The Spartan office without even a sign on its door is tucked away on an upper level of the Galleria shopping mall in Toronto’s west end. Still, each day a steady stream of young Portuguese construction workers manage to find their way to its bare, fluorescent-lit waiting room. There, a few days before Christmas, half a dozen of them, all bogus refugee claimants, chatted apprehensively in Portuguese as they awaited their turn for immigration counselling—and a unique opportunity to gain legal status in Canada. One of them, who gave his name only as Joe, is a 20year-old bricklayer who entered Canada four years ago by making a false refugee claim. Now he is agreeing to return voluntarily to Portugal—rather than face deportation—but expects to be back in Canada quickly. The reason: the Galleria office, providing a free consulting service funded by several construction unions and the Toronto-area home-building industry, has helped him prepare an application for permanent residence and supporting documents, which he will present to a Canadian visa officer after he lands in Portugal. “They said I would be back here by spring,” said Joe.
In fact, Joe is one of as many as 5,000 bogus refugee claimants from Portugal that the office expects to process in the same manner during the next two years. The arrangements are part of a special program using rarely issued perma-
nent employment certificates and the discretionary powers of immigration officers in Portugal to ensure that workers can return legally to jobs in the Toronto area’s booming building industry. Ministry of immigration officials agreed to the program last October after months of negotiations with representatives from the Toronto Home Builders’ Association, an organization of almost 900 development, building and real estate firms. Maclean ’s has learned details of special measures that the government has introduced to make it easier for any Toronto-area construction worker caught in Canada’s refugee backlog to re-apply from his homeland to become a permanent resident in Canada. Although the offer is technically available to any nationality, it applies almost exclusively to Portuguese refugees, who hold almost all of the lower paying jobs in the Toronto building trades. Said immigration lawyer Richard Boraks: “It is a political deal.” The arrangement appears to contradict an announcement by Employment and Immigration Minister Barbara McDougall in December, 1988, that the government would conduct a case-by-case review of the backlog of 120,000 refugees built up since the mid1980s—and deport any bogus refugees. Last spring, Toronto’s Portuguese community, builders and trade unions mounted an intense lobbying effort, arguing that deporting the
workers would exacerbate the chronic labor shortages that have plagued the Toronto area’s building sector. The government’s settlement last October did not guarantee that all of the refugees who reapply would be accepted as landed immigrants. But ministry assurances have prompted industry officials to predict that most of the workers will be back in Canada by the end of 1990. “We are satisfied with the arrangements,” said Anthony Dionisio, Toronto president of the Labourers’ International Union of North America. “After all, the workers did come here illegally. Ottawa has saved the construction industry from a crisis.”
Still, the agreement has drawn criticism from some immigration experts. Boraks, for one, says that the government is being hypocritical in forcing the workers to return home—and should instead grant them an amnesty. “For each one that goes home the government can say, ‘See, the refugee clearance program is working,”’ said Boraks. “But 1 the only way that Ottawa is getting the Portu| guese to leave is by promising them that they ^ can come right back. It is a de facto amnesty.” 1 Added lawyer Courtney Betty, who represents many refugees from Africa, who do not have access to a similar program: “For McDougall to help a group based on their ethnicity, which she has done, is grossly unfair.”
So far, the Galleria mall office has arranged for the return to Portugal of 300 refugees. Under the agreement with the immigration department—which has promised to send a senior officer to Lisbon to process the cases— the workers will have their applications for permanent residence heard within six months. They still must meet requirements under Canada’s point system, which many would normally find difficult because of their limited education and skill levels. But the ministry has ensured that each worker receives a Form EMP-2151—a valid offer of employment certificate—before leaving Canada. That document alone gives them an automatic 10 of a required 70 points. As well, according to one building industry representative, senior immigration officials have privately assured employers that overseas visa officers will use their wide discretionary powers to support the workers’ applications—essential for many applicants who lack sufficient points, even with the 2151 form.
Still, immigration department spokesman Milton Best insisted that the Portuguese are not getting special treatment. “All we are doing is saying there is a shortage of construction workers and cutting red tape,” said Best. “They’re not getting a leg up on anybody.” Meanwhile, Toronto home-builder representative Katarina Acs said that, in addition to the refugee claimants, there are 7,000 Portuguese contruction workers who are illegal immigrants—and her association plans to negotiate with Ottawa to have them included in the program, too. While that is taking place, Joe and his colleagues will be reacquainting themselves with their boyhood homes in Portugal— and waiting for a chance to return to Canada.
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