Fighting Borders: A Roundtable on Non-Status (Im)migrant Justice in Canada

In June of 2005, Montreal’s Solidarity Across Borders (a broad coalition comprised of refugees, non-status immigrants, and their supporters) organized a walk from Montreal to Ottawa to push for four key demands: an end to all deportations, an end to the detentions of immigrants and refugees, an end to security certificates1, and the full and accessible regularization of all non-status immigrants.2 The walk was the culmination of years of organizing by such groups as No One Is Illegal (NOII) in Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, Winnipeg and Kingston, Solidarity Across Borders (SAB) in Montreal, and the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty.

Macdonald Scott spoke with three organizers from across Canada about the future of the refugee rights movement: Sarita Ahooja from Montreal (No One Is Illegal, Solidarity Across Borders); Sima Zerehi from Toronto (No One Is Illegal, The New Socialist Group); and Harsha Walia from Vancouver (No One Is Illegal).

What opportunities face the “Four Demands Movement” following the Solidarity Across Borders walk?

Sarita: Our analysis and demands are being co-opted by the liberal left. Political parties (NDP, Bloc Quebecois) and unions symbolically support us, but it largely stems from their own self interest. The SAB march created a buzz among migrant communities, from which the activist scene is too often estranged. I was surprised to hear many people talk about the march even if they weren’t planning to attend it. They felt vindicated knowing that others were fighting; hearing about resistance builds hope, and hope generates possibilities.

Sima: After all of the work that NOII, SAB (and even trade unions and the NGO community) have done to shine light on issues faced by non-status communities, a broader understanding of the term “non-status” has come into circulation. There is also a broader awareness of the barriers that non-status people face when trying to access services, and of the steps that are necessary to gain permanent residency or visa holder status. Some of the municipal work around Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in Toronto is also proving to be helpful, as it disseminates information about non-status immigrants and their role in the workforce.3 The increase in knowledge about immigration has made room for dialogue, mobilization, and joint campaigns to challenge the barriers that Immigration Canada creates for migrant labourers.

NOII is currently seeking to get rid of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. “Humanitarian” applications (one of the few applications for permanent residency available to non-status people) are problematic in that only 5% of them are successful. The failure of the refugee determination system is also clear in that the success rate of refugee claims has dropped steadily for the last four years. The Live-in Caregiver Program, and the farm workers program, allows for employer dependent visas, which bring in a racialized labour force.

What Challenges Face the Four Demands Movement Right Now?

Harsha: The main difficulty is trying to build a comprehensive movement while dealing with a system designed to divide people. Deconstructing the “model minority” criterion that stipulates that only some immigrants deserve status is especially difficult since some victories reinforce it. For example, deportations are often stopped when the person being threatened with removal is married to a Canadian citizen. These cases often win more support, but ultimately reinforce the idea that some immigrants deserve status more than others. This makes more marginalized cases harder to win; permanent residents and visa holders can currently be removed or not allowed into Canada if they have a criminal record, and it is impossible for someone who receives social assistance to become a permanent resident. We seek regularization for all, regardless of so-called criminality or employment status.

Sima: There is the ongoing challenge of dealing with racist, classist, sexist, and heterosexist discourse. The labeling of non-status people as “illegal,” for example, makes their status one of criminality. The racist belief that non-status people con their way into the system and take advantage of Canadian services is also widely circulated. These ideas are propagated by the corporate media, which makes our work harder, and sometimes they even seep into our own discourse as lobby campaigns sometimes differentiate between “good” and “bad” non-status people based on who is employed (in what are considered to be) essential work areas.

Education can be a two edged sword, especially when it comes from the mainstream media. A perspective is sometimes developed around the utility of non-status people as a source of cheap and exploitable labour. Reforms create programmes and measures that, rather than challenge the root of bureaucratic repression, are merely band-aid solutions that maintain an easily exploitable source of labour.

Sarita: Government authorities (political representatives, bureaucratic administration, and policing forces) are invested in maintaining the status quo, and continually improve their resources and methods in order to do so. At times, they will bow to popular pressure and allow for some people to gain access to their rights, but these “victories” are delivered on their terms. One person may get out of detention, but many more are detained and/or deported. Someone may win access to new or more legal avenues, but these services are often so costly that they are prohibitive. Ultimately, refugees are denied the right to remain in Canada.

Moreover, economic difficulties currently being faced by an increasing number of Canadian and First Nations people make the scapegoating of migrants even easier. Public opinion is galvanized against the migrant “criminal profiteer” who takes advantage of Canada’s “good” system.

Another challenge stems from the fact that the majority of migrants do not want to rock the boat. Even if they choose to politicize their cases, many prefer to respect the terms set out by the system. This clearly determines the direction in which the movement can grow, since refugees often become dependent on institutional agencies such as NGOs, lobby groups, and religious establishments. One of the biggest challenges has been the building of solidarity between migrants and indigenous people. Most migrants have no idea that indigenous people are similarly confronting the legitimacy of the Canadian state on their territories, and few indigenous people have exposure to the reality of displacement that is faced by refugees.

