Status, Survival, and Solidarity - Non-Status people and the politics of precarity

(From June 18-25, Solidarity Across Borders, a coalition of refugees,
migrants, and their supporters, will be marching from Montreal to Ottawa
to make demands for regularization on Immigration Canada.  The following
article seeks to explore and outline the analysis and politics behind this

Status, Survival, and Solidarity
Non-Status people and the politics of precarity

by Aaron Lakoff and Seth Porcello

Just a few weeks ago, Manuel, a 19-year old refugee, sat alone in a jail
cell in a detention center in Laval, just north of Montreal.  Frightened
and tired, he awaited his deportation back to Mexico.  It was one of those
freakish situations where one might rack their brain to determine what the
hell they did wrong.  In Manuel's case, it was very simple - he was a
refugee without status who chose to defy a deportation order.
        Days before, Manuel had been casually waiting at a metro station
in Montreal.  He was picked up by police who were on the lookout
for another young Latino male.  In the eyes of these cops, Manuel
was just another brown-skinned guy loitering in the metro -
already guilty.  After running his identity through the system, it
was ascertained that Immigration Canada had an arrest warrant out
for him, and a subsequent deportation order.  Manuel's parents and
seven siblings all live in Montreal.  But to say they 'live' here
is to use that word loosely, for they live clandestinely, part of
an endless pool of people forced underground because their number
has come up with "la migra".
        Manuel's case is more than just a tragic story of a young life
ruined by a deportation - Manuel represents the crisis that
non-status people face in Canada.  Every day is a gamble.  Every
day is a risk.  And if you survive, you go to sleep and go through
it all again.  This is the precarity that up to 400,000 non-status
people in Canada are facing, and it has to end.
        But for those unable to raise their heads above water for fear of
Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC), the tides could be
changing.  In Montreal, Solidarity Across Borders (SAB), a network
of various immigrant and refugee groups has emerged, and aims to
make this crisis public.  For seven days this summer, from June
18-25th, groups and individuals within SAB will be walking from
Montreal to Ottawa.  The walk is a big deal, and the demands are
bigger: an end to detentions, an end to deportations, the
abolition of security certificates, and a comprehensive status
program for all.  It will be a long march, but for all the
combined years that refugees spend living in the dark in Canada,
it is but a drop in infinity.

United in Struggle

Since its creation in 2003, Solidarity Across Borders has provided a
network of mutual aid and support, where refugee communities who are under
the threat of deportations no longer have to fight in isolation.  United
by their will to fight for the coalition’s main demands, the communities
and individuals that make up the SAB network stand together against a
common obstacle: Citizenship and Immigration Canada.
     SAB also represents a natural evolution in the course that
self-organized refugee mobilizations were taking prior to its
conception.  This evolution is parallel to an uphill battle that
these groups have been facing in the last three years.
     One might say that CIC really upped the ante in the summer of 2002
when then-Minister of Immigration, Dennis Coderre, lifted a
moratorium on deportations to Algeria.  Suddenly, thousands of
Algerians in Canada, most of them in Montreal, found themselves left
hanging, vulnerable to being sent back to a country where a bloody
civil war has claimed thousands of lives in recent years.  The Action
Committee of Non-Status Algerians (CASS in French) came together in
face of this danger. The group was mainly created by directly
affected Algerian refugees themselves.  After numerous pickets,
demonstrations, airport visits, immigration office sit-ins, and a
family taking sanctuary in a church to avoid deportation, Algerians
in Canada finally won a set of special procedures to obtain status.
    Palestinian refugee communities across Canada found themselves in a
similar position.  Many of them were living here as stateless
refugees, but were still being deported back to miserable refugee
camps and military occupation.  Although a significant campaign came
together to challenge these removals, it lost some steam after a few
of the campaign's main organizers were deported.
    But if the Algerian campaign proves anything, it's that there is
power in numbers.  So when some of the organizers from the
Palestinian campaign approached members of the Algerian campaign in
2003 to join up in a common struggle, Solidarity Across Borders was
    "Solidarity Across Borders is the breath of all of those people who
are being discriminated against on a regular basis, every day.  There
is nothing in this world like living illegally... Nothing," says Amir
Hodod, an Egyptian refugee and member of the Solidarity Across
Borders coalition.

