Asylum seekers working on front-lines of COVID-19 pandemic to have early chance at permanent residency

Modesto Morganelli
Agosto 16, 2020

Doll Jean Frejus Nguessan Bi says he couldn't sleep at all last night. "Why are we abandoned?" he said in an interview at a protest camp across the street from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Montreal riding office Saturday.

Nursing homes accounted for more than 80 per cent of coronavirus-related deaths in Canada.

But while Nguessan Bi kept working, he said he found out Friday that he would be excluded from a new government program to fast-track the permanent residency applications of some asylum seekers working on the front lines during the pandemic. "What did we do to deserve this?"

Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino made the announcement Friday in Montreal, nearly three months after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his government was exploring ways to help asylum seekers who work in unsafe front-line health and long-term-care jobs during the pandemic.

Overall, residency will be offered to about 1,000 people who fit the new criteria: they must have claimed asylum before March 13 and have since worked at least 120 hours as an orderly, a nurse or in another designated job.

"They demonstrated a uniquely Canadian quality in that they were looking out for others and so that is why is today is so special", he said.

"And despite the fact that they themselves were very vulnerable, (they) put themselves at a high risk to help others in their community", he said. It denounced the program for failing to include undocumented residents, agricultural workers, global students and refugees working as janitors and in other jobs in long-term-care centres. "But I stayed", said Nguessan Bi.

"It's an act of recognition".

That was echoed by Wilner Cayo, president of Debout pour la dignite, a Montreal group that has pushed for the federal government to grant permanent status to all asylum seekers working on the front lines.

Anite Presume, a Haitian asylum seeker who came to Quebec in August 2017 from the United States, was among the protesters.

"To take the bus, we were all stressed, but we still went to work because it was essential".

Mendicino said the government is still reviewing the ruling.

As it stands, the offer is for people who claimed asylum before March 13 of this year, were issued a work permit, and worked at least 120 hours between March 13 and August 14 in a "designated occupation".

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 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. On Friday, the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers said it "applauds" the government for recognizing the "incredible task these workers have undertaken" to care for Canadians during the pandemic. "To thank them, we'll accept them as immigrants".

Public support has been building for asylum seekers' demand for permanent residency after it was revealed that refugee claimants were among those toiling in Quebec's long-term care facilities, which were hard-hit by COVID-19.

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