George W. Bush's announcement last week that an amnesty would be granted to illegal immigrants who are working in the United States has a precedent in Canadian history. Canada, too, has granted general amnesties in the past to "illegal" immigrants, and Canada, too, has recently proposed to regularize undocumented workers by giving them temporary work permits.
In Canada, there has been a shift in impetus for granting the amnesties, from a need to clear backlogs in processing applications for landed status, to a need to address labour shortages in key industries such as construction. There has been a shift, too, in the strategy used to deal with illegal immigrants, from blanket amnesties to temporary work permits.
The first amnesty for illegal immigrants dates back to 1967. Regulations at the time permitted visitors to apply for landed status from within Canada on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. In 1970, a backlog developed when 45,000 visitors applied for landed status from within Canada, and the section allowing such applications was revoked. In 1972, 13,000 people were landed through measures to reduce the backlog.
In 1973, the Trudeau government introduced the Adjustment of Status Program. Under this program, persons who had lived in Canada continuously since Nov. 30, 1972, had 60 days in which to apply for permanent residence. The amnesty, supported by all the major political parties, benefited mostly American draft dodgers, and 39,000 people obtained landed immigrant status under it.
In 1983, the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration implemented a review that allowed persons who had lived in Canada for at least five years to apply for landed status, either in person or anonymously through a third party. By 1984, 976 cases were approved, 114 refused and 169 deferred for investigation.
In 1994, the ministry introduced the Deferred Removal Orders Class, designed to allow failed refugee claimants who had not been removed from Canada within three years to apply to remain in Canada. Under the program, the 20,000 to 200,000 people estimated to be living without status can theoretically apply to remain in Canada on compassionate grounds, but the applications have an approval rate of less than 5 per cent.
The latest proposed amnesty, announced last fall and lobbied for by home-builders' associations, seeks to address the needs of the Canadian labour market, while mitigating the legal risk incurred by companies who employ undocumented workers. Under the proposed partial amnesty, undocumented workers in the construction industry would receive temporary visas, and would be eligible to apply for permanent residency after two years. The program would eventually be extended to the textile and service sectors.
Canada, of course, is no stranger to guest worker programs. The Live-In Caregiver Program and the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program were also introduced to address labour shortages. However, both programs oblige the worker to remain with his or her original employer. This restriction, designed to ensure a compliant work force, makes the workers particularly subject to exploitation by their employers, who have the power to have recalcitrant workers "repatriated."
In the United States, the recent amnesty was justified by Mr. Bush on grounds of national security. The present U.S. system "makes more difficult the task of defending the homeland," he said.
From a security standpoint, an amnesty is in Canada's national interest too. If Canada regularizes undocumented immigrants, each person will have to go through a security check. Undocumented immigrants will be able to live openly and not underground, and will be able to report any crimes that they witness. In this way, enforcement resources can be spent on the small number of individuals who pose a serious risk to our security.
Maria Amuchastegui is a member of the STATUS Coalition that promotes the regularization of undocumented immigrants.