Montreal has been able to do a lot of solidarity-building between migrants and indigenous people. In 2003, members of CASS (The Algerian Non Status Committee in Montreal) participated in delegation visits to ministry offices with members of NOII Montreal and the Native Youth Movement-Eastern Society. Members of the Mohawk Nation have participated in NOII and self-organized refugee demonstrations on several occasions. Every major NOII demonstration in Montreal has opened with an indigenous speaker in order to root the struggle in the fight against colonialism. During the spring of 2004, refugees made several visits to Kanehsatake and Kahanwake with the Indigenous Peoples Solidarity Movement, and exchanged perspectives on how to build stronger links and direct solidarity. It was the first time that these refugees were in these communities, and they realized that, as settlers, they were implicated in the project of colonialism.

During the NOII Walk on Ottawa, the marchers spent the night in Kanehsatake. Members of the community came out to welcome us, and informed everyone of their struggle. Our departure from Kanehsatake the next morning was marked by a speech from militants who emphasized that our fight is one with theirs, and who thanked us for our support. They handed a Warrior and Mohawk Nation flag to one of the refugees from Mexico (who is a mother of two with indigenous background from Oaxaca), and requested her to carry the flags and their demands to Ottawa in the spirit of freedom and justice for all.

How does casework (one on one work with non-status individuals) play into these opportunities and challenges?

Harsha: It goes both ways. The typical response is that casework is reformist because it appeals to government structures. One of the misinformed assumptions is that casework is necessarily apolitical and that mobilizations and marches are an expression of radical politics. It is often suggested that casework can de-politicize movements, but I think that many of our tactics depoliticize us, whether they be rallies or casework. Such dichotomies do not reflect the complexities of community based organizing. Casework is apolitical and depoliticizing if it is separated from the other work that we do, such as organizing occupations, rallies, marches, and public forums; rallies are similarly depoliticizing if they are not rooted within community. In the context of political organizing, casework is one of the few tools we have to organize non-status people who are marginalized based on criminality, and who are prevented from receiving social assistance. It’s perhaps one of the most tangible and useful tools for concrete victories, and for building broader cultures of resistance. Through these cases, we build broader campaigns towards open borders, and status for all people.

Sarita: Casework is necessary for building the momentum of a movement that is rooted in people’s lives. People most often move in order to overcome their own lived oppressions, and are rarely in abstract solidarity with others. The movement is, therefore, often short lived as the day to day takes over peoples’ lives. I don’t think casework is useful for the movement if it is done by paralegals and support workers, but, when politicized through the direct involvement of each refugee with his/her support person, it can become an instrument for mobilization and for radicalizing the movement. As people near the end of mainstream channels with little positive change, they are often willing to take more action, and to become more committed to a collective response. It is for this reason that the movement needs to move towards more cross-sectoral and class alliances. As caseworkers, we need resources that institutions such as lawyer’s guilds, unions, and lobby groups have better access to.

Sima: We have spent a lot of time discussing casework. It reduces what could be political mobilization into mere client work, and essentially turns activists into service providers. The strain on the activist community to both educate itself and provide needed services takes away from its ability to mobilize and politically agitate. By pressuring organizers to get into offices to provide desperately needed services, casework removes activists from the streets, and takes them out of the visible space of the community. Instead of working for political agitation, we become lobbyists, pseudo-lawyers, and paralegals. Consequently, casework disempowers both migrant communities and the activists who are in solidarity with them.

Casework creates barriers between activists and migrant communities when refugees relate to activists as sources of aid. This sets up a relationship that is inherently unequal. No matter what personal relationship is formed, the activist must file the application that will result in a major life change for the affected person. This means that the ability to communicate, strategize and critique each other can never be fully equalized. Activists end up looking at migrants as victims who are incapable of acting on their own behalf. Migrants are left lacking skills and resources, and the end result is disempowering for both parties.

What kinds of relationships have been built between self-organized refugee and immigrant communities and radical activists from outside of these communities?

Harsha: The term “self-organized” developed to distinguish immigrant/refugee based organizing that involves the participation and leadership of those from migrant backgrounds from immigrant serving organizations that replicate client based relationships. But I think the term “self-organized” is false in that it assumes that these movements or committees organically develop by themselves. Much of the ability to organize against deportation, detention, security measures, and regressive and racist border policies springs from the necessary support that activists provide. This support includes booking rooms, providing childcare, and articulating political demands.

During the SAB march, there was a strong emphasis on “those who are directly affected” that seemed to erase the fact that many activists are themselves of immigrant/refugee background, and that refugees such as Mohamed Cherfi have become radical activists. We have to be wary of discourse that draws separations between non-status people who are “self-organized” and activists who are in solidarity with them. Because most of us are implicated in the movement in various ways, these are undoubtedly overlapping realities.

