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Irregular Migration | Canada |

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Irregular Migration

Jennifer Elrick

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Unlike in the neighboring United States, mass irregular migration has not been a prominent issue in political or public discourse in Canada. This is due mainly to the country’s relative geographical isolation from all other countries except the United States, which is itself the more established destination for irregular migrants from Mexico and South America.

Sculpture in Montréal. (© picture alliance / All Canada Photos)

Irregular migration in the Canadian context is most often depicted as something that occurs when individuals attempt to defraud the immigration system by misrepresenting themselves as asylum seekers or family-reunification immigrations, or by overstaying temporary residence or visitor permits. According to Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC), 10,663 Canadian citizens, permanent residents, and third parties were implicated in residence fraud investigations in 2012. CIC has made combating one form of residence fraud in particular, so-called "marriages of convenience", a policy priority in recent years, and made it the subject of a special public consultation in fall 2010. The term "marriage of convenience", also called "marriage fraud", denotes a situation in which either a couple pretends to be in a relationship so that the sponsored person can immigrate to Canada or the person being sponsored tricks their sponsor into believing they are in a genuine relationship in order to gain entry to the country. CIC estimated that a substantial number of the 20 percent of applications for partner and spousal reunification that were rejected by visa offices abroad (out of 49,500 applications received) in 2009 involved attempts at marriage fraud. Despite this apparently high rate of detection, in October 2012, CIC introduced conditional permanent resident status for common-law or conjugal partners admitted to Canada under family reunification provisions if they have been in a relationship of two years or less and have no children. Immigrant partners in such relationships can now have their permanent residence status revoked if they fail to remain in the relationship for two years after arrival in Canada. While there are exceptions for cases involving domestic violence, NGOs have expressed concern about the way in which the provisions increase the vulnerability of sponsored immigrant partners and spouses.

"Precarious status"

Canadian migration scholars have started to reframe the terms of debate about irregular migration by introducing the term "precarious status". Instead of seeing irregular status as something that one does or does not have, and as something that is entered into willfully by individual migrants, the notion of "precarious status" emphasizes the way in which the immigration system – with its rapidly expanding and changing paths to permanent and temporary legal status – places individuals in uncertain positions in which they can cross from legality into irregular status unintentionally. For example, entry streams for sponsored family members, Live-In Caregivers, and Temporary Foreign Workers make immigrants dependent on family and employer relationships, which may break down and put the immigrant in an irregular status unwittingly.

Total Entries of Permanent Residents, Stock and Entries of Temporary Residents (© bpb)

Paths to precarious status are built into policies that affect a large and growing number of people. As the Figure shows, there has been a steady increase in the number of temporary residents in the country (‘stocks’) relative to entries of temporary residents (‘flows’), suggesting that more and more temporary residents are staying rather than leaving. If this continues there is considerable potential for an increase in Canada’s non-status population. Most concerning for observers of this trend is that temporary migrants are increasingly low-skilled and are generally ineligible for settlement services while they are legally in the country. This means that any future undocumented population would likely be comprised of individuals who do not have the training or resources to re-orient themselves in Canadian society. If half of the almost 200,000 temporary migrants each year were low-skilled, and if over half of them overstayed their visas, the low-skilled non-status population would increase by almost 50,000 persons per year, which is comparable to the number of undocumented migrants arriving in the United States from Mexico on a yearly basis.

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Jennifer Elrick is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Toronto. Her research focuses on family-related immigration policies in Canada and Germany since 1945. E-Mail Link: