Asylum seekers on front lines of COVID-19 to have a chance at permanent residency

OTTAWA — Asylum seekers working on the front-lines of the COVID-19 crisis are getting an early chance at permanent residency in Canada.

Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino announced the program Friday in response to public demand that the so-called “Guardian Angels” — many in Quebec — be recognized for their work in the health-care sector during the pandemic.

Federal Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Marco Mendicino announces a program to help asylum seekers who worked in the healthcare system during the COVID-19 pandemic to gain permanent residence status at a news conference in Montreal, Friday, Aug. 14, 2020. RYAN REMIORZ / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Ordinarily, asylum seekers must wait for their claims to be accepted before they can become permanent residents, but the new program waives that requirement.

To apply for residency now, they must have claimed asylum in Canada prior to March 13 and have spent no less than 120 hours working as a orderly, nurse or other designated occupations between the date of their claim and Aug. 14.

They must also demonstrate they have six months of experience in the profession before they can receive permanent residency and have until the end of this month to meet that requirement.

The approach recognizes the extraordinary contribution of asylum claimants, particularly in long-term care centres, Mendicino said in a statement.

“As these individuals face an uncertain future in Canada, the current circumstances merit exceptional measures in recognition of their service during the pandemic,” he said.

The new program was the result of negotiations between the federal government and Quebec, who have had a strained relationship on the question of immigration, and in particular the asylum claimants, in recent years.

Quebec has housed many of the nearly 60,000 people who requested asylum in Canada after crossing on foot into the country from the U.S., the majority using an entry point in Quebec called Roxham Road.

The provincial government had long called for Ottawa to do more to stem the flow of people and also increase financial support to Quebec to deal with the new arrivals and the pressures they were placing on local resources.

But in the height of the COVID-19 crisis, when it emerged that refugee claimants were among those toiling in Quebec’s hard-hit long-term care facilities, public support began to build in favour of granting them special residency status.

Quebec Premier Francois Legault said earlier this year that while he was grateful for their work, he was concerned that exceptional measures could encourage even more people to cross the border.

Quebec’s immigration minister was notably absent from Friday’s announcement.

At the news conference in Montreal, Mendicino said the Quebec government was a positive force in putting together the agreement.

He said efforts were made to allow as many people as possible to apply, and there is still some flexibility in the criteria, especially if people weren’t able to work the required number of hours because they contracted COVID-19 themselves.

Exactly how many people would benefit from the program is unclear. Some reports have suggested at least 1,000 people could qualify.

The irregular border crossers, as they are known, entered Canada at unofficial border points to get around an agreement between Canada and the U.S. that forbids most people from entering the country by land and asking for safe haven.

The Safe Third Country Agreement, however, was struck down by the Federal Court in July, when a judge ruled elements of it violate constitutional rights.

The judgment was suspended for six months to give the government time to find a solution.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 14, 2020.

Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press