By Jackie Esmonde and Nadia Saad
It is rare in these times that we can celebrate a victory such as Alvaro Orozco's return home to his Toronto community on June 1, after several weeks in immigration detention.
A vibrant community member, queer activist, and artist, Alvaro is no stranger to struggle. Fleeing his native Nicaragua at age 12 after receiving homophobic death threats, he eventually arrived in Canada in 2005. Any illusions he may have had that Canada was a place of safety were quickly dispelled by the denial of his refugee application. The grounds for the denial were unabashedly homophobic: Alvaro just did not look "gay" enough to justify his assertion that he feared for his life in Nicaragua.
Alvaro was not defeated. By 2011 he had won numerous awards for his artwork and had contributed much to Toronto's queer community. Nonetheless, he had been waiting three years for a response to his "Humanitarian and Compassionate Grounds" (H&C) application. His case came to a head on May 13, when Toronto police officers approached him outside Ossington Station and demanded that he prove that he had status. Claims that this police stop was random (rather than motivated by racial and gender profiling) defy belief. Alvaro was subsequently detained and a deportation date set for June 2.
The response from the community was immediate. Two weeks of around-the-clock grassroots organizing, rallies, press conferences, petitions and outpourings of support succeeded in delaying his deportation date by one week - just enough time for the positive response to his H&C application.
Harper's anti-immigrant agenda
While we celebrate Alvaro's return, this should not be mistaken as praise for the immigration system for having finally made the right decision. The truth is that Alvaro should never have been the victim of racist homophobia at the Immigration and Refugee Board. He should never have been forced to wait over three years for a decision to be made on his application for permanent residence. He should never have been stopped by police acting in the interests of immigration enforcement rather than public safety. And neither should the countless others who have had and who will have similar experiences in the years to come. Alvaro's success is an exception in the context of a mounting and virulent attack on migrant rights.
The decision to leave one's country of origin is not a decision that is made lightly. People migrate to escape wars, natural disasters, displacement, persistent poverty, persecution, and others simply because they want to. Migrants want the same things that everyone else wants -- better lives for themselves, their family members and their communities.
Far from innocent in these patterns of global migration, Canada is complicit in creating the very conditions that compel people to move. The wars waged in Afghanistan and Libya; military support for the coup in Haiti; the financial and political support provided Canadian mining corporations (such as Barrick Gold) that are responsible for human rights abuses, environmental degradation and displacement abroad; structural adjustment policies that increase poverty and suffering: these are just a few examples of the damage that Canada is wreaking around the globe.
While those with wealth and power are seemingly free to move wherever they like, the victims of Canada's foreign policy are greeted by police, fences and second class status. Harper's claims that his government is pro-immigration and easily disproven. Overall immigration has decreased by five per cent, with the number of family reunification applications having dropped 15 per cent since the Conservatives took power. The acceptance rate for refugee claims has dropped 56 per cent. Permanent residence applications in the Skilled Worker category have been cut by 20 per cent.
There has been a stark shift from the granting of permanent residence upon arrival, to temporary status with no pathway to permanence. The number of temporary work permits is up 30 per cent over the past four years and in 2008 for the first time Canada received more people on temporary work permits than as permanent residents. The cheap labour of migrant workers is highly profitable, especially within a legal regime with fewer rights and protections for temporary workers, a lack of enforcement for even these laws and the constant threat of deportation for those temporary workers who resist. These precarious workplaces can be deadly: in December 2009, four migrant workers fell to their deaths in Toronto working in unsafe conditions; in September 2010, two migrant workers died while working at an organic apple processing facility. It is in this context that Alberta is looking to bring in thousands of temporary workers to make up for a shortage of an estimated 77,000 workers needed to work in the environmental catastrophe that is the tar sands.
The message is clear - Harper wants the cheap labour of migrants, so long as they leave their families behind and don't stay.
Austerity and the massive transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich
That Alvaro was able to successfully fight his removal from Canada is amazing, in light of the fact that the "Harper government" just won its first majority. The Conservatives' immigration policies have easily been amongst the most hostile that we have seen from a federal government in Canada in the past 40 years.
The Harper government and his ever-hateful immigration minister, Jason Kenney, have already signaled that attacking migrant communities will be one of their top priorities. They intend to re-introduce the "Preventing Human Smugglers from Abusing Canada's Immigration System Act", a discriminatory piece of legislation that punishes refugee claimants and those who assist them to flee persecution. If passed, this legislation would allow the government to detain refugee claimants without a "bail" hearing for up to one year and deny successful refugee claimants the right to apply for permanent residence for five years. In essence, this would create a temporary refugee system.
The Conservatives are debating a proposal for legislation that would automatically void the citizenship of Canadians for "High Treason," a dangerous and politically-charged attack on citizenship rights. Such a move would further undermine the notion that citizenship is a permanent right. The impetus for this regressive move is Omar Khadr, a young man who was captured while a minor and has spent seven years at Guantanamo Bay while Canada refuses to repatriate him. He has been subjected to treatment that even the Supreme Court of Canada has labeled as serious human rights abuses.
Kenney intends to require sponsored spouses to live in Canada for two years with temporary status before they can obtain permanent residence. All the while, more and more resources are being directed to deportations, which have increased 50 per cent over the last decade. The budget for immigration enforcement is projected to increase by 16 per cent between 2010 and 2012.
But the mounting attacks on migrant rights are not simply coming from the federal government, and are not only about rights of entry and deportations. These attacks are part of an austerity agenda that is characterizing all levels of government from coast to coast, and which has increased in intensity since the financial crisis began in 2008. While banks and corporations benefit from extremely generous corporate welfare and police forces are enjoying pay raises of over 10%, the brunt of the profitability crisis is being borne by everyone else through cuts to social programs.
So there is money for fighter jets, but the federal government has cancelled provincial transfers for childcare. There is money in this year's budget to expand Canadian military bases to seven new countries, while the federal government has cut $53 million from settlement services across the country. These federal choices have drastic consequences for the provincial and city services that rely on federal money.
The worse impacts of austerity are felt by those already excluded from public services: undocumented people, migrant communities and poor and working people of colour. Accessible services are a corner-stone of inclusion, and are particularly necessary for poor and vulnerable communities that don't have the luxury of paying for education, health, childcare and recreational programs when these services are cut.
We need to call this agenda out for what it is: the massive transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich.
Victories are possible
Alvaro Orozco's case shows that, while things may be bleak, victories are still possible. Live-in Caregivers in Ontario also won important new protections last year, when the provincial government passed the Employment Protection for Foreign Nationals Act, an Act that bans the abusive recruitment fees charged to Live-in Caregivers.
We need to celebrate these victories and remember them, because the next few years are going to be tough. Although many community groups, unions and service agencies are resisting, it is likely that there are going to be significant cuts to public services, regressive anti-immigrant laws and much suffering.
There are no easy answers to the question of how we can defeat this agenda. It can feel overwhelming, particularly while staring down the barrel of a Harper majority. We need to take a longer view, doing the slow and difficult work of building alliances and strategies that are not dashed at the first loss, but emerge stronger and ready for the next step. The campaigns that stopped Alvaro's deportation and won the ban on recruitment fees are small victories along the road to building a movement from the ground up that can successfully demand a comprehensive regularization policy for all undocumented migrants and fight to reverse the cuts and expand services for all.
As the politicians return to Ottawa, let's give the Tory government the welcome back they deserve - a large and militant fight-back for a just and equitable world. Let all the Alvaros stay.
Jackie Esmonde and Nadia Saad are members of No One is Illegal -- Toronto.