Sarita: I speak from my personal impressions as a woman. The case would be different for some of the men involved in our organization since most of the refugees we work with are men. In the beginning, the relationship is determined by the work and its needs. We help with paperwork, childcare, apartment hunting, employment, health care, and emotional and psychological problems. The latter is something that I tend to deal with simply because most male members don’t.

Because refugees often see the same people over and over again at events and fundraising activities, they familiarize themselves with their supporters, and eventually embrace them as friends. Since the NOII march with SAB, our relationship with members of migrant communities has become stronger; many of the direct and permanent support workers have even been accepted as family.

What are the relationships between the four demands movement and NGO groups working around immigration and refugee issues?

Harsha: Building relationships with immigrant serving organizations, social democrats, and politicians is necessary. Again, since much of the immigrant/refugee movement that we are involved in is so deeply rooted in community realities and struggles, it becomes impossible to have a moral high ground about what is ethical, or reactionary. In the long term, we all maintain the vision that a reformist movement that depends on politicians and political concessions will not grant us our freedoms. Yet it is possible to maintain this belief while still engaging in multiple strategies and tactics that will win victories. If we refuse to use all of the means necessary to fight for justice in our communities, we wouldn’t be trusted by those who seek our support. This would result in an insular movement detached from community based needs and realities. Are such tactics unethical or reactionary? I think that the ethics and principles are much more context based, and often shift according to each situation and campaign.

Sarita: The relationship has evolved as our movement and actions mature. We are still marginalized and treated as crazy youth who make impossible demands, but there is increasing respect now that we have pulled off the best mobilizations around these issues that Canada has seen in recent years, and have raised the volume on this issue in society at large.

Institutions such as “la ligue des droits” (a civil rights organization) and “comite aide aux refugee” (an NGO working with refugees) support us 100%. But they can’t endorse the 12 principles in regards to the criminal records issue. They don’t look down on direct action, but there are others (like the Canadian Council for Refugees, Canada’s largest national immigrant and refugee rights NGO) that do, and whose members don’t support our actions. It is as though there are two parallel worlds operating in the same realm.

What is the way forward for the Four Demands Movement?

Harsha: We need to build around demands that are more systemic. The demand that Immigration Canada deal with the Refugee Determination system backlog is good, but Immigration Canada only addresses symptoms, as opposed to the roots of oppression. On the other hand, a more radical demand, like an end to deportations, reaffirms that everyone has a right to a livelihood, that nation states should not determine peoples’ movements, and that entitlement to status and services should not come through settler states. The demand around the security certificates opposes the idea that Muslim men (and racialized people in general) are terrorists. On the west coast, we have seen the First Nations Warrior Society in Port Alberni attacked by the government on the basis of the Anti-Terrorist Act. This also raises issues around white entitlement to territory and to a certain way of life. These demands are very transformative because they deconstruct citizenship, capitalism, war and apartheid, and attack the idea of the Canadian nation as a white only space.

The major thing to be done, given the incredible work already done in connecting people from different cities, is to facilitate discussion between communities. Those facing deportation don’t come together automatically, and the individualistic nature of the process that is forced on them by Immigration Canada adds to this. People’s cases bring them down, causing internalized oppression and political isolation.

It would be great to facilitate those discussions. We also need to be work with older members of communities of colour who are already citizens or permanent residents in order to strengthen our analysis. There is often a big divide between older and newer migrant communities due to internalized colonialist discourse, and many refugees believe that, because they were able to assimilate, others should too. Building dialogue across these differences can build a transformative and deep rooted movement.

Sima: A couple of years ago, we seldom heard about non-status immigrants. People on the left acknowledged that they existed, and, though relationships were built, it was not part of the message that we put forward when we spoke to people. This is no longer the case, and the emergence of such groups as the Status Campaign, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, NOII and SAB (as well as the re-invigoration of some layers of the trade union movement) have placed these issues in the forefront of radical organizing.

The SAB march was an inspiring moment for the movement. The level of awareness that was built around these issues, the number of people mobilized, the spaces that were created for dialogue, and the clarity of our demands are things that we can build on in the next few years. Sometimes activists who did major work in the anti-globalization movement become impatient because we were able to get results within relatively short time periods. The immigrant rights movement is occurring on a longer time frame, however, and it is important to continue to build. The education opportunities in community spaces, in spaces where non-status people go for assistance, in Mosques and churches, in NGOs, and in community media are huge. We must be out there on the streets in as many ways as possible, and our four demands (ending all deportations, detentions, and security certificates, as well as implementing immediate, full, and accessible regularization of all non-status immigrants) must be central to all that we do.


1. Security certificates are used by the government to hold non-citizens for an indefinite period of time, and also permits a person’s removal if s/he is deemed a security threat. These certificates also prevent detainees and those being removed from having access to the evidence against them.

2. This is also known as amnesty, a program that grants status to all non-status people.

3. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is a campaign in Toronto to prevent city workers from inquiring about a person’s visa status, and from sharing information with Immigration Canada.