Guardian angels or status for all? Fighting Canada’s tiered immigration system during COVID-19

On November 30th the Canadian Border Services Agency announced