Martyrs for the cause

    For non-status people, organizing in a group like SAB can be a
tremendous risk.  Among those who suffer the abuse and precarity of
our racist immigration process, the sacrifice of refugee community
organizers must be recognized.  Time and time again these organizers
have been deported in what can only be described as the most blatant
and cowardly attempts to break refugee rights movements.  This
targeting of immigrant activists must be recognized because it speaks
directly to how immigrants and refugees are viewed by policy makers
and enforcers.
    This view is one of a benevolent Canada, graciously admitting
foreigners who would otherwise suffer the misery and poverty of
whichever country they came from.  This view sees granting status,
however temporary, in Canada as some kind of sacrifice made on behalf
of humanity. It is this view that consistently dominates Canadian
immigration policy, as well as the language used to debate it.  The
idea that the country's economy and the economy of every other
western country would collapse in the absence of immigrants is not a
part of this discourse.  Nor is the ever increasing absurdity of the
differences seen between a citizen and an immigrant.  The fact is
that when immigrants and refugees speak out on the abuse and
criminality of their conditions in our country they are labeled as
troublemakers, agitators, and perhaps even ungrateful.
   The results of these predominating ideas are not hard to see.  Wendy
Maxwell was arrested at the International Women’s Day rally in Toronto
and deported back to Costa Rica.  She was selling cookies for CKLN, a
radio station where she volunteered to broadcast the voices of people
like her.  Shamim Akhtar was deported from Canada to the USA in the
summer of 2004 along with her family.  Shamim was the direct
inspiration for the No One Is Illegal March On Ottawa.  A third
particularly striking case is that of Mohamed Cherfi who was refused
status in 2004 because he was not adequately "integrated" into Quebec
society.  Mohamed lived in Quebec for six years and spoke French, but
perhaps more importantly, had been a tireless activist and articulate
spokesperson for the Action Committee for Non-Status Algerians.  His
work and the work of many others including organizations like No One
Is Illegal (Montreal) resulted in a regularization program for
non-status Algerians.  Around 900 people were given status through
this program.  Of these 900 people, Mohamed Cherfi was not one.  His
exclusion from this program commemorates Canada’s longstanding history
of political deportations, a history that goes all the way back to the
Immigration Act of 1910 which established "political offenses" as
grounds for deportation (Section 41).  Interestingly, Mohamed Cherfi
was granted refugee status on June 1, 2005 in the United States.  Why
the government of the United States would feel Mr. Cherfi had
legitimate grounds for a refugee claim when the Canadian government
had decided he did not is hardly a mystery.  It was a political
deportation.  His refugee claim was not the issue.  In an arbitrary
and abusive process, variation and abuse must be expected and
    To return to the issue of how immigrants are viewed by policy makers,
it is clear from the cases above that immigrants aren't supposed to
organize their communities, they are not supposed to advocate
publicly for their rights or the rights of others, and they are most
definitely not supposed to win regularization programs. Immigrants
are supposed to be too busy working and enjoying the ambiance of
first world capitalism to do these things.  The fact that this
version of the story utterly fails to reflect reality is no surprise.
As usual it reflects policy makers' views that immigrants are no more
than the elastic and expendable labor force Canada needs to maintain
its fluctuating economy at peak productivity.  Humanizing that labor
force creates problems. It would make that labor force inelastic.
For one, the homicidal hiring and firing of workers doing the worst
jobs in the most heavily exploitive environments might be a real
burden to the economy if these workers then were able to access the
health care and welfare services that they need as a result.  But the
refugees and immigrants who predominantly work these jobs are often
in precarious positions with respect to the state and cannot access
these services for fear of detention and/or deportation. Without
access to these safety nets life becomes one of struggle, not for
success, but for survival in a potentially endless cycle of
exploitation.  This is the reality that refugees and immigrants face.
    Amir Hodod is a clear-cut example of a refugee who has become a
survivor of the market.  Hodod holds a masters degree in philosophy
from Egypt, and since living in North America, he has been shuffled
around from jobs such as a grocery store clerk, restaurant kitchen
staff, and fast food runner.
    "Being non-status means that you are starting from the beginning.
And you have to also accept the tiny chances which are given to you
by the market needs of society - to work in a specific kind of job,"
explains Hodod.  "The real chances for refugees are that they have to
do specific kinds of jobs, and they are threatened all the time that
if they don't accept these jobs, which can be very difficult, they
are expelled from the country."`

