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Who’s Essential And Who’s Not? Asylum Seekers In Quebec Speak Out

Asylum seekers and undocumented people who staff long-term care centres, work in agriculture and are seeking a job during COVID-19 discuss the injustice of determining residency status based on who can take on health risks for Canada.

Most Canadians would say the last several months have been fraught with sadness, anxiety and fear. For asylum seekers riding out this pandemic, this moment is all those things and worse. For those awaiting them, hearings have been on hold since March and are only now gradually resuming—some in-person, but most virtually. In Montreal, Honduran claimant Carolina checks the mail every day for news on her hearing with the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, but nothing ever comes. Her lawyer doesn’t know much more, either.

“The uncertainty makes things complicated,” says Carolina in a video call from her apartment. “We don’t know what’s going to happen. We can’t make larger plans, because things change from one day to the next. We might have to uproot ourselves again.”

Montreal is in a unique position, as Canada’s pandemic epicentre and a hotspot for asylum-seeker tensions. Since 2017, tens of thousands of migrants have used Roxham Road, a worn dirt trail that brings would-be refugees from New York into Quebec. From there, many settled in Montreal to await their asylum hearings—if they weren’t returned to the U.S. under the Safe Third Country Agreement (which has since been quashed in court). Then COVID-19 hit, and in March and April of this year, the province issued all-hands-on-deck calls for help, asking anyone willing and able to work or to volunteer in hard-hit residential and long-term care centres (known in Quebec as CHSLDs), to apply immediately. The media reported that asylum seekers and others with tenuous immigration statuses responded in droves, although the province told us it didn’t keep numbers. In May, Maison d’Haiti estimated that about 1,200 of the Haitian refugees the organization had worked with over the past three years had since found work as CHSLD orderlies.

Earlier in the pandemic, the federal government and Quebec Premier François Legault each floated the idea of giving these “guardian angels” permanent residency, a gift of asylum to reward their sacrifice. On Aug. 14, that came to fruition when the federal minister for immigration, refugees and citizenship announced it would ease the process of becoming permanent residents for certain asylum seekers, under certain conditions.

This gesture may seem like a good show of faith—but what about the asylum seekers picking vegetables in fields or tending to children in daycares, both also essential roles rendered high-risk for COVID-19? Or those too injured to work, but who face real persecution and danger at home? What about people who stayed even after their refugee or asylum claims were denied, and are now working under the table in nursing homes for a mere pittance?

We spoke to five asylum seekers at various stages of their immigration journey living in the greater Montreal area. Some crossed the border on foot at Roxham Road. Others arrived as tourists and claimed asylum upon arrival. Some came alone; others had children or elderly parents in tow. All of them are desperately hoping to make a home in Canada in the middle of a global pandemic.

Carolina, 37

Asylum seeker, Honduras

Just 10 days after they’d arrived in Washington from Honduras on their U.S. tourist visas, Carolina and her two children boarded a Greyhound bus headed north.

The promise of a new life. The possibility of being denied, deported, returned to a country where the children’s rights advocate experienced extortion and feared for her family’s safety. All this hung over Carolina as she steered her teenaged daughter and pre-teen son on the 900-kilometre journey toward the Canadian border.

They got off the bus in Plattsburgh, N.Y. and were met by a queue of taxi drivers with knowing glances. Carolina was headed to the U.S.-Canada border, where she planned to cross on foot at Roxham Road, a trail that tens of thousands of migrants have used to claim asylum in Canada since 2017. She’d found a guide online that laid out step-by-step instructions on how to cross.

The taxi driver was kind, Carolina remembers. He told her what she could expect at the border. “He gave us a bit of peace of mind,” she says over a video call one July day, from her apartment in Montreal. “We had never done anything like this before. We had heard so many tragic stories about what was happening at the Mexico-U.S. border. We were worried what would happen when we got to the Canadian border.”

Today, Carolina works full-time as an orderly in a CHSLD, earning $21 an hour. She doesn’t speak much French and barely any English, and feels discrimination weigh on her in small ways: when co-workers speak too quickly or too quietly, knowing she doesn’t understand well, or when they lose their patience with her inability to grasp the language. The patients are nicer, she says.

She enjoys the work regardless. “I love social work,” Carolina says. “I did this kind of work for more than 10 years in my country. I know I can do the same in Canada. And it makes me feel good to do something that is useful, not only something that gets me a paycheque. I’m really doing something that helps people have a better quality of life.”

Lili, age undisclosed

Undocumented, Algeria

Lili and her mother arrived in 2013 on a plane from Algeria, and made an asylum claim, seeking Canada’s protection from government violence against their family at home. In 2018, Lili says, Canadian rejected their claim and ordered their removal. That’s when they became undocumented. Now they can’t access government services like healthcare or social assistance, can’t work legally and live in perpetual fear of being asked for their nonexistent ID.

Until this past winter, she worked nine hours a day as the sole caregiver to a handful of seniors living in a small private residence. “I loved them. They were my second family,” she says.

At the start of her seven-year tenure, her employer paid her $80 a day, in cash. In mid-2019, they raised it to $100 a day, but along with the raise came a mounting list of chores and tasks. The work, says Lili, was never done. By then she was earning below minimum wage, but couldn’t fight for more: her employer had her undocumented status to leverage over her.

She made the hard decision to quit. “I told myself I’d rather be unemployed than exploited.” She says she receives assistance from a local immigrants’ rights organization, Solidarity Across Borders, to pay her modest rent in Montreal.

Lili has mixed feelings about her Canadian experience. It is safer for her here, but it comes at a painful personal cost. “We’ve been thrown away,” she says, speaking about undocumented people. “It’s like we don’t exist, even if we work very hard. No one thinks we’re valuable. It’s true that the ones who work as ‘guardian angels’ are starting to be recognized, but no one acknowledges undocumented people working in seniors’ residences,” she continues. “It really hurts.”

Javier, 38

Asylum seeker, Nicaragua

It was the news reporting on Roxham Road that gave Javier the idea to cross into Canada on foot.

He, along with his wife and son, had left Nicaragua for Florida in the fall of 2019 on an American tourist visa. The internal medicine doctor and his family left their country because of mounting authoritarianism in Nicaragua. Over the next month, they decided they didn’t want to return home. So they flew to Plattsburgh, NY then took a taxi to the border, then crossed at Roxham Road.

Javier has been in Montreal for 10 months now, nearly half of that time in the middle of the pandemic. He spends his days working as a CHSLD orderly for $19.65 an hour. His wife, also a doctor, stays home. They may move to another province, where having their foreign credentials recognized is easier than it is in Quebec. “Even though I’m not exercising my career, I feel good about what I’m doing,” he says.

He also feels more or less welcomed in Montreal, although there have been incidents. “They’re a little bit racist. Because we’re a minority, they treat us like a minority.” Overall, though, “the situation is getting better,” he says. If guardian angels do get special status, he would likely qualify.

“The hope comes more often than it goes.”

Da, 37

Asylum seeker, Haiti

In 2016, Da was living in the United States, working while on a visa, when she was hit by a car. The crash broke both her feet and put her into a coma. It was a pivotal moment for Da, leaving her barely able to walk or stand long enough to do most jobs.

Without work, Da risked losing her visa and being returned to Haiti, so she turned to under-the-table jobs for money: warehouse packer, field worker, waitress. “It was hard to find work, and when I did find it, it was exploitation,” she says.

In her mind, she had two choices. Going back to Haiti—where she’d received death threats for being gay—was not one of them. “If it’s not your family who kills you, it’s other people,” she says. “I didn’t want to hide who I was.” She deliberated between returning to Canada, where she had once lived as a student, and becoming an undocumented person in the U.S. Early in 2017, at the start of the Trump presidency, she decided: she would cross into Canada on foot at the Niagara Falls border and claim asylum.

Today, she lives and spends most of her time alone in the greater Montreal area, away from its sizable Haitian diaspora, fearful of the potential for the same hate that drove her away from home. She’s not able to do much: her work permit only arrived in July, so she hasn’t yet applied to work in a CHSLD. Canada’s complicated rules for going to university means she can’t do that either.

Da misses her girlfriend back in Haiti, who lives a double life as a straight Christian woman. The ennui sometimes gets to her, manifesting in bouts of depression and insomnia. “Living as an asylum seeker is not an easy life. It comes with a lot of waiting, paperwork, a lot of anxiety. We don’t know if they’re going to send us back to our country, and we also know that there’s no life for us back there either,” says Da.

The idea of “guardian angels” getting fast-tracked to permanent residency is unfair too, she says. What about people like her, waiting on work visas? “It can’t be a meritocracy,” she says emphatically. “Everyone deserves status.”

Bénédicte Carole, 35

Asylum seeker, Cameroon

Bénédicte is one of the best-known asylum seekers in Quebec: she was all over the news after contracting COVID-19 after just four days of working as a volunteer cleaner in a LTCC. Making it worse was that she was denied testing by hospital staff who weren’t aware of asylum seekers’ healthcare rights.

That was in May. Her story, however, extends much further back.

Bénédicte has been in Quebec for four years, after fleeing her abusive husband in Cameroon.
She was in a “traditional marriage:” since her husband had paid her family a dowry when marrying her, she was considered his property. The couple had two children. When her husband took a second wife against her wishes, she protested. “I did not have the right to leave. I was forced to support the polygamy,” she says. “Every time I tried to leave, he would find me and beat me in front of the children.”

A business wonder, Bénédicte did have her own resources: she owned a restaurant and a clothing store, and was an exporter of Cameroonian wood, including to Canada. A local man with whom she worked knew her situation and offered her a job working as a temporary foreign worker with his partner in Quebec. She was promised a job and a place to stay, with the subtext that it would give her permanent passage to Canada. Bénédicte eventually took him up on the offer, running away from home and leaving her children behind. (They have since also fled their father’s home, to an undisclosed location.)

Her first two years here were as a temporary foreign worker in rural Quebec. She says it felt like indentured servitude. Bénédicte worked on a poultry farm from morning until evening, often 80, 90 hours a week with no overtime pay. She wasn’t allowed to have a cell phone; instead, she paid $110 a week to use the company phone to speak to her children. The man who’d recruited her often took cash and her bank card from her, spending her money with abandon.

The farm owner, Bénédicte says, called her “my boy” because she worked harder than the men, until she was ragged. “Those of us who come as temporary foreign workers, we become objects with which the boss can do whatever he wants,” she says.

After two years, Bénédicte’s body and mind gave out. She knew if she couldn’t work, she’d be returned to Cameroon, so she escaped and claimed asylum. In Montreal, Bénédicte enrolled in school to become a nursing home orderly. She was working on the final steps toward her diploma when COVID-19 hit.

Under the new agreement, Bénédicte would not be upgraded to “guardian angel” status because she hasn’t yet worked 120 hours as an orderly. But even if she was granted a fast track to permanent residency, she would feel conflicted about it. She believes the government’s asylum-for-healthcare-workers offer conveniently ignores the state’s responsibility toward those working in slaughterhouses and fields.

“These aren’t ‘guardian angels’—but Quebecers still eat every day. When you see the grocery stores full of fruits, vegetables and meat, you have no idea the number of people that made them that way,” Bénédicte says.

Her voice breaks as she explains how unfair it is to rank asylum seekers and undocumented people, separating those who supposedly deserve residency from those who don’t, based on the health risks they were able to take for Canada.

“When we arrive here, we need unity,” Bénédicte says. “We will give everything we have to give, because for the first time we feel loved, and considered, and protected. But when we still face discrimination, it’s like being in a paradise from which we are excluded.”