Just a few weeks ago, Manuel, a 19-year old refugee, sat alone in a jail cell in a detention center in Laval, just north of Montreal. Frightened and tired, he awaited his deportation, and was soon sent back to Mexico. It was one of those freakish situations where one might rack their brain to determine what the hell they did wrong. In Manuel’s case, it was very simple – he was a refugee without status who chose to defy a deportation order.
Days before, Manuel had been casually waiting at a metro station in Montreal. He was picked up by police who were on the lookout for another young Latino male. In the eyes of these cops, Manuel was just another brown-skinned guy loitering in the metro – already guilty. When his identity was ran through the system, it was ascertained that Immigration Canada had an arrest warrant out for him, and a subsequent deportation order. Manuel’s parents and seven other siblings all live in Montreal. But to say they ‘live’ here is to use that word loosely, for they live clandestinely, part of an endless pool of people forced underground because their number has come up with â€œla migraâ€.
Manuel’s case is more than just a tragic story of a young life ruined by a deportation – Manuel represents the crisis that non-status people face in Canada. Every day is a gamble. Every day is a risk. And if you survive, you go to sleep and go through it all again. It is this precarity that up to 400,000 non-status people in Canada are facing, and it has to end.
But for those unable to raise their heads above water for fear of Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC), the tides could be changing. In Montreal, Solidarity Across Borders (SAB), a network of various immigrant and refugee groups has emerged, and aims to make public this crisis. For seven days this summer, from June 18-25th, groups and individuals with SAB will be walking from Montreal to Ottawa. The walk is a big deal, and the demands are bigger: an end to detentions, an end to deportations, the abolition of security certificates, and a comprehensive status program for all. It’ll be a long march, but for all the combined years that refugees spend living in the dark in Canada, it is but a drop in infinity.
United in Struggle
For many in Montreal, SAB is a long time in the making. It effectively provides a network of mutual aid and support, where refugee communities who are under the threat of deportations no longer have to fight in isolation. Under the coalition’s main demands, SAB provides the network
for communities and individuals to unite against a common obstacle – Citizenship and Immigration Canada.
SAB also represents a natural evolution in the course that self-organized refugee mobilizations were taking prior to its conception. This evolution is parallel to an uphill battle that these groups have been facing in the last three years.
One might say that CIC really upped the ante in the summer of 2002 when then-Minister of Immigration, Dennis Coderre, lifted a moratorium on deportations to Algeria. Suddenly, thousands of Algerians in Canada, most of them in Montreal, found themselves left hanging, vulnerable to being sent back to a country where a bloody civil war has claimed thousands of lives in recent years. Still, in the face of this danger, the Action Committee of Non-Status Algerians (CASS in French) came together, mainly created by directly affected Algerian refugees themselves. After numerous pickets, demonstrations, airport visits, immigration office sit-ins, and a family taking sanctuary in a church to avoid deportation, Algerians in Canada finally won a set of special procedures to obtain status.
Palestinian refugee communities across Canada found themselves in a similar position. Many of them were living here as stateless refugees, but still being deported back to miserable refugee camps and military occupation. Although a significant campaign came together to challenge these removals, it lost some steam after a few of the campaign’s main organizers were deported.
But if the Algerian campaign proves anything, it’s that there’s power in numbers. So when some of the organizers from the Palestinian campaign approached members of the Algerian campaign in 2003 to join up in a common struggle, Solidarity Across Borders was born.
“Solidarity Across Borders is the breath of all of those people who are being discriminated against on a regular basis, every day. There is nothing in this world like living illegally… Nothing,” says Amir Hodod, an Egyptian refugee and member of the Solidarity Across Borders coalition.
Martyrs for the cause
For non-status people, organizing in a group like SAB can be a tremendous risk. Among those who suffer the abuse and precarity of our racist immigration process, the sacrifice of refugee community organizers must be recognized. Time and time again these organizers have been deported in what can only be described as the most blatant and cowardly attempts to break refugee rights movements. This targeting of immigrant activists must be recognized because it speaks directly to how immigrants and refugees are viewed by policy makers and enforcers.
This view is one of a benevolent Canada, graciously admitting foreigners who would otherwise suffer the misery and poverty of whatever country they came from. This view sees granting status, however temporary, in Canada as some kind of sacrifice made on behalf of humanity. And it is this view that consistently dominates Canadian immigration policy, as well as the language used to debate it. The idea that the country’s economy and the economy of every other western country would collapse in the absence of immigrants does not, however make such a lasting impression. Nor does the ever increasing absurdity of the differences seen between a citizen and an immigrant. The fact is that when immigrants and refugees speak out on the abuse and criminality of their conditions in our country they are labeled as troublemakers, agitators, and perhaps even ungrateful.
