MONTRÉAL – Through each wave of Montréal’s coronavirus outbreaks, Abdul woke at 5 a.m. everyday to deliver groceries on shifts ranging from 10 to 14 hours. As an asylum seeker, Abdul had few other options. “I suffered a lot to survive and support my wife and children during this pandemic,” he said.
When the pandemic hit Canada, asylum seekers in essential jobs were disproportionately affected. Many fell ill and died when Montréal became the center of the first two COVID-19 waves. In response to public outrage, Canada’s federal and provincial governments announced a national program (dubbed Guardian Angels) to give asylum seekers a path to permanent residence.
The government, in response to the public’s outcry, created a special program to give asylum seekers a chance at permanent residency, but only for those who have direct contact with COVID-19 patients, leaving out the thousands working as cleaners, security guards in hospitals, warehouse workers and more. It took almost a year, and two more deadly waves of the virus for the government to expand the eligibility to all essential workers.
For asylum seekers living in the province of Québec, one of the biggest migrant hubs in the country, working during the second or third wave has not made a difference. The local government, who has a history of anti-immigration measures, has added multiple barriers to the process, effectively blocking access to this path to citizenship for thousands of workers that keep the economy and vital services of Québec functioning during the pandemic.
But only those who directly worked with patients could apply. Others who had risked their lives in jobs the government had declared essential – including healthcare, factories, housekeeping, manufacturing and the gig economy – were excluded.
Now advocates are calling on Québec premier François Legault, whose government heavily influenced the constraints on the Guardian Angels program, to extend it to all asylum seekers working on the frontline during the pandemic.
The province’s unique constitutional relationship with Canada means that Québec decides who’s eligible for immigration, which is driven by a desire to protect its culture and the French language.
Although the Trudeau government wanted to expand the program, it gave in to political pressure from Québec to limit it. But the policy has called into question Canada’s image as a haven for immigrants and refugees.
“The current government of Québec is very reluctant to increase immigration,” said Cheolki Yoon, a postdoctoral immigration researcher at the Université de Montréal. “One of their main [election] promises was to reduce the number of permanent immigrants in Québec, so they do not want to enlarge access to this program.”
For people like Abdul – who is a lawyer in his home country but cannot practice in Québec without additional training and a license – that means being stuck in a precarious situation. “I am struggling to pay the rent to be honest,” said Abdul, who requested his name be withheld due to his pending immigration case.
Frantz André, a Québec-based advocate for asylum seekers said it was “criminal” that asylum seekers who got sick or worked jobs Québécois avoided have been barred from a path to permanent residency. “Asylum seekers should be rewarded but instead they are anguished, depressed and even suicidal,” he said.
“Despite the economic needs, despite the huge contribution that many refugee claimants and other migrants were making, there is this fear of having too many people come in who are not French speaking,” said Mitchell Goldberg, a Québec-based immigration and refugee lawyer.
Canada’s immigration system is built on three categories of migration: economic, family reunification, and refugee. Each category has unique programs that target specific groups and criteria for eligibility. The Guardian Angels program falls under the refugee category, and is only open to those who directly worked with patients in Québec.
Last May, the federal government announced a new program for migrants living outside Québec who worked during the pandemic. It would enable 20,000 healthcare workers and 30,000 essential workers in other occupations a path to residency. But that program wouldn’t work for Abdul. As a delivery worker, he would have been eligible if he had come to Canada in the economic category and lived outside Québec.
Abdul says the Guardian Angels program criteria is too narrow. “I’m working hard on the frontline delivering food but my lawyer told me, ‘It doesn’t matter.’”
The only option for Abdul is to apply for refugee status and go through the traditional process. The stress and uncertainty has been excruciating.
Even though he worries about his family’s future, Abdul is proud of his work. His family takes pride in the progress they have made in Québec. Noor is learning French and his sons adore their school. “Where will we go if we are not accepted?” Abdul asked. “This is my home.”
A version of this story appeared on The Guardian on Oct. 31, 2021