Thinking beyond 9-11

    Citizenship and Immigration Canada would like Canadians to believe
that all immigration policy dates back to September 11, 2001, and
that policy changes since then are relevant only in light of the new
terrorist threat.  This idea and its all-too-convenient implications
must be rejected.  In reality, the policies which are being
implemented today are often the same policies that have been
implemented in the past. They have simply been rewritten, revised and
resurrected.  The fact that they are being marketed as reforms for
new and troubled times is a reason for a good look through a history
        For example, we find that the Safe Third Country Agreement (2002)
now eerily resembles the Continuous Journey Rule (1908).  The
Continuous Journey Rule prohibited the landing of any immigrant
not arriving directly from their country of origin.  At the time
this rule was created, steamships from India and Japan made a stop
in Hawaii, thus preventing those on board from immigrating to
Canada under the Continuous Journey Rule.  A steam line owned by a
Canadian corporation made the only direct voyage from India to
Canada, and was quickly enticed to cancel this service following
the establishment of the rule.  Rewritten, revised, and
resurrected we now have the Safe Third Country Agreement signed on
December 5, 2002.  This agreement prevents any refugee from making
a claim in Canada if they have visited a "safe third country"
prior to entry into Canada.  So for example, a refugee cannot
apply for status in Canada if he/she has ever set foot on U.S.
soil (a "safe" third country).
    Estimates predict this measure will reduce the number of refugee
claimants by 40%. We can reasonably assume immigration officials, who
yearn for the days of 1908 when stamping out immigration of
"undesirables" was straightforward, are hoping this estimate is low.
Another shining example is the Head Tax imposed on Chinese immigrants
with the establishment of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882.  Now we call
it the Right of Landing Fee (ROLF).  In 1882 the purpose of this tax (50$
per Chinese head) was to limit the number of Chinese immigrants, and
profit from those who were not excluded.  As the desire of Canadian
officials to exclude Chinese immigrants increased, so did the head tax
until it reached 500$ in 1903 (equivalent to two years wages as a Chinese
laborer).  If there was ever any doubt as to the intent of this tax, it
was erased with the introduction of the 1923 Chinese Immigration Act,
which decreed an outright ban on Chinese immigration.  July 1 is now
known to many Chinese-Canadians as Humiliation Day in recognition of this
racist history.  Although no longer legislated along racial lines, we
find immigration officials playing the same game in 1995, charging every
immigrant and refugee arriving in the country a flat fee of $975.  These
expenses come on top of normal processing fees of $500 per adult and $100
per child.
    The Canadian Council of Refugees released a report in February of
1997 studying the ROLF in which they assert that the fees are
"discriminatory, exclusionary, and racist because of the vast
variance in country and individual income around the world."  It is
also important to point out the very special hypocrisy of the
Canadian government which claims to accept refugees based on their
need for protection from persecution, and then limits the extent of
this protection to those who can pay the fees.  The United Nations
High Commissioner for Refugees has pointed out that no other country
in the world imposes such a fee on refugees.
    The need to ground our present understanding of immigration policy in
a historical context is not simply a need to call a spade a spade,
but more importantly a need to trace a firm and distinct line from
the origins of racist discriminatory policy to the fruits they have
born in the present day.  It is time to reexamine the hard lessons of
history that we haven’t learnt.