The results of these predominating ideas are not hard to see. Wendy Maxwell was arrested at the International Womenâ€™s Day rally in Toronto and deported back to Costa Rica. She was selling cookies for CKLN, a radio station where she volunteered to broadcast the voices of people like her. Shamim Akhtar was deported from Canada to the USA in the summer of 2004 along with her family. She was the direct inspiration for the No One Is Illegal March On Ottawa. A third particularly striking case, due to recent developments, is that of Mohamed Cherfi who was refused status in 2004 because he was not adequately “integrated” into Quebec society. Mohamed lived in Quebec for six years and spoke French, but perhaps more importantly, had been a tireless activist and articulate spokesperson for the Action Committee for Non-Status Algerians. His work and the work of many others including organizations like No One Is Illegal (Montreal) resulted in a regularization program for non-status Algerians and in total around 900 people were given status. Of these 900, Mohamed Cherfi was not one. His exclusion from this program commemorates Canadaâ€™s longstanding history of political deportations, a history that goes all the way back to the Immigration Act of 1910 which established â€œpolitical offensesâ€ as grounds for deportation (Section 41). Interestingly, Mohamed Cherfi was granted refugee status on June 1, 2005 in the US. Why the United States would feel Mr. Cherfi had legitimate grounds for a refugee claim when Canada had decided he did not is hardly a mystery. It was a political deportation. His refugee claim was not the issue. In an arbitrary and abusive process, variation and abuse must be expected and rejected.
To return to the issue of how immigrants are viewed by policy makers, it is clear from the cases above that immigrants aren’t supposed to organize their communities, they are not supposed to advocate publicly for their rights or the rights of others, and they are most definitely not supposed to win regularization programs. Immigrants are supposed to be too busy working and enjoying the ambiance of first world capitalism to do these things. The fact that this version of the story utterly fails to reflect reality is of no surprise. As usual it reflects policy makers’ views that immigrants are no more than the elastic and expendable labor force Canada needs to maintain it’s fluctuating economy at peak productivity. Humanizing that labor force creates problems; it would make that labor force inelastic. For one, the homicidal hiring and firing of workers doing the worst jobs in the most heavily exploitive environments might be a real burden to the economy if these workers then were able to access the health care and welfare services that they need as a result. But the refugees and immigrants who predominantly work these jobs are often in precarious positions with respect to the state and cannot access these services for fear of detention and/or deportation. Without access to these safety nets life becomes one of struggle, not for success, but for survival in a potentially endless cycle of exploitation. This is the reality that refugees and immigrants face.
Hodod is a clear-cut example of a refugee who has become a survivor of the market. Hodod holds a masters degree in philosophy from Egypt, and since living in North America, he has been shuffled around from jobs such as a grocery store clerk, restaurant kitchen staff, and fast food runner.
“Being non-status means that you are starting from the beginning. And you have to also accept the tiny chances which are given to you by the market needs of society – to work in a specific kind of job,” adds Hodod. “The real chances for refugees are that they have to do specific kinds of jobs, and they are threatened all the time that if they don’t accept these jobs, which can be very difficult, they are expelled from the country.”`
Thinking beyond 9-11
CIC would like Canadians to believe that all immigration policy dates back to September 11, 2001, and that policy changes since then are relevant only in light of the new terrorist threat. However, this context and itâ€™s all too convenient implications must be rejected. In reality, the policies which are being implemented today are often the same policies that have been implemented in the past and simply rewritten, revised and resurrected. The fact that they are being marketed as reforms for new and troubled times is grounds for a good look through a history book.
For example, we find that the Safe Third Country Agreement (2002) now eerily resembles the Continuous Journey Rule (1908). The Continuous Journey Rule prohibited the landing of any immigrant not arriving directly from their country of origin. At the time this rule was created steamships from India and Japan made a stop in Hawaii, thus preventing them from immigrating to Canada under the Continuous Journey Rule. A steam line owned by a Canadian corporation made the only direct voyage from India to Canada, and was quickly enticed to cancel this service following the establishment of the rule. Rewritten, revised, and resurrected we now have the Safe Third Country Agreement signed on December 5, 2002. This agreement prevents any refugee from making a claim in Canada if they have visited a â€œsafe third countryâ€ prior to entry into Canada. So for example, a refugee cannot apply for status in Canada if he/she has ever set foot on U.S. soil (a safe third country).
Estimates predict this measure will reduce the number of refugee claimants by 40%, and we can reasonably assume immigration officials are hoping this estimate is low, and yearning for the days of 1908 when stamping out immigration of â€œundesirablesâ€ was straightforward.
Another shining example is the Head Tax imposed on Chinese immigrants with the establishment of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. Now we call it the Right of Landing Fee (ROLF). In 1882 the purpose of this tax (50$ per Chinese head) was to limit the number of Chinese immigrants, and profit from those who were not excluded. As the desire of Canadian officials to exclude Chinese immigrants increased, so did the head tax until it was 500$ in 1903 (equivalent to two years wages as a Chinese laborer). If there could be any doubt as to the intent of this tax, it would be erased with the establishment of the 1923 Chinese Immigration Act which decreed an outright ban on Chinese immigration. July 1 is now known to many Chinese-Canadians as Humiliation Day in recognition of this racist history. Although no longer legislated along racial lines, we find immigration officials playing the same game in 1995, charging every immigrant and refugee arriving in the country a flat fee of $975. These expenses come on top of normal processing fees of $500 per adult and $100 per child.
