Canada: How to fight the war on immigration

As part of their agenda of austerity and attacks on working-class people, the Conservative government is attempting to bring in major “reforms” to Canada’s system of immigration. During the last federal election campaign, Stephen Harper and his minister of immigration, Jason Kenney, tried hard to woo ethnic communities’ support to the Conservatives.  But now that the elections are over for a while, the Tories feel safe in attacking these same communities as part of the general war against workers.

In an interview with the Globe and Mail, Jason Kenney labelled immigration “the most important public policy question of our time”. He went on to outline some of the goals that his government intends to follow: “We are embarking on a program of transformational change to move from a slow, rigid, and passive, really a supply-driven immigration system, to a fast, flexible, and pro-active, demand-driven immigration system.”

But what exactly lies behind these buzz words about “speeding up” the immigration process? In tackling the “backlog” of immigration applications, some of which date to more than eight years ago, the ministry is preparing to throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater by returning about 100,000 applications, involving about 300,000 individuals. We suspect that returning their application fees will be but a small consolation for these thousands of individuals!

However, suddenly cancelling hundreds of thousands of applications from would-be immigrants is only the latest action in a long serious of anti-immigrant measures taken by Kenney’s administration.

Kenney’s ministry has imposed visas (which were previously not required) on citizens from the Czech Republic and Mexico.  The Canadian government’s rationale was that too many people from these two countries were entering Canada and then filing refugee claims.  In this way, immigration from the Czech Republic and Mexico could be made more difficult, despite the fact that the Roma in the Czech Republic are victims of some of the worst racist policies in Europe, and Mexico is in the midst of a terrible government-sponsored drug war.  Under Kenney, deportations have doubled and moratoriums on return lifted for many countries.

The Conservative government has also rapidly increased the number of people allowed into Canada under temporary work visas, which are designed to push immigrants into the most precarious and temporary of jobs.  This is an ideal situation for the ruling class — they receive a group of workers that have little legal rights, almost no access to services, and, crucially, virtually no ability to unionize.

In 2008, more than 300,000 people were admitted into Canada under temporary work visas, with no access to permanent residency and no roadmap to permanent settlement and citizenship.  As we speak, there are more than half a million undocumented people with no access to good jobs, childcare, healthcare, education, or housing.  These people are settled throughout Canada and crucial in running this country’s economy.  At the same time, Kenney has been responsible for slashing $31.5-million from immigration settlement services in Ontario alone, even hurting the “legal” immigrants here.

When it comes to maintaining programs like Old Age Security, the federal government claims that there are not enough workers paying taxes to support the system. But just when there is an opportunity to have many taxpaying workers to fund this and other programs, they’ll prefer to maintain the precarious conditions of “illegal” workers to keep wages down.

A two-year freeze on Canadians sponsoring parents and grandparents has caused wide rage in the immigrant communities who now don’t know when they will be re-united with their loved ones. There is a loophole available where immigrants can apply for a “super visa”, which creates a new caste of immigrants who are deprived of the same rights as other Canadians and forces them to pay thousands of dollars for private health insurance, thus discriminating against working-class immigrants. You are welcome to bring your parents into the country, but only if you are rich!

Divide and rule

An attack on asylum seekers and immigrants is also utilized to scare working class people here and divert their attention from the austerity agenda.

We saw this method symptomatically in August 2010 when nearly 500 Tamil refugee claimants arrived on MV Sun Sea off the coast of British Columbia. These refugees were escaping the bloody civil war in Sri Lanka, especially after the entire Tamil people of that country had been targeted in a crackdown by the capitalist SLFP government. Instead of allowing these immigrants to join the substantial Tamil community in Canada and contribute to society, they were brutally jailed like criminals. The ministry of Family and Child Services broke apart entire families by seizing children. In the most recent federal elections, the Conservative Party highlighted their “tough on crime” persona by broadcasting ads that celebrated the government’s response to the MV Sun Sea and illegal immigration.

A few other measures were introduced to “toughen up” the refugee and immigration system by declaring “illegal” those who arrive by “irregular means” — often the only way that refugee claimants can arrive in Canada.

The latest jewel in the Conservatives’ crown in the war on immigrants is Bill C-31 (known as the Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act) which passed in March.

Bill C-31 gives the extraordinary power to the Minister of Immigration to immediately deport two categories of refugee applicants without any chance to appeal. First are those who are deemed to come from “safe” countries (decided solely by the minister themself). This will include people like the Roma in Eastern Europe who are deemed to live in “safe” countries, like Hungary, but in which they are subject to some of the most brutal forms of discrimination and persecution.  The recent free trade agreement between Canada and Colombia, supported by both the Conservatives and Liberals, could suggest that Colombia will also be deemed “safe” in the minister’s eyes, despite the fact that thousands of trade unionists have been assassinated by state and paramilitary forces in the country.

The second category of applicant to be targeted is made up of those who are suspected of having “smuggled” their way here, such as those like the Tamil migrants of MV Sun Sea who have no other option to escape war and persecution. These “illegals” can be detained up to 12 months and jailed up to five years before eventually being deported.

