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You may not notice that the crew drywalling your house are visitors from Russia on tourist visas that expired a couple months ago. You don’t ask, and your contractor doesn’t, because their work is good, and drywallers are so hard to find these days.

You may not notice that the brilliant young Indian developer you hired to rework your company’s customer-service platform is a graduate student whose visa does not actually allow her to work. It’s impossible to find anyone else with that talent in this economy.

We may not often notice, but undocumented immigrants – also known by the inaccurate U.S. term “illegals” – have become increasingly integral to our economy, and to our working lives, over the past two years.

First, there were the pandemic border closings and restrictions; then, there were the supply chain crises caused by pandemic labour immobility. Together, these have created gaping labour shortages, causing industries and governments to search desperately for skilled workers wherever they can find them.

Ontario, for example, recently asked Ottawa to double the number of skilled immigrants it usually receives; the province currently has more than 300,000 unfilled positions, mainly in health care, food services, manufacturing and construction. A lot of those are essential to the survival of their enterprises, and a good number of them – although accurate counts are hard to get – are being filled by the undocumented.

In other countries, the pandemic has forced governments to be more honest about their dependency on workers without papers. Ireland, for example, recently launched a plan that, when it comes into effect next week, will grant legal residency to tens of thousands of undocumented workers and ex-students who have been living there for at least four years (or three, if they have children). Irish officials say most have been employed throughout that period. (Ireland is also asking the United States to do the same for undocumented Irish immigrants working there.)

That follows Portugal, which granted temporary regularization to 223,000 undocumented migrants in 2020 and 2021; Spain, which gave legal residency to undocumented agricultural workers and granted work permits to foreigners aged 18 to 21 who were unable legally to work; and Italy, the first country to recognize the legal-worker shortage when, in spring of 2020, it granted a right to legal residency to foreign workers in agriculture, domestic service and care work.

Other countries, forced to acknowledge their economic dependence on people who aren’t permitted to be in the country, have had political campaigns to make them legal residents. Australia, whose border-quarantine program reduced pandemic deaths but prevented seasonal workers from entering, acknowledged hundreds of thousands of crucial workers were undocumented (or had become undocumented because they couldn’t leave when visas expired). It dealt with the problem partly the way Canada did: It met annual immigration targets by drawing on hundreds of thousands of people who were already in the country, giving them permanent residency. That still left a lot of workers with ambiguous papers.

Relying on undocumented workers isn’t just inhumane (they’re more likely to be exploited) and fiscally unwise (they’re less likely to pay taxes). It can also be deadly. That’s what health officials have warned in Brazil, where there are possibly millions of undocumented workers, mainly from the countries of the Andes, whose clandestine existence means they’re unlikely to enter a health clinic to get vaccinated. There’s a big campaign to regularize them in order to prevent further disease spread in what is already the world’s most COVID-19 infected country.

Countries such as Canada and the U.S. have been slower to recognize the pandemic-era role of the undocumented, in good part because of news media and political myths that portray the typical “illegal” as someone who paid a smuggler to sneak them across the border at night. In reality, the overwhelming majority, around the world, are people who entered the country legally at an airport and have overstayed their visa or have one that doesn’t permit work.

In Canada, the issue is rarely mentioned in polite society. But it’s well known in government. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently used a mandate letter to instruct his new Immigration Minister, Sean Fraser, to “explore ways of regularizing status for undocumented workers who are contributing to Canadian communities.”

It’s a typically Canadian way of facing a problem – quietly, slowly and long after other countries have successfully dealt with it. We ought to find a better way – at the very least for the sake of our many neighbours who make our lives better while living in fear and insecurity.

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