Welcome to Canada – You are now entering a police state

     As the previously illustrated case of Manuel suggests, the issue of
policing is also of great concern to non-status people living in
Canada.  In Canada's war on terrorism, which often plays out as a
war against (im)migrants, some of the most draconian legislation
this country has ever seen has been laid out to facilitate
detentions and deportations.  The police have been given additional
powers, and often collaborate with Immigration Canada to nab wanted
     One stark example took place on August 14th, 2003 in Toronto.  This
is a date that will stay forever in the memories of many Pakistanis
in Canada.  That morning, twenty-four men of South-Asian origin were
picked up in pre-dawn raids by the RCMP.  This was part of an RCMP
investigation dubbed "Project Thread".  The men were immediately
detained in a maximum security prison on the grounds that they were
a threat to "national security".  Even though all allegations of
terrorism against the detainees were dropped within two weeks of the
arrests, the detainees spent two to five months locked up before
many of them were eventually deported.  The RCMP, acting with the
blessing of Immigration Canada, knew very little about these men
except that they were Muslims, and that many from the same province
of Pakistan and were studying at the Ottawa School of Business in
Toronto.  One of them had enrolled in flight lessons.  This is
reason enough for the RCMP to sound the alarm bells and get out
their guns.
     Also of great concern to non-status folks in Canada are the now
infamous security certificates.   A measure of the Immigration and
Refugee Protection Act, Security Certificates allow the government
to detain non-citizens without charge, under secret evidence, for
years.  While the security certificate has been in existence since
1991, they have been used more fequently to oppress (im)migrant
communities in the post 9/11 context.  Since September 11th, 2001,
five of the six victims of security certificates in Canada were men
of Muslim or Arab origin.  Some of them are facing deportations back
to countries where they will most likely be tortured, or even
    Police and state repression now go hand in hand with Canada's border
policy.  It is necessary to resist this repression if the movement
for regularization is going to make any headway.
    In Toronto, the group No One Is Illegal has spearheaded a campaign
called "Don't' Ask, Don't Tell".  DADT is advocating a program where
municipal workers, including the police, would be barred from sharing
information about a person's immigration status with CIC.  If this
program were in place, not only would it eliminate the fear of double
punishment for non-status people (i.e serving their sentence for any
crime, and then being deported), but it would mean that people
without status would be able to access essential services such as
health and education without fear of legal repercussions.  When Ahmed
Nafaa, a Palestinian refugee living underground in Montreal, was
deported in late-November, 2004, he had been caught the night before
hopping a turnstile in the metro.  A deportation is a heavy sentence.
There will be no justice for non-status people here until the police
stop breathing down their necks.

A March for survival

     As hundreds of people prepare to march from Montreal to Ottawa, they
will not only be staring down endless stretches of highways, they
will also be staring down the ugly, metaphorical wall that is
Canada's border.  For non-status people in Canada, the border is an
ever-present force – one that always looms in the collective
consciousness of an underground people. The question of
regularization is more than just a question of throwing open the
nation's borders it is an issue of human rights.  SAB is in a good
position to push forth its large demands as the group arrives on
Parliament Hill on June 25th.  And while Immigration Minister Joe
Volpe is hinting at implementing some sort of regularization program,
it will most likely be highly restrictive and inaccessible.  SAB is
advocating a full regularization program which addresses the inherent
dignity of all people, and demands real justice now.  Many of these
rights are being denied in Canada.  In this sense, the march to
Ottawa is a march for survival.
     Many organizers in Solidarity Across Borders describe the march to
Ottawa is an important step in taking back time – time that has been
stolen.  For every cop that has thrown someone in detention, for
every boss that has exploited an undocumented worker, and for every
bureaucrat politician that has refused to listen to the cries for
justice of whole communities, Solidarity Across Borders is fighting

(Aaron Lakoff and Seth Porcello are both independent journalists with CKUT
community radio – 90.3FM - in Montreal.  When they are not writing, they
are fighting for a world without borders, bosses, or deadlines.)

--For more info on the march, go to