After spending almost all her life in immigration limbo in the United States, Paras Pizada can finally set down roots and plan for a future … in Canada.
The 27-year-old woman is part of a surge of non-American citizens arriving here legally from south of the border where they’ve faced an increasingly hostile environment since President Donald Trump was elected in 2016.
Canada’s new biometrics visa requirements, however, could prove a deterrent for undocumented migrants in the U.S. who, like Pizada, try to come here legally.
Since January, applicants worldwide must provide fingerprints and have their photos taken at facilities designated by Canadian immigration.
In the U.S., almost all facilities are operated by American immigration officials. Undocumented migrants fear this will put them at risk of arrest and deportation. Indeed, the Canadian immigration website warns biometric applicants that they must be legally in the U.S. to go to a centre.
These biometrics requirements could potentially drive up irregular migration into Canada which has dropped by half to 5,140, between January and May, compared to the same period last year.
“Since these people can’t get fingerprinted to apply for Canadian work permits and study permits legally, they will all just walk across the border. Ottawa has made it impossible for the majority of undocumented U.S. residents who want to apply legally for Canada to do so,” said Winnipeg-based immigration lawyer Vanessa Routley.
According to Canadian immigration data revealed for the first time, in 2018, non-Americans in the U.S. accounted for 85 per cent or 13,754 of the 16,158 permanent residence applicants from south of the border, up from just 48 per cent or 1,477 of the total 3,077 applicants in 2015, with India (10,556), China (768) and Nigeria (337) being the top three source countries in 2018.
In 2015, non-Americans made up just 14 per cent or 4,664 of 33,062 applicants in the U.S. for Canadian work permits and student visas.
In 2018, the number almost doubled to 26 per cent or 11,840 of all 45,202 applicants.
It is not known how many of these applicants were actually undocumented in the U.S., because that data is not collected.
Pizada was two when her family arrived as visitors to the United States from Pakistan in 1994. They never left, moving from place to place to evade detection by immigration enforcement officials. Though both Pizada and her sister later qualified to remain temporarily in the U.S. under a special program for undocumented children launched under then-President Barack Obama, they had had no access to permanent residence and citizenship.
When Trump was elected in 2016 and stepped up the removal of undocumented migrants, the sisters started looking for places to go outside the U.S. In June, Pizada, who has a master’s degree in media studies from Pratt Institute in New York, came to Canada as a permanent resident under the federal skilled workers program, following in the steps of her sibling, Mahaik, who had arrived here the year before.
“We are so relieved,” said Pizada, who now lives in Niagara Falls. “I can finally put down roots and have a place to call home. I’m allowed here and no one can kick me out.”
Pizada was lucky she could avoid the biometrics dilemma presented by Canadian immigration because she had already been known to American homeland security officials by having registered with the Obama administration’s program that offered her a renewable temporary residence in the U.S. every two years. Most undocumented migrants didn’t meet that program’s criteria and are off the enforcement officials’ radar.
Of the 133 facilities in the U.S., only two, one in Los Angeles and the other in New York City, are run by private contractors, which means most undocumented applicants must either travel long distances to those two offices or take the risk of going to their local centres and potentially be intercepted by American immigration authorities.
Sharma, who asked that her full name not be used because she is undocumented in the U.S., has been accepted by four Canadian universities — these are Waterloo, Concordia, New Brunswick and Dalhousie — in their graduate programs, but is afraid of setting foot in her local centre run by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as it collects fingerprints.
“There is definitely a heightened fear of getting arrested with all these government raids against migrants,” said Sharma, 21, who arrived in the U.S. from Indian with her family 12 years ago.
She graduated in May with an undergrad degree in biomedical engineering.
“This biometrics requirement is hindering our ability to regularize our status in Canada. We just want to make a better life.”
Canada is doing everything it can to make the biometrics collection process as smooth as possible for all applicants, according to Canadian immigration department spokesperson Nancy Caron.
“In a situation where an applicant is unable to comply with the biometric requirement, these individuals can self-identify themselves by contacting the department and provide a supporting rationale for their situation. Canadian migration officers have the discretion, in specific circumstances, to exempt an applicant from providing biometric information,” Caron told the Star in an email.
“It is important (for us) to be aware of an applicant’s previous immigration history and their compliance with immigration laws, including their current immigration status. This helps in determining whether an applicant is admissible to Canada and whether they are likely to respect the conditions of their visa.”
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Officials said the data on biometrics exemptions requested and granted is unavailable.
Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung
Non-Americans migrating to Canada from south of the border
Permanent residence granted:
2019 (May 31): 8,585
Work and study permits issued:
2019 (May 31): 5,578
Source: Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada