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Quebec plan to review status for asylum seekers working in care homes questioned


Quebec Premier Francois Legault's promise to review the status of asylum seekers working in long-term care homes during the COVID-19 pandemic raises more questions than it answers, advocates say.

In a seeming reversal of an earlier stance, Legault said this week that asylum seekers who are working in the health-care system could be eligible for a path to citizenship as immigrants instead of through the federal refugee system.

Legault said Monday he had asked his immigration minister to review the cases "one by one," to see if they qualify as immigrants.

"It's a way of telling them, 'Thank you,'" Legault said.

Advocates estimate hundreds of newcomers are recruited to work in long-term care homes due to an abundance of jobs and a relatively short training period.

Last weekend, a protest was held in front of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Montreal office in order to pressure the Quebec and federal governments to grant residence to those working in essential services during the pandemic, where they often face low pay and exposure to COVID-19.

While Legault's announcement is a seeming victory, advocates say it's too early to celebrate.

Frantz Andre, the spokesman for a group representing people without immigration status, says the feeling among asylum seekers he's spoken to has been "more upset than happy."

He said he's been fielding non-stop calls from asylum seekers, some of whom work in other essential services such as food-processing or security.

"They say, 'Why the (long-term care) workers, why not me?'" Andre said in a phone interview.

He said even those who could be eligible for permanent residence are disappointed to learn that, rather than being approved automatically, they may have to go through another immigration hearing, which many find deeply traumatizing.

"Mr. Legault and Mr. Trudeau ... have an opportunity to say 'Welcome to Canada, let's make it right," he said. 

"And that's not happening right now."

Immigration lawyer Stephane Handfield said there are many questions to answer in the wake of Legault's remarks, including what kind of program will be developed, the wait time for a hearing, and whether the federal government — which has ultimate responsibility for immigration — will be on board.

Nevertheless, he said Legault's announcement was a "step in the right direction."

While the situations are not identical, he said there have been special immigration programs in the past that have allowed groups to obtain permanent status, including those for Haitians after the 2010 earthquake and for Algerians in the 1990s.

"For exceptional circumstances we need to take exceptional measures, and recognition of permanent residence for humanitarian considerations in a case like this would be an appropriate measure in my opinion," Handfield said in a phone interview.

In an email, a spokesperson for Quebec Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette said the government was still evaluating its options.

"The Government of Quebec will have to discuss the various options under study with the federal government, which is responsible for the process of regularizing the status of asylum seekers," Marie-Luce Garant said.

This week's statement was a reversal for Legault, who had previously expressed concerns that offering residency could be seen as an encouragement for others to cross the border irregularly.

On Monday, he said that while he doesn't want to send a message that anyone who finds a job will accepted, there is a desperate need for manpower in long-term care homes.

Janet Dench, the executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, said she believes the change of tone comes as the pandemic has helped dispel misconceptions that asylum seekers are a burden on society.

"Now a few years later, we're finding we desperately need them, and they're helping on the front lines of this crisis, and where would we be without them?" she said.

Dench believes the time is right for the Canadian government to develop a program to allow all asylum seekers a straightforward path to permanent residency — not just Quebec health workers.

Such a program, she said, would have the dual benefits of clearing some of the backlog of pending refugee cases in the system, and of allowing Canada to meet an immigration target it would otherwise likely miss due to COVID-19.

"Rather than focus on bringing in people from overseas, why don't we regularize the people here in Canada?" she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 27, 2020

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press

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