Undocumented Voices, Undocumented Stories of the Fight for #StatusForAll
By Miranda Saroli, Knowledge Mobilization & Social Action Coordinator, Access Alliance
*TRIGGER WARNING* – this blog post mentions abuse of a minor, domestic abuse, violence against women, and loss of family and loved ones.
“This one is so sad…” Greice, a volunteer with Access Alliance, has her eyes cast down, skimming over a personal story written out by hand in black ink on white paper. The author, an anonymous walk-in patient of Access Alliance, tells their account of surviving here in Canada with precarious immigration status. They are on a visitor visa, one that is close to expiring. Hoping to apply for live-in caregiver status, they are met with many hurdles, such as being asked by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada to return to their home country to apply, a risk they simply cannot take. Making ends meet by taking a job as a cleaner in a factory, they are still able to send money home to their children for school and basic needs. And now they have just received some disturbing news from back home – that their husband has molested their 10-year-old niece. For fear of the niece’s safety, they cannot return. This story, like the others, is brimming with anxiety, loss, and challenges that, to those who have had the privilege and comfort of being born a citizen here in Canada, are unimaginable.
Greice has been tasked with approaching people in the waiting room of the Access Alliance Non-Insured Walk-In Clinic (NIWIC), one of the few clinics in Toronto that offers free primary care services to people without health insurance. With a clipboard in hand, she asks if they will share their story of being undocumented in Canada – what has been their struggle? Or that of a loved one?
This is Access Alliance’s Undocumented. Stories. campaign, planned quickly in response to a historic immigration policy opportunity. Earlier this year, Prime Minister Trudeau asked Sean Fraser, Minister of Immigration, to “explore ways of regularizing status for undocumented workers” (people without a valid permit to live in Canada).
This was not out of the blue. Rather, this represented the tireless efforts of migrant rights organizations like Migrant Rights Network and Canadian Council for Refugees. Their #StatusForAll advocacy campaign, which had been grinding in the background for years, finally had its chance to gain some policy traction. As an organization that not only provides services to non status/undocumented people but also advocates for their rights, Access Alliance joined the chorus of organizations calling on the federal government to grant PR status for all undocumented people in Canada, without exception. On September 18, thousands gathered in rallies across the country, aiming to make as much ‘noise’ as possible around this cause.
Disappointingly, the plan recently released by Minister Fraser fell short – focusing on adjusting existing pathways for temporary foreign workers and students, a lot less than the comprehensive and inclusive reforms that organizations were calling for. Read more about that here.
So many groups of undocumented people, like the ones who visit the NIWIC clinic, are simply not mentioned or included in the plan. Those include asylum seekers who are navigating the refugee claims process, or those who have outstayed their visa and for whatever serious reason, are unable to return home.
Greice picks up another story – this one four pages long, written in Spanish, which tells the nightmarish experience of a husband and wife trying to navigate the immigration system, full of misinformation and exploitation by lawyers and companies claiming to support their application process.
“Misinformation has been a huge problem; there are very few places where you can look for information without feeling in danger or threatened by the possibility of being deported to your country.”
People who come through these doors all have stories to tell. Greice, who is from Brazil and has no permanent residence (PR) status of her own, relates strongly to the cause as she has experienced firsthand some of the challenges that come with being undocumented. With her advice, this straight forward messaging was developed to help gather stories: “You deserve a PR card too. Help us make it happen. Share your story with us.” Printed out and translated into key languages spoken by Access Alliance clients and their communities, this tool helps to communicate the cause with clients, across language barriers. As each story is written, it gets clipped into the display.
With the support of volunteers like Greice, stories are being gathered across all three sites of Access Alliance, from distinct ethno-cultural and linguistic communities across Toronto such as Hispanic, Portuguese, Chinese, French/African, Persian, Arabic, and others. Despite the diversity of voices, many of the struggles are shared. They range from those seeking economic, professional or academic opportunities, all the way to those fleeing from traumatic violent situations in their home countries, with family members killed or left behind. Although most have found a sense of safety and security once arriving in Canada, they are met with unexpected challenges, like struggles in accessing basic housing or schools, and dealing with exploitative, precarious, unsafe work. Here, one person describes their experience picking up a random job:
“I wait there up to 5:00pm. Supervisor come and said come tomorrow at 9am. Next day I work up early and get ready and went to that shop. I met to supervisor, he showed me a meat and said go and cut that. I was very surprised and feel very bad because I never did that [before].”
In the excerpt below, they go on to describe the debilitating pain they develop afterwards from one day on the job they are neither trained nor equipped to do. Several others mention not even getting breaks to eat during their work day.
A lack of knowledge of rights combined with a fear of deportation (thus, a fear of police) leaves many with no recourse in such situations. In another example, a woman shares a heartbreaking story of how she became stuck in Canada after an issue with her passport renewal. Everything spiraled downward from there: she became the victim of violence and abuse from her boyfriend, further trapped by a global pandemic. She writes:
“I decided to leave him, but covid hit my job, by then I was in survival mode already. My plans to leave him fell apart. I did not know my rights by then. I was afraid to go to police and be deported…It was a lot of intimidation and humiliation.”
She is now living in an extremely vulnerable situation, after becoming pregnant and homeless.
For many undocumented people, their most pressing need is healthcare. The NIWIC, which opened ten years ago, represents a collaboration between seven community health centres who came together to try to address the major service gaps for undocumented people in Toronto. People who come to get health services are uninsured due to their precarious immigration status, or may be within the 3-month waiting period for OHIP. The demand for NIWIC has been so great that a recent decision has been made by Access Alliance to expand the noninsured health services from two days per week to four, news that will be announced in October. The hours of service had already been extended when the pandemic hit.
Coming back to Greice. She seems hopeful about the collective impact of the stories.
“I believe that each of these stories has the power to change this reality, although putting so many stories together helps to show that hundreds of thousands of people are in a precarious situation because they do not have permanent residence. And it is something extremely serious, causing profound social and economic impacts now and also in the short, medium and long term.”
If you would like to view the entire collection of stories, please join us on October 20th at AccessPoint on Danforth (3079 Danforth Avenue) for our Undocumented. Stories. Exhibit. This exhibit represents our efforts to bring attention to the ongoing social justice cause that is the fight for regularization and full and permanent immigration #StatusForAll in Canada. This event is in collaboration with the Migrant Workers Alliance, Worker’s Action Centre, and Decent Work & Health Network, and is part of the Alliance for Healthier Communities’ Community Health and Wellbeing Week events, in the theme of ‘Confronting Inequity’.
Don’t miss this incredible immersive installation made up of over a hundred stories written by hand by undocumented people living here in Toronto. You can even add your own story or that of a loved one!
For more information on the October 20 event, please contact Miranda Saroli at email@example.com.
For more information on the fight for #StatusForAll:
- Check out our advocacy letter we sent to Prime Minister Trudeau, Minister Fraser, and our local MPs demanding a comprehensive, inclusive regularization plan.
- Read our briefing note on this advocacy opportunity
- Finally, to learn more about how to support this cause, visit: https://migrantrights.ca/aftersep18/