Wilson Gutierrez is a man without much of a future in Toronto, but he is still here.
A Honduran who came to Canada to work on a two-year renewable temporary permit outside the city, Gutierrez said his employer turned out not to have enough work for him.
Still hoping to earn money, Gutierrez went to Toronto, joining a large pool of “non-status” and “undocumented” residents which, advocates for newcomers told city councillors last Friday, is about to get larger.
The “closed” nature of his work permit – limited to his one employer – and his lack of English are making it difficult for Gutierrez to live in the city, he told a meeting of the community development and recreation committee.
“I feel trapped. I don’t know what I can do, really,” he said, his Spanish deputation translated by Tzazna Miranda Leal, a worker at Parkdale Community Legal Services.
“I can’t work, I can’t study, I can’t get housing.”
It’s hard to know how many people are living in Toronto without legal status. Many are visitors, temporary workers, students or failed refugee claimants who stay after Canada expects them to leave, and the country has no exit controls, so the number staying is unknown, a report to the committee noted.
One estimate for Toronto is 200,000 residents living underground, Macdonald Scott, a licensed immigration consultant with the Law Union of Ontario, but he added “this is a community that for obvious reasons doesn’t want to come forward and be counted.”
More people are coming to Canada on temporary work permits, but a federal policy known as Four In, Four Out requires them to leave after four years. It’s inevitable many will choose not to leave starting in April, 2015, when the provision kicks in, said Audrey Macklin, a University of Toronto law professor speaking to the committee.
“What you have then is a law that manufactures illegality,” said Macklin, adding people who lose legal status in other provinces are likely to come to Toronto, “because if they’re going to live in the shadows, they’re going to do it in a place where they’re least likely to be detected.”
As the number of residents with “precarious immigration status” rises in the city, the advocates warned, wages will be driven down and conditions at some workplaces will worsen.
Recent changes to health care coverage for refugee claimants have already divided the city into “the deserving and undeserving sick,” and confusion is rising about who is able to get care, Macklin said.
She also warned people who are afraid to call police because of their immigration status won’t report a crime.
Through his translator, Gutierrez said he knows people who called police and were turned over to immigration authorities and deported.
Gina Csanyi-Robah of Toronto’s Roma Community Centre said thousands of Hungarian Roma who arrived in Toronto in 2009 are still waiting to be accepted or rejected as refugees, knowing they could face three to eight months between rejection and removal from Canada.
With Hungary on a newly-published Safe Country list for refugee claimants, Roma have been told they will have acceptance hearings in 15 days instead of three years, she said.
Groups such as No One Is Illegal want to see the city adopt a policy of “access without fear” for non-status residents seeking services, suggesting organizations who want city funds should be required to follow the policy and train their staff on it.
Davenport Councillor Ana Bailao said she’s heard families visiting Toronto without permanent residency status are being asked to pay $10,000 (the international student rate) to place children in public schools. Then, after staying at home six months, the children are undocumented but taken into schools without charge, she said.
The committee asked city staff to conduct a community consultation and review opportunities to “improve access without fear” to city services, as well as “a public education strategy to inform Torontonians of our policy.”
A report to the committee on the results is expected this fall.