Thank you, Chair, and thank you to the committee for the opportunity to appear before you today.
I am joining you from Toronto, the traditional territory of many nations, including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishinabe, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee, and the Wendat peoples. It's now home to many diverse first nations, Inuit and Métis peoples.
I will speak to you about three priorities that must be considered by the government in its COVID response: regularization of immigration status, access to benefits and supports for all, and immigration selection.
First is regularization of immigration status, and I know that you heard from Mr. Hassan before me.
Canada has a large and growing population with precarious immigration status living and working here. That includes refused refugee claimants from Haiti working in long-term care and other essential services in the greater Montreal area, and undocumented people working in the food supply chain, in personal care work, cleaning and more. They pay taxes and fees, and some even pay personal income tax, but they cannot access government benefits or programs.
Because of their precarious immigration status, undocumented workers are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Given the nature of our temporary worker programs, the majority of such workers are racialized. In these COVID times, many are working in unsafe conditions, feeling they cannot say or do anything for fear they would lose their jobs. Clearly, they're needed because employers continue to employ them, and most likely also pay them lower wages.
Undocumented women are among those most vulnerable to exploitation, including domestic and intimate-partner violence. These women are also predominantly racialized.
We think these unprecedented times present Canada with an opportunity to seriously consider a broad immigration status regularization program to allow people with precarious immigration status to gain permanent residence. Canada already has at least two pilot programs of this kind: one in the GTA that is focused on workers in the construction sector, and another more recent program for certain agricultural workers.
While there are only estimates of how many people are here with precarious immigration status, we know those numbers have grown over time, particularly when there are changes to various immigration programs and people have fallen through the gaps. A number of such residents have been living and working in Canada, sometimes for many years. They are already established. They have networks and likely even family members who may be permanent residents or Canadian citizens.
There are families with mixed citizenship, and Canadian children with undocumented parents. This is not unusual in Canada. These Canadian children are often denied benefits.
Refugee claimants, migrant workers, international students and people who are undocumented or have otherwise precarious status present a good pool of candidates to draw from to meet the immigration targets already set by government, which we know we will not meet this year and most likely will not meet next year either because of the pandemic.
People with less than full residency status or citizenship are members of our communities and contribute to our economy. We gain far more from their presence here than they get back. Let's do the right thing, and let them gain full permanent resident status.
The other issue, which is related, is access to benefits for everyone. Building on my earlier point, people with precarious immigration status pay taxes and fees, and some even pay personal income tax, but they cannot access government benefits or programs. Research shows that they put far more into our economy than they use in publicly funded services.
During the COVID crisis, many have lost their jobs in the informal economy, and thus their incomes. They have no financial support or access to any benefits. Recently, OCASI, my organization, collaborated with some of our member agencies and others across the province, Toronto and southern Ontario in particular. Working with two private foundations, we were able to secure some dollars to provide some support to those without any income. It wasn't a lot of money, so you can imagine it went very quickly.
Agencies have also privately fundraised to address the urgent need they are seeing for financial support and basic resources, but these efforts are small and highly localized. They don't reach all those who need help, and of course, they're not sufficient.
We appreciate the fact that the government has given a boost to the Canada child benefit. This is welcome for many low-income families with minor children, but it is a benefit that is not available to people with precarious immigration status, even if they have Canadian-born children, as I mentioned earlier.
We also welcome the one-time top-up to the old age security and guaranteed income supplement. These benefits, however, are not available to permanent residents who have lived here for less than 10 years, even if they have lived and worked here for, say, nine and a half years. At this time, when even their own family members may have suffered a loss of income, there may be literally no one they can rely on for income support.
These are very difficult times for so many residents, but especially for people with precarious immigration status. I urge you to call for an extension of government benefits and programs to all residents, regardless of immigration status, until we can weather this crisis. Government can do this by issuing a temporary social insurance number that people can use to apply. We will come out stronger as a society and be in a better place to start rebuilding the economy, working safely and together.
My final point is to urge you to open up economic immigration selection. If there is one thing we have learned during this pandemic, it is how much of what we consider essential work is unseen. We notice it only when it is missing, when there is no food on our tables, when there is no one taking care of elderly Canadians in long-term care homes—cooking for them and cleaning up after them—when there is no one to package and deliver the food, medicine, toilet paper and other essential supplies that we need.
However, these are not the jobs in our immigration selection program, which is skewed to highly skilled workers and highly educated students in certain sectors. Don't get me wrong. Yes, we need those people with those skills. We also need those who grow and harvest our food; work in our meat and fish plants; build our homes; work as caregivers, cleaners and general labourers; and work in our call centres. Let us learn from the experience and open up immigration selection to match the reality of what we are seeing on the ground in labour markets across Canada.
In the interim, we should start giving people who are already here an opportunity to become permanent residents if that is what they're interested in doing. Some may not be interested. They may prefer to return to their home countries, but there are many others who want to stay and have already started taking the steps towards that by working and building a life here.
Mr. Chair, in the time that I have left, I want to acknowledge the positive work relationship that has been happening in the sector in collaboration with the federal government. This, I believe, underlines the importance of consistent relationship building and joint work, as happens through our sector's national settlement and integration council, NSIC.
As you know, OCASI, my organization, is the umbrella for over 230 agencies across Ontario that provide services and programs to newcomers to Canada. The sector—and I know I can speak for my sister umbrella organizations across the country—was relieved and encouraged that the federal government declared it an essential service. We have two primary reasons for absolutely seeing this as good policy. The primary role of immigrant and refugee-serving agencies is to support newcomers in the process of building a new life in Canada.