What the So-Called Anti-Human Smuggling Bill is Really About

It is so committed to this bill that Immigration Minister Jason Kenney took the unprecedented step of writing an entire article about it the National Post, particularly naming No One Is Illegal as trying to ambush his racist project (see here).

Before we respond to Kenney’s newest lies, let’s look at the facts.

Bill C-4 was initially introduced in Parliament in November 2010. All discussions were stalled when all the opposition parties, and almost every immigrant and refugee organization in the country, condemned it.

The Harper hawks made it, and the accompanying racism, a major part of their election strategy, releasing this fear-mongering video. Here is a CBC reality check on the many lies in this video.

Since the Harper victory, anti-immigrant announcements and policies have been the cornerstone of the Conservative media campaign before parliament’s return. In July, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced that he would be revoking the citizenship of 1800 people, an absolutely unprecedented move. In its entire history as a colonial-settler state, Canada has revoked the citizenship of a total of 63 people.

Almost in the same breath, Kenney and Public Safety Minister Vic Toews published a most-wanted list of 30 alleged “war criminals” to be deported to potential torture.  Amnesty International notes that “none of the details about the nature, basis or seriousness of the accusations against them have been made public.”

Having flagrantly undermined any presumption of innocence, and further linked migrants with fraud and crime, Kenney opened yet another snitch line, this time calling on “Canadians” to report their neighbours for “citizenship fraud.”

Then, in early September, a third snitch line was unveiled and “Canadians” are being urged to report anyone suspected of “immigration fraud.” This incredibly racist move is yet another attempt to make people suspicious of their neighbours and further scapegoat migrants as suspicious fraudsters and criminals.

With no real support anywhere for Bill C-4, Stephen Harper spins blatant lies saying, “Canadians of all ethnic backgrounds, old Canadians, new Canadians, urban Canadians, rural Canadians want anti-human smuggling legislation.” (for a partial list of organizations opposing Bill C-4 — previously C-49 — click here).

What is Bill C-4 and Why Do the Tories Want to Pass It So Badly?

Under this proposed law any group of migrants can be designated “a smuggling incident.” Once they have been designated as such, migrants can be jailed for up to 12 months; are denied the ability apply for permanent resident status for five years after they have been granted refugee status; cannot apply on humanitarian and compassionate grounds for temporary residence permits or refugee travel documents for five years or longer; are banned from appealing an unfavourable decision; and cannot sponsor their families for five years. Bill C-4 also gives immigration officers powers to arrest and detain any foreign national or permanent resident on suspicions of criminal activity, without any proof.

Both Amnesty International and the Canadian Council for Civil Liberties point out that this bill is in contravention of many refugee rights conventions and the Canadian constitution itself. It is likely that as soon as it is becomes law (which is a foregone conclusion in Harper-land), it will be challenged and dragged through the courts.

So why would Harper and Kenney want to push through a bill that will likely be impossible to implement? Three reasons stand out. The first is general politicking. The drums of racism have been beaten all summer long, and the media angle is set such that anyone opposing this legislation is simply framed as “soft on crime.” The second is that this bill is a means to build temporariness in to the refugee system. The third is that it is meant to be divisive, essentially entrenching the good immigrant/bad immigrant dichotomy that is so necessary for right wing governments searching for scapegoats during a recession.

The first of these reasons is rather obvious, but the second and third need to be explored.

Canada’s Move Towards Temporariness

Unbeknownst to many, Canada’s already-exclusionary immigration system is quietly being changed. Today more people enter the labour market on temporary work visas, rather than with any access to full immigration status.

Temporariness essentially means a fluid workforce, mostly people of color, brought into work for low wages, in deplorable conditions, easily exploitable, unable to unionize, and deported when injured or at the whims of their employees. It also means a workforce that pays into CPP, EI, the HST, property tax and often income tax but is unable to access most of the benefits of the programs into which they pay. In essence, hundreds of thousands of people feed into the Canadian welfare system, a veritable cash cow. And the irony is that this group of people who help ensure the survival of healthcare, education, employment insurance, pensions and other public services are demonized.

