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Canada deporting highest level of migrants in a decade, despite promises to let more stay

Despite pledging a pathway to status for more migrants, Canada spent more than $100 million deporting them in the last two years

The Liberal government is deporting migrants at an unprecedented pace compared to the last decade, despite pledging to allow more undocumented people to stay in the country, according to numbers obtained by The Breach.

In 2022 and 2023 alone, Canada deported more than 23,000 undocumented migrants, at a price tag of more than $111 million. It’s the highest level of deportations since 2012, when Stephen Harper’s Tory government deported nearly 19,000 people in a single year.

This flies in the face of a December 2021 commitment by the Liberal government to introduce a regularization program that would allow more undocumented people to stay in the country.

In a mandate letter, Prime Minister Trudeau asked the federal immigration minister to build on existing programs, such as the Guardian Angels program that provided asylum seekers working in the health sector during the pandemic with a pathway to permanent residency, to “further explore ways of regularizing status for undocumented workers who are contributing to Canadian communities.”

Both the former and current immigration ministers said they planned to fulfill that commitment. This past December, Immigration Minister Marc Miller said he was working on a regularization program proposal that he hoped to present to cabinet this spring.

“The promise remains,” he said at the time.

Advocates for migrant workers say the government’s policies are contradictory. They are urging Ottawa to put a pause on deportations as it drafts up its regularization program.

The program, they say, should be both broad and comprehensive, allowing thousands of Canadians who live and work here to stay.

Millions of dollars ‘wasted’: advocates

Among those slated for deportation is Tarun Godara. Godara first came to Canada as an international student from India. After completing a diploma program at Cambrian College in Sudbury, Ont., he chose to lay down roots.

He’s worked multiple jobs, paid taxes, made lots of friends, got a dog and learned to embrace his sexuality as a gay man.

Tarun Godara’s appeal to stay in Canada has been rejected by the IRCC. Credit: Tarun Godara

But last month, he was told he would be deported from Canada after his attempts to renew his post-graduate work permit failed. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) had rejected his application, which detailed the danger and persecution he would be subjected to in India as a gay man.

Back home, he said, he had been blackmailed by a former partner and raped, which had devastating impacts on his mental health. Despite this, Godara said IRCC had determined he was not at “risk of persecution, torture, risk to life, or at risk of cruel or unusual treatment or punishment if returned to India.”

“I have never felt more dehumanized,” he said. “I’m literally just an application number.”

Syed Hussan, executive director of Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, said it makes “no sense” that the Trudeau government has spent so much money deporting thousands of people while it’s working on a regularization program.

He said this is money wasted to “separate people from their families, to rip away people from their communities, and to take out workers from the country.”

Gauri Sreenivasan, co-executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, described the government’s position on deportations as “incoherent.”

On the one hand, they are “seeking to make good on their commitment to regularize the status of hundreds of thousands of people who have been waiting for years for permanent status,” she said. But on the other hand, “they are doing nothing to address the deportation of those same people.”

Sreenivasan also pointed out that the Canadian immigration system “creates vulnerabilities” for people to fall out of legal immigration status. This includes international students whose student visas have expired, temporary foreign workers who have fled an exploitative or abusive employer tied to a closed work permit, and victims of human trafficking who qualify for a temporary resident permit.

Canada has spent more than $111 million deporting people in the last two years alone.

Deportations by the numbers

Federal figures show that the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) deported roughly 7,500 people in 2021, at a cost of more than $43 million.

In the years since, this number has steadily increased. Almost 8,300 people were deported in 2022, and around 15,000 in 2023—costing $53 million and $58 million each year, respectively.

The top reason given for deportations was non-compliance, a term used to describe individuals living in Canada without status or studying without authorization. This includes people who overstayed their status in Canada, as well as refugee claimants.

Criminality, which accounted for just five per cent of all cases, was the second major reason. CBSA said the average cost of an “unescorted removal” is around $3,800 and an “escorted removal” costs, on average, $12,500.

Escorted removals are deportations in which individuals are escorted by CBSA officers for medical reasons or to “minimize risk to the safety and security of the person being removed, the traveling public and the transportation company personnel.”

CBSA declined an interview request. In a written statement to The Breach, the agency said the decision to remove someone from Canada “is not taken lightly.”

“The removals process plays a critical role in supporting Canada’s immigration and refugee determination system, and contributes to the Government of Canada’s public safety and security priorities,” the statement read.

When asked about the increase in deportations, CBSA said the primary driver of the increase in deportations in 2023 specifically was the additional protocol to the Safe Third Country Agreement, which took effect last March.

This protocol further limits the ability of asylum seekers to obtain refugee status in Canada.

It states that if an individual does not have a family member in Canada, is not an unaccompanied minor, or is not facing the death penalty in their country of origin, Canada is able to deport them to the U.S.

Canada is deporting more migrants than it has in over a decade.

‘Time is of the essence’

There are an estimated half a million undocumented people living in Canada, but the government is unable to pinpoint the exact number because some of these individuals may fear coming forward, making it harder to track them.

In a written statement to The Breach, IRCC said it’s exploring options for regularizing the status of undocumented workers.

“IRCC has been engaging with academic experts and stakeholders to support this work,” the statement reads. “As we advance our work, we will continue listening to experts as well as undocumented migrants themselves.”

The immigration department said it would be taking into account lessons it learned from recent regularization initiatives, including its 2019 pilot program that allowed 500 out-of-status construction workers in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) to obtain permanent residency. That program was expanded in January 2023 to double its scope to 1,000 construction workers in the GTA.

But time is of the essence, Hussan and Sreenivasan stressed.

Their organizations—Migrant Workers Alliance for Change and Canadian Council of Refugees —are calling for an immediate pause to deportations in Canada while a regularization program is under development.

“They just need to stop the deportations and implement a comprehensive and inclusive program,” said Hussan.

Sreenivasan agreed. She said this program should provide pathways to permanent residence with simple, broad and clear criteria to exclude as few people as possible, make it easy for people to understand whether they qualify and reduce application processing times.

As well, she said the program should be offered on an ongoing rather than time-specific basis, minimize documentary requirements, ensure cooperation from CBSA to assure that people applying for regularization will not be targeted for removal proceedings and allow third-party groups to assist people in the application process.

“There have been successful experiences with regularization in Europe. It’s because the forms and the process were very straightforward,” said Sreenivasan. “You have to recognize that people that have precarious status really face barriers from getting that paperwork done.”

David Moffette, a criminology professor at the University of Ottawa whose research focuses on the intersection between criminal and immigration law, said Canada’s regularization strategy should be broad and not just apply to specific industries such as construction and health care, which capture only a small segment of Canada’s undocumented population.

He argues that regularizing the status of undocumented people already living and working in Canada would allow them to build deeper roots here and continue to contribute to Canada’s tax base, economy and society.

“You have two solutions: you spend a lot of money to deport them, or you spend less money to allow them to continue to be doing the great things they are doing anyway without the permits,” he said.

David Moffette is a Criminology professor at the University of Ottawa. Source: University of Moncton.

Waiting for deportation like a ‘time bomb ticking’

For now, the futures of people like Godara hang in the balance.

He rejects IRCC’s ruling that says he does not face a risk of danger or persecution back home in India. Though the Supreme Court of India decriminalized same-sex relationships in 2018, Godara says Indian society is still far from accepting homosexuality.

In a ruling last year, the Supreme Court stopped short of legalizing same-sex marriages. Narendra Modi’s far-right government, meanwhile, has said that same-sex marriages are not “comparable with the Indian family unit concept of a husband, a wife and children,” further stigmatizing the queer community.

Godara has retained a lawyer and applied for his case to be judicially reviewed by the Federal Court. His friends and community have set up a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for the costly legal battle and his expenses while he waits for the process to play out.

He said he’s grateful for the support he’s received, but his anxiety grows with each passing day. “Every day is like a time bomb ticking,” he said.

His hope is that the Canadian government will recognize the contributions of undocumented people and allow them to stay in this country that they’ve grown to call their home.

“We have paid thousands of dollars. Why did you let us come here only to throw us out like we’re literally nothing?”

Noushin Ziafati
Noushin Ziafati
  Noushin Ziafati is an award-winning journalist who has covered stories on immigration, health, discrimination and the environment. Her past titles include digital writer/producer at CTV News and reporter at The Canadian Press in Ontario, The Chronicle Herald in Nova Scotia and Telegraph-Journal in New Brunswick.
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