Ottawa has ruled out amnesty for the estimated 200,000 undocumented workers toiling in Canada's underground economy, saying it would not be fair to those who have applied legally and are waiting in line, according to a letter obtained by The Globe and Mail.
Allowing illegal workers to stay would likely "encourage more illegal immigration," noted Linda Arseneau of Citizenship and Immigration Canada's ministerial enquiries division in an Oct. 18 letter to the Universal Workers Union.
"Even a small increase in the number who decide to come here and stay here illegally based on the hope of regularization would simply recreate the very problem the proposal is supposed to fix," the letter says.
The decision is a bitter disappointment to Portuguese and Hispanic groups, home-builder associations and unions in Ontario that have lobbied CIC to allow undocumented workers in the construction industry to regularize their status.
The groups have met with five different immigration ministers in six years to press the issue. Former immigration minister Joe Volpe signed a memo of understanding with the Coalition for Undocumented Workers last year for a regularization program that would allow undocumented workers already in the Greater Toronto Area to apply to stay.
The initiative was never passed because of opposition from within the Liberal caucus.
Andy Manahan, of Universal Workers Union Local 183, said he hopes Ottawa will not move to deport about 20,000 undocumented workers in Toronto, many of whom are keeping the construction sector afloat. Another 20,000 work as house cleaners and cooks in the GTA, while a recent report estimated the total of illegal workers in Canada at 200,000 to 500,000.
"We need these people and they cannot qualify under the current immigration system, which favours white-collar workers," Mr. Manahan said. "The best solution would be if the government reformed the points system to encourage skilled tradespeople to apply."
Daniel, 47, his wife and two grown sons arrived in Toronto from Mendoza, Argentina, seven years ago and have been working as house framers ever since, hoping Ottawa would introduce a temporary amnesty.
"There is a demand for our labour. Most Canadians don't want to do this work," Daniel said. "We are paying taxes and spending money. An amnesty isn't a solution, but the government could create a temporary program to help us get status."
He and his family must decide what to do next, and they live in fear of being discovered by immigration officials and ordered to leave.
"This is not a good way to live," he said.
Immigration Minister Monte Solberg understands the difficulty and vulnerability of those working illegally in Canada, according to the letter, which says he is committed to "ensuring that Canada's immigration policy is reoriented to meet the demands of our labour market."
But CIC also wants to maintain the integrity of the immigration program and "drive foreign workers to legal channels."
Ontario is planning to introduce a provincial nominee program, which would allow the province to bring in workers with specific skills and give applicants priority processing by CIC.
Last year more than 80,000 temporary foreign workers arrived in Canada.
A recent report commissioned by the Laborers' International Union of North America found that undocumented workers in the GTA "pay taxes, create jobs and wealth," but are often forced to work for less than the minimum wage and "live in fear of being deported."
Many of the workers are from Portugal and Latin American countries such as Argentina and El Salvador.
In March, the deportation of about two dozen Portuguese nationals caused an uproar as the Portuguese community struggled to understand why gainfully employed stonemasons and carpenters could not stay.
In June, the House of Commons committee on citizenship and immigration called on the government to halt deportations of all undocumented workers until a new immigration policy could be introduced.