Bill C-31, due to take effect this summer, also gets rid of what Jason Kenney calls “delaying tactics”, legal appeals that give refugee claimants one final chance of remaining in Canada.

How do we fight the anti-immigrant agenda?

The Conservative government aims to justify their anti-immigrant policies in the eyes of the wider population by claiming that they are “necessary” in these “hard times”. Kenney  has already promised that these new changes will save $1.65-billion dollars over five years in reduced social assistance and education costs.

Despite the scaremongering, the Conservatives’ attempts at driving a wedge into the working class and drumming up anti-immigrant hysteria has largely failed so far.  An October 2011 study conducted by the Institute for Research on Public Policy found that a majority of Canadians had a favourable opinion on immigration.  An EKOS poll the year before, in the midst of the Great Recession, showed that 67% of Canadians support the current (or higher) amount of immigration.

Even at the provincial level, anti-immigration policies are a tough sell.  Ontario Conservative leader Tim Hudak learned a tough lesson in October’s Ontario election when the Tories tried to run an “anti-foreigner” campaign.  Hudak and the Tories failed to gain a single seat in Toronto (where up to 50% of the population are made up of immigrants), but his xenophobic message also hurt the Tories’ chances in other parts of the province.

This is not to say that we should ignore the danger of governments and the ruling class demonizing immigrants.  It will take a massive campaign by the labour movement and immigrant advocacy organizations (rights campaigners, migrant justice) to counter the racist fear-mongering agenda and unite the working class against them.  It must be pointed out that these anti-immigrant policies (such as the temporary work visas) are part of the wholesale assault on the rights of all workers.

Looking at facts goes a long way to dismiss the claim that the Canadian immigration system is, as Kenney and Co. allege, “too generous”. In 2008/09, the United Nations set a goal of having 560,000 resettled refugees in OECD countries. Of this number, Canada  has only accepted a mere 11,000; Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan — all less developed countries — between them accepted 885,000 Iraqi refugees alone.

Most bourgeois immigration economic analysts confess that, even within the logic of the system itself, Canada could accept four times more immigrants that it does now just to address labour market shortages due to aging.  Even Andrew Metcalfe, Australia’s Immigration secretary (hardly a radical socialist) testified at a Canadian Senate committee last October that “detaining people for years” will have catastrophic results and will not even reduce the number of refugees. All it will do is to bring on a situation in which thousands upon thousands of migrants and refugees will have to live through the most precarious conditions. This is precisely what the Conservatives aim to achieve: provide a pool of cheap and right-less army of labour for the capitalists.

The government’s anti-immigrant measures should be viewed as part and parcel of the austerity agenda that Bay Street aims to impose on all working people. As explained, It is the capitalist system that has necessitated such measures. If we are to successfully fight their agenda, we will have to go beyond the logic of this system that leaves no room for concessions at this moment of crisis.

The labour movement and its political arm, the NDP, along with the broader working class, need to wage a campaign to defend working-class immigrants and refugees and defeat the agenda of the Conservatives. The attacks on migrants is part of the same attacks that we are witnessing on public-sector and private-sector workers, the attacks on public services, etc.  It is only with unity that we can drive back their corporate agenda.  An attack on one is an attack on us all!

It is good news that the NDP has opposed the Tories’ immigration reform in the House of Commons.  While speeches in Parliament are great, however, they will not do anything on their own. MPs should be the voice of a mass movement of opposition to all cuts and austerity measures, including these anti-immigrant bills.

Past attempts have shown that with enough determination, we can stop individual cases. Just a couple of months ago, Kavoos Soofi, an Iranian activist who has lived in Canada for eight years, was about to be deported back home where his life would be endangered. He was saved after a rigorous campaign launched by his family. There are many more similar cases. However, while these individual campaigns are absolutely necessary, we also need a mass movement that aims that fights for all refugees and immigrants, as part of a larger working-class struggle against the capitalist system that needs to divide us.

The NDP needs to adopt a consistent policy to oppose all immigration and asylum controls. Instead of limiting itself to court appeals or minor system “reforms”, it should boldly declare that an NDP government would stop all deportations and would give immediate citizenship and voting rights to all those living and working in Canada. By reducing the working week to 32 hours with no loss of pay, and implementing a massive program of public works, we can provide good jobs and benefits to everybody already living here, and to accept many more people. This should be part of a socialist agenda that would nationalize the commanding heights of the economy and put them under democratic workers’ control. This will favour not only immigrants, but all workers since it will defeat the bosses attempt to use vulnerable immigrants as cheap labour or scabs.

With such a program, we could mobilize thousands of unionized and non-unionized workers, not least those half a million “illegal” workers, into a movement that would boldly confront the Harper government and its Bay Street base.

For workers’ unity against the racist anti-immigrant agenda!

End all immigration and asylum controls!

Full citizenship rights to all those living here!

Good enough to work, good enough to stay!