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Sociology from Canada

Precarious Noncitizenship in Canada

May 29, 2017

Sociology remains a crucial voice in public debate because it challenges common-sense understanding of pressing social issues. Consider, for example, migration and immigration. In Canada, and other settler countries, immigration is commonly understood as a permanent move, with the goal of increasing the country’s national population. The sociology of migration shows, however, that temporary migration is increasing, and policies that promote migration are leading to precarious noncitizenship. A sociological lens offers counter-hegemonic interpretations of the current immigration system and its impact on social inequality.

Globally, legal status and citizenship are critical determinants of well-being and mobility. But they also create inequality. In recent years states have responded to increased global migration by creating new legal categories for non-citizens, institutionalizing authorized trajectories of non-citizenship, leading migrants to spend years in an uncertain legal status, and often pushing migrants towards illegalization.

Pathways and access to citizenship are increasingly restricted, while extralegal systems for detaining and deporting migrants have proliferated. This global shift differs from country to country, but in Canada, the changing relationship between temporary and permanent immigration has led to the rise of precarious noncitizenship, expressed in immigration, labor markets and the experience of work. Precarious noncitizenship refers to temporary or limited legal status and the associated experiences of differential inclusion.

Precarious legal status means that a person has only a temporary legal right to be present in a country, with limited or no access to state entitlements. Most importantly, precarious noncitizens are deportable; the state can forcibly detain and remove precarious noncitizens from the national territory.

Precarious noncitizens live, work, study, and raise their family in a country where their right to be present, to work and to access state resources is curtailed by law. In Canada the population with precarious legal status includes all categories of temporary migrant workers, international students, refugee claimants, people on special visas, and anyone who is out of status. In 2010 there were between 1.2 and 1.7 million precarious noncitizens living and working in Canada, a country with a population of 34 million.

In Canada there has always been a tension between wanting some immigrants for long-term population growth, and wanting other immigrants as a short-term labor supply. Historically, the balance between long-term and short-term goals was resolved through a two-track immigration system. One track was for temporary migrants who come with significant restrictions on where they could work, whether they could bring their families, and how long they could stay. Migrants on this kind of temporary track include Chinese men who migrated to work on the railway in the 1880s, Caribbean women who came to work as domestics in the 1950s, and Mexican workers who came to do seasonal agricultural work in the 1970s. A second track has offered permanent settlement to immigrants selected through the Federal Point System, on the basis of education, official language ability, and family ties. Until the 1990s, these two tracks were organizationally and discursively separate; the first track bringing noncitizen, temporary workers was largely hidden from view, while the second track bringing immigrants for nation building was very visible. The latter was the focus of our collective celebration of the Canadian model of immigration.

In the 2000s federal immigration policy broke with the established two-track system. First, the eligibility criteria for independent skilled immigrants were narrowed to select people with more wealth, higher educational attainment, and clearer indicators of official language proficiency. Second, the eligibility criteria for the entry of refugees, asylum seekers, and family-class immigrants were narrowed. Third, skill requirements for temporary foreign workers were loosened to allow for high-skill and low-skill occupational categories. Finally, new mechanisms were established to enable select temporary migrants to transition to permanent residence. Employers are the primary intermediaries determining whether noncitizen workers transition from temporary to permanent immigration. In brief, there was a narrowing of the track for direct permanent immigration, a widening of temporary migration tracks, and new mechanisms created to allow some temporary migrants to switch to the permanent immigration track. As a result, temporary entries to Canada now consistently outpace permanent entries.

The new relationship between temporary and permanent migration impacts Canada’s work and labor markets, as precarious noncitizen workers are a new, more visible fixture on the economic landscape. Until the 1990s, temporary migrant workers were concentrated in seasonal agro-industrial production, the urban, high-skill service sector, and home-based care-work, but this pattern has changed. By 2011, temporary workers were present in every province and territory of the country, in large and small urban centers and in rural areas. Along with this geographic diffusion came occupational dispersion and downgrading. In 2005 the top five occupations listed for temporary foreign workers were classified as high-skill and were concentrated in the creative industries. In 2008 the top occupations were low-end food service work and construction.

Precarious noncitizen and citizen workers with distinct sets of rights in relation to the state and employers now work beside each other at workplaces throughout Canada, but we know very little about these mixed-legal status workplaces. Almost certainly, the presence of deportable noncitizen workers in the labor market has some impact on all workers. Data from other countries points to a generalized erosion of the floor on labor standards and workplace conditions.

Precarious noncitizenship changes the balance of power between workers, employers and the state, and between citizen and noncitizen workers. In particular, deportability limits the noncitizen workers’ ability to claim and exercise rights in the labor market. Of course, this difference between citizens and deportable noncitizen workers was as true 100 years ago as it is today. The difference between then and now, in Canada, is the centrality of precarious noncitizenship, including the growing numbers of people affected, the changes in the two-track immigration system, and the extent to which precarious noncitizens are woven into Canada’s social and economic fabric.

Patricia Landolt, University of Toronto, Canada and member of ISA Research Committee on Sociology of Migration (RC31) <landolt@utsc.utoronto.ca>

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