September 15, 2014

Commentary | November 3, 2009
Racist immigration policy must change
Written by The Editorial Board

Canada’s restrictive immigration policy is racist and must be changed
to respect the human rights of immigrants.

Racism amounts to not recognizing the equal humanity of people who don’t belong to your race, nationality, or ethnic group. This racism can be overt and it can be systemic. The racist attitude, for instance, that someone deserves less out of life because they happen to have been born in a poor country, underpins too many immigration-related decisions in the United States, Canada, and much of Western Europe.

The right to vote and many other basic rights are tied to citizenship – a status difficult to attain for members of racialized, foreign-born groups and denied to those participating in temporary-work programs like Canadian Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (CSAWP). These migrant workers pay into the social-welfare system, and yet remain unable to access health care services or benefit from the labour standards that protect Canadian citizens. This racist attitude is based on the tacit assumption that, because migrant workers come from countries facing economic and political crises, it is acceptable for them, having arrived in our country, to live in precarious or deplorable conditions where their basic rights are compromised.

This idea is morally unjustifiable if we accept, as liberal democratic societies like ours claim to, that human rights are inherent and human dignity, inviolable.

When Lester B. Pearson introduced the “objective” point system for immigration in 1967 in order to eliminate racial criteria from the process of awarding citizenship status, he emphasized that potential citizens had to be “economically viable.”

Historical incidences of colonial domination, be they military, economic, or cultural, have determined which countries today are rich and poor. The economic viability provision has allowed for the preservation of racial criteria in the immigration system under a new guise: racial criteria coded to seem economic.

These incidences of domination continue to shape the relationship between emigrant-sending and immigrant-receiving countries: it’s no accident that once-colonized countries have weak economies today. The economic status of the countries in the Global South is the result of centuries of colonial violence and exploitation that continue today. Yet immigration debates and policy-creation in North America and much of Western Europe function on a kind of historical amnesia.

Further, Canada paints itself as humanitarian and benevolent for accepting immigrants. The expansion of temporary work programs, however, makes it clear that they’re acting purely out of their own economic interests, rather than out of a sense of benevolence.

For example, the Live-in Caregiver Program (LCP) is a way for Canada to buttress its healthcare system at little obligation or cost. The chasm between hours paid and actual hours worked is stunning. If we calculate based on minimum wage alone, employers using the LCP, who get 24-hour child care and housework, should be paying $6,000 a month. In reality, the women in the program are being paid $1,200 a month – $961 if we subtract room and board costs. (Figures for room and board and wages can be found in Scrap the LCP: The struggle for Filipino women’s liberation in Canada.) The only way this could be unrecognized as clear exploitation are these prevalent racist attitudes – that these workers deserve less because of the countries they come from. They should be so happy as to work in our country, some might say. But human dignity should not be tied to one’s state of origin – it is inherent and inviolable.

In the current system, immigrants are seen as means rather than ends: they are cultural and economic assets, to be celebrated by grandiloquent praise of multiculturalism when times are good and jettisoned and subjected to mass deportations in times of uncertainty. Deportations have increased 50 per cent in the last 10 years.

As individuals, we can combat this by recognizing when other people’s humanity is being violated based on arbitrary criteria like race and country of origin – practices that we tacitly accept and that are normalized in immigration discourse, though they contradict the ideals Canada stands for.

We can also combat these policies by making some noise. Support groups like No One Is Illegal; support organizations rooted in ethnic communities by going to their events, paying attention to their activities, bringing their issues into the mainstream, and opposing the implication that these are somehow “obscure” problems, “just” one group’s issues. We need to be constantly aware of how global power imbalances play out everyday at home. The obstacles blocking full integration into society, politics, and the workforce must be lifted.

Related Articles