But the Tories are not satisfied with increasing the number of temporary workers. They also want to add temporariness into the refugee part of the system. Under Bill C-4, people granted refugee status will be unable to access citizenship rights or travel outside Canada for five years. At the end of these five years, their refugee status will be reconsidered, and it is possible that it could be revoked. In other words, refugees will be temporary workers for five years and then face the possibility of deportation.

This kind of attack on access to permanent resident status is happening everywhere in the system. A few months ago, the entire spousal sponsorship system (the system by which one can gain citizenship through marriage) was changed by decree. Now, for relationships that have lasted less than two years, spouses of citizens will have so-called conditional permanent residence for two years. If there is a breakdown in the relationship, during those two years the permanent residence will be revoked. This means that women in abusive situations, for example, have to choose between living in fear or violence or risk losing immigration status. What is also important is that a new notion of “conditional permanence” is being created. This is a means of establishing temporariness within the so-called permanent residency system.

Good Immigrants, Bad Immigrants

In the years to come, like in previous decades, migrants at the end of temporary work permits, refugees under Bill C-4, the over 20 000 people whose refugee claims are denied each year, people kicked out of the spousal sponsorship program, graduate students unable to maintain work authorization and others will have to make the difficult decision to either leave the country or continue to stay in Canada without documents.

It is this third group, the hundreds of thousands of undocumented or non-status people, that the Tory government is trying to go after. The stage has been set. Most progressive organizations criticize Bill C-4 for unjustly punishing refugees but not going after the “real smugglers.” The spectre of legal and illegal seems to haunt everyone.

This also must be challenged. Throughout the political jockeying and the manufactured media circus that surrounded the arrival of the Tamil migrants aboard the Ocean Lady and the Sun Sea last year, “human smuggling” has consistently been framed as an unquestioned evil, a practice that must be combated through anti-smuggling legislation and criminal punishment. This way of looking at “human smuggling” is wrong and should be challenged.

Migration is one form of resistance to the displacement, destruction, and desperation that the forces of war, environmental havoc and global capitalism produce across the world.

What must be challenged is the creation, control and policing of international and colonial borders that force people to travel on foot, by air and by water, in the night, across torturous terrains, in dangerous conditions and using forged documents. Human smuggling is a time-honoured tradition, enshrined in common practice and international law. For as long as governments have asserted control of mobility along their borders, people have sought assistance to cross them.

Whether it be Albert Einstein who fled persecution in 1935 with forged identification papers, aided by people who would today be labelled human smugglers, or the tens of thousands of people in the United States who, with the assistance of dedicated abolitionists like Harriet Tubman, navigated the underground railroad in order to find freedom from slavery, human smuggling has been commemorated and celebrated as an act of necessity, as an act of courage, as an act of resistance to persecution and injustice.

Today, with great resolve, many communities and people around the world continue to support each other in attempts to migrate. People offer others assistance both to cross borders and to live without documents within Canada and other rich countries.

Any attempt to further criminalize human smuggling will ensure that migrants forced to move irregularly across borders will do so in more dangerous conditions, at higher cost and face further exploitation. This is simply unacceptable. The forced displacement and trafficking of people by states, by corporations and by people should be rejected unconditionally.  All with  a will to move must be able to do so freely. In an era of systematic displacement and racist immigration policy and practice, this assertion means we must continue to fight to create pathways for free movement, including just means of “human smuggling.”

It is not human smuggling that needs be combated. It is the violence of immigration controls and displacement that must be targeted, struggled against, and defeated. Let there be no mistake. The Conservative government does not want to deport undocumented people. That would mean removing nearly 500 000 people who do jobs nobody else wants, for wages no one else would take, paying taxes into the welfare system that requires them to pay money but not taking anything back. What Harper and co. want to do is create fear, entrench racism, force people to snitch on each other, insist that “Canadians” are under attack from “outsiders” and thus build more prisons and spend half a trillion dollars on  war machinery. This is what lies at the root of Bill C-4. This is why it, and every one of this government’s xenophobic attacks, must be defeated.

It is time to remember the chants from our recent past: “Unemployment and inflation are not caused by immigration. That’s bullshit. Get off it. The enemy is profit!”

The website of migrant justice group No One Is Illegal-Toronto is toronto.nooneisillegal.org