive reform.

Earlier this year, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 was introduced in the United States Senate. On June 27, 2013, the bill passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, with 68 senators, of both parties, for and 32 Republicans senators against. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) introduced the Act and it was, in turn, written and rewritten by a group of another seven senators, known collectively as the “gang of eight.” The bill would provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants—of which there are an estimated 11 million—while setting up provisions that would strengthen American border security. Other parts of the Act address visa backlog and increasing work permits.

Currently on the table at the House of Representatives, the Act has proved divisive amongst voters and members of Congress. Given the socially conservative nature of the Republican-led House, the future of the Act remains unclear.

 

Struggles faced by the undocumented

Fletcher* arrived in Canada on a business trip from China. Instead of returning at the end of his trip, he overstayed his visa and settled into life without legal status, living with friends and, occasionally, distant family. He received a Temporary Resident Permit and eventually gained citizenship. He now works as an insurance salesman and has three children. They live in a suburban neighborhood in the Greater Toronto Area.

Fletcher’s motivations are often shared by many in similar situations: the prospect of employment and a better life for his children.

“My father’s dream was to come to Canada, and that [had] been my dream, too,” Fletcher says. “I came here […] for the chance to achieve [that dream].”

As posted by the Wall Street Journal, unemployment in China rests at an estimated 9.2 per cent,.Unemployment in Canada, however, has been reported by the Financial Post to be around 7 per cent since the recession. When taking into account the population disparity between the two countries—1.3 billion to 34.8 million—the problem becomes much more clear.

Despite varying motivations, immigrants typically face similar struggles: lack of access to health care, vulnerability to exploitation in the workplace, and the constant fear of having their lack of status revealed.

Without legal status, Fletcher worked meticulously to stay healthy. In the few times he experienced prolonged illness, he chose to pay in cash and upfront for services at health clinics.

Between lacking the right to work legally and requiring a job to get by, Fletcher was stuck in limbo, working diligently for each week’s under-the-table pay, yet unable to use his skills as leverage for fair wages. Undocumented immigrants often find themselves in vulnerable positions, unwilling to disclose cases of abuse or harassment, as doing so would put themselves at risk of exposing their status.

On Jun. 17, the Washington Post reported that the owners of multiple East Coast 7-Eleven stores had employed over 50 undocumented workers under false identities, while pocketing portions of their wages and requiring rent in cash for living in their homes. This is just one example of the precarious situations immigrants often face.

“I did not have to pay rent to most of the friends who allowed me to live with them. Others [in my situation] are not so fortunate,” Fletcher recalls. “But I was still wiring funds home to my parents, and there was never a week when I thought, ‘this week I did enough work.’”

In addition to financial difficulties, undocumented individuals face a number of social and emotional tolls. Despite contributing to the economy through taxes on purchases, property, and employment, undocumented immigrants face race-based discrimination, stigma, and blame in matters such as unemployment rates and welfare.

 

Motivating factors to illegally immigrate

Gillian’s* father, originally a citizen of the Philippines, met his first wife through an arrangement by his family. In exchange for $1,000, he married her, applied for a green card, and then applied for a divorce. A few years later, he swore the Oath of Allegiance and became an American citizen. Years later, he met another woman, an American living in Guam, who would later become his second wife and the mother of his two children. They have since relocated to the Pacific Northwest.

Although this situation is very real for some immigrants, it has been frequently used as a comedic plot point. On television, Tom Haverford’s marriage to Wendy on NBC’s Parks and Recreation is a source of peculiarity and plot development. In film, Sandra Bullock’s outrageous nd longwinded pursuit of Ryan Reynolds in The Proposal is based on her expired work visa and desire to remain in the United States. But media portrayal of marriage fraud has rarely explored the harsh realities that face its participants in real life—motivations that drive them to break the law. Marriage fraud is just a snippet of a larger thread of issues surrounding the difficulties of immigration.

In Canada and the United States, the decision to commit marriage fraud, to overstay a visa, or to cross borders without documentation is not one made with ease. Motivating factors range from access to education to employment opportunities. The consequences, if marriage fraud or lack of status is discovered, are accordingly drastic; they include deportation or the revocation of citizenship, as well as a ban from the country.

These individuals have emigrated from countries around the world and cite an array of reasons for their displacement. Those who choose to eschew the route of obtaining an immigrant visa and immigrate through a legal manner do so in the face of a number of obstacles in achieving legal immigration, including financial difficulties and lengthy wait times.

Immigration in Canada is not subject to country-specific quotas, but visa processing can still take up to four years depending on an immigrant’s location. According to Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC), the cost of immigration depends on many factors, such as type of visa, fees that can cost up to $550 per person, and additional legal consultation fees.

Wait times for green cards in the United States depend on a number of factors, including type of immigrant visa and country of origin. Due to per-country allowances, a citizen of the Philippines, like Gillian’s father, may have to wait up to 20 years for permanent residency on a work permit. Within such a time frame, the immigrants remain affixed to the terms of their visas, which bind them to their employer, their area of work, and a geographic region amongst other stipulations.

Marriage, on the other hand, is not subject to quotas. Permanent residency can be gained within a year of application, and the wait to apply for citizenship is shortened for those married to citizens. Hence, immigrants sometimes attempt to forgo the long wait and complicated process through marriage fraud.

 

Long-standing consequences

Oftentimes, whole families will immigrate and live under the shadows, and as a result, many children end up facing another range of issues, which can include social isolation and anxiety.

Fears of deportation and separation from parents take immeasurable tolls on children, who as a result, may do worse in school, have more physical and mental health issues, and find themselves alienated in their community.

Growing Up in the Shadows: The Developmental Implications of Unauthorized Status is a journal article published by the Harvard Education Publishing Group. “Poor work conditions, such as low wages, lack of access to benefits, and limited opportunities for employment, which are more prevalent among unauthorized adults, are associated with low academic achievement among their middle school and high school children,” the journal reported.

“It is likely that living in a community where family members or friends’ parents have been detained or deported heightens insecurity and may undermine a sense of belonging and trust. If the child is a citizen, her sense of belonging to the nation could be undermined as its authorities actively seek to expel his or her parents, siblings, and other loved ones.”

Given the divisive nature of the issue, a decision of immigration reform can only be predicted warily. As the debate goes on, undocumented immigrants continue to contribute to our communities, while struggling with the technical barriers and emotional tolls of living in the shadows. Life becomes one of contradictions: living under a constant cloud of fear, while trying to maintain an outward appearance of normalcy. The priority becomes living, working, and growing in a country known for its fundamental freedoms while remaining cautious day in and day out of what can be revealed and who can be trusted.

 

*Names have been changed.

 

Information on the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act collected from congress.gov

(Alessandra Hechanova / McGill Tribune)
(Alessandra Hechanova / McGill Tribune)

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