Sanctuary City: Toronto and its undocumented residents

Ahila Poologaindran

On February 21, 2013, Toronto officially became Canada’s first “sanctuary” city. Following in the footsteps of the likes of New York City, Chicago, and Miami, Toronto now has a formal policy to allow undocumented migrants access to services irrespective of immigration status. An estimated 200,000 non-status residents can access its services without fear of detention and deportation. Many contend that undocumented migrants are illegal in Canada and consequently do not deserve access to government services. The reality is, however, that the presence of undocumented workers is ballooning. In fact, undocumented workers are becoming a permanent fixture in our demography; this changing social dynamic is, perhaps, a direct consequence of recent migration policy shifts.

Launched in 2002, the Stream for Lower-skilled Occupations, under Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, facilities the hiring of temporary foreign workers by Canadian firms, predominately in food service, caregiving, agriculture, construction, and tourism industries. Canadian employers hire low-skilled temporary foreign workers to meet short-term labour shortages.

These workers not only contribute to the economy, but also to our social security net. For instance, in 2008 alone, temporary foreign workers and their employers contributed an estimated $300 million in Employment Insurance premiums.[i] Temporary foreign workers now comprise the largest portion of immigrants entering Canada, particularly low-skilled workers. In 2010 and 2011, more temporary foreign workers entered Canada than any other type of migrants.

In order to prevent these low-skilled workers from making roots in Canada, the federal government aims to ensure their timely departure by limiting their work permit to four years, followed by a four-year wait outside of the country before re-admission. This unprecedented move, made in 2011, legally prohibits temporary foreign workers from staying in the country for more than four years. They do not have access to permanent residency, unlike their high-skilled temporary foreign worker counterparts.

Experts predict that there will be more undocumented workers in Canada once the first cohort of temporary foreign workers’ work permits expire in 2015, creating new policy problems. Since there are weak enforcement measures to ensure that temporary foreign workers actually leave the country, it is likely that many of these temporary foreign workers will go underground, becoming “undocumented”. The experiences of some European countries and the United States show that the presence of undocumented people may distort GDP calculations and undermine labour wages.

If the “four-year work and four-year out” work permit is left intact, however, it may have serious unintended consequences for Canada, especially for its one and only “sanctuary city”. In the coming years, Toronto may face greater demand for its services without an adequate funding base, placing more strain on its resources.  As the number of low-skilled temporary foreign workers in Canada increase year after year, it is likely that Toronto, and other Canadian cities, will serve more and more undocumented workers, disturbing current social and economic dynamics.

Nonetheless, Canada can aim to avoid taking this path by providing temporary foreign workers access to permanent residency or alternatively instituting a more development-oriented work program whereby migrants can continuously and voluntarily engage with both Canada and their home countries to pursue economic opportunities. For instance, Spain develops the skills of low-skilled migrants that are needed to fill labour shortages that at the same time would benefit the host country’s economy.

Canada should better monitor and look to integrate the policy experiences of fellow western countries in order foresee potential challenges caused by migration policy shifts; in specific, it should understand factors that contribute to a large undocumented population and how this will affect its largest cities.

Ahila Poologaindran is a 2014 MPP Candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance.  She holds a joint degree in Political Science and International Development Studies from McGill University. Ahila has worked for the non-profit sector as well as for the Ontario Public Service. Her interests include migration, mental health, and social policy.


[i] MacLaren, Barbara and Luc Lapointe (2010). Employment Insurance: How Canada can Remain Competitive and Be Fair to Migrant Workers. Policy Options: 73-75


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s