The Canadian Council of Refugees released a report in February of 1997 studying the ROLF in which they assert that the fees are â€œdiscriminatory, exclusionary, and racist because of the vast variance in country and individual income around the world.â€ It is also important to point out the very special hypocrisy of the Canadian government in claiming on the one hand to accept refugees based on their need for protection from persecution and then limit the extent of this protection to those who can pay the fees. This is very special because, as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has pointed out, no other country in the world imposes such a fee on refugees.
The need to ground our present understanding of immigration policy in a
historical context is not just simply a need to call a spade a spade, but more
importantly to trace a firm and distinct line from the origins of racist
discriminatory policy to the fruits they have born in the present day. It is a
need to reexamine the hard lessons of history that we didn’t learn with a new
Welcome to Canada â€“ You are now entering a police state
As the previously illustrated case of Manuel suggests, the issue of policing is also of great concern to non-status people living in Canada. In Canada’s war on terrorism, which often plays out as a war against (im)migrants, some of the most draconian legislation this country has ever seen has been laid out to facilitate detentions and deportations. The police have been given additional powers, and often collaborate with Immigration Canada to nab wanted refugees.
One stark example took place on August 14th, 2003 in Toronto. This is a date that will stay forever in the memories of many Pakistanis in Canada. That morning, twenty-four men of South-Asian origin were picked up in pre-dawn raids by the RCMP. This was part of an RCMP investigation dubbed â€œProject Threadâ€. The men were immediately detained in a maximum security prison on the grounds that they were a threat to “national security”. Even though all allegations of terrorism against the detainees were dropped within two weeks of the arrests, the detainees spent two to five months locked up before many of them eventually deported. The RCMP, acting with the blessing of Immigration Canada, knew very little about these men except that they were Muslims, many from the same province of Pakistan, who were studying at the Ottawa School of Business in Toronto. One of them had enrolled in flight lessons. This is reason enough for the RCMP to sound the alarm bells and get out their guns.
Also of great concern to non-status folks in Canada are the now infamous security certificates. A measure of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, Security Certificates allow the government to detain non-citizens without charge, under secret evidence, for years. While the security certificate has been in existence since 1991, they have been used more and more to arouse fear and profile (im)migrants as terrorists in the post 9/11 context. Five of the six most recent victims of security certificates in Canada were men of Muslim or Arab origin. Some of them are facing deportations back to countries where they will most likely be tortured, or even killed.
Police and state repression now go hand in hand with Canada’s border policy. It is necessary to resist this repression if the movement for regularization is going to make any headway.
In Toronto, the group No One Is Illegal has spearheaded a campaign called “Don’t’ Ask, Don’t Tell”. DADT is advocating a program where municipal workers, including the police, would be barred from sharing information about a person’s immigration status with CIC. If this program were in place, not only would it eliminate the fear of double punishment for non-status people
(i.e serving their sentence for any crime, and then being deported), but it would mean that those who fear accessing essential services such as health or education would be able to do so without fearing legal repercussions. When Ahmed Nafaa, a Palestinian refugee living underground in Montreal, was deported in late-November, 2004, he had been caught the night before for a fare violation in the metro. A deportation is a heavy sentence. There will be no justice for non-status people here won’t end until the police stop breathing down their necks.
A March for survival
As hundreds of people prepare to march from Montreal to Ottawa, they will not only be staring down endless stretches of highways, they will also be staring down the ugly, metaphorical wall that is Canada’s border. For non-status people in Canada, the border is an ever-present force â€“ one that always looms in the collective consciousness of an underground people.
The question of regularization is more than just a question of throwing open the nation’s borders - it’s an issue of human rights. SAB is in a good position to push forth it’s large demands as the group arrives on Parliament Hill on June 25th. And while Immigration Minister Joe Volpe is hinting at implementing some sort of regularization program, it will most likely be highly restrictive and inaccessible. SAB is advocating a full regularization program which addresses the inherent dignity of all people, and demands real justice now. Many of these rights are being denied in Canada. In this sense, the march to Ottawa is a march for survival.
Many organizers in Solidarity Across Borders describe the march to Ottawa is an important step in taking back time â€“ time that has been stolen. For every cop that has thrown someone in detention, for every boss that has exploited an undocumented worker, and for every bureaucrat politician that has refused to listen to the cries for justice of whole communities, Solidarity Across Borders is fighting back.
(Aaron Lakoff and Seth Porcello are both independent journalists with CKUT community radio â€“ 90.3FM – in Montreal. When they are not writing, they are fighting for a world without borders, bosses, or deadlines.)