Asylum seekers on COVID front lines should get visas, advocates say

Refugee claimants, many of them Haitian, have been bearing some of the brunt of Montreal’s COVID-19 battle, and some of their community leaders want to see that sacrifice recognized with a visa.

Hundreds of asylum seekers, most of whom crossed into Quebec through Roxham Road in recent years, got jobs as orderlies while they waited for their refugee claims to be settled.

This meant they ended up at the front lines of the pandemic, caring for elderly patients at the long-term care homes that have been hit extremely hard by the virus.

Now some who work with them are asking Canadian authorities to thank these workers with a more reliable path to citizenship, essentially allowing them to switch from the uncertain refugee claims process to an immigration process.

“They could live here as an immigrant, and after three years or four years they could apply as to be a citizen,” said Marjorie Villefranche, the director of the Maison d’Haiti community centre in Saint-Michel.

The Maison d’Haiti single-handedly resettled 5,000 of the 27,000 asylum-seekers who arrived in Montreal in the last three years. Many of them got apartments in the surrounding neighbourhood, and jobs in the health system, helping explain the sky-high rates of COVID infection in Saint-Michel right now.

Many in their own community are infected and some have died.

“When COVID is over, you’re having to tell them, go back to your countries?” said Villefranche. “It would be a shame.”

A coalition of community groups have now written a letter to Quebec Premier François Legault and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, asking that asylum seekers who are essential workers in the pandemic receive a visa.

“They came here with a dream, and they’re… trying to do their best to be contributing to the economy, and culturally,” said Frantz Andre, who works with the Comité d'action des personnes sans statut.

“They’re proven that they’re equally citizens. They’ve earned [the right] to become citizens.”

Many of the Haitian refugee claimants in Montreal are under immense pressure, he said, trying to provide for families living with them as well as family back home in Haiti, which most of them fled after the disastrous 2010 earthquake.

In Canada, the wait to get a refugee hearing can take years. In the meantime, refugee claimants receive a work permit and can access public services. Like citizens, if they are working they pay taxes at the regular rates.

Many of the Haitian asylum seekers have had their refugee claims rejected and, before the COVID pandemic hit, were in the process of applying to stay on humanitarian grounds, a process that is far from guaranteed.

The idea of an exceptional program to grant these workers visas is not unheard of, said immigration lawyer David Chalk. About 20 years ago, a special program was created for Algerians fleeing their country’s civil war to get permanent residency in Canada.

In a statement, the federal government said they continue to “open their doors” to newcomers and that legitimate refugees will get a “full and fair hearing.”

One orderly and asylum claimant, a young woman who spoke to CTV, said she already knows what she’ll do if granted permanent residency: she’ll become a nurse.

“I love Canada. I have a child who was born in Canada,” she said. “I’m working really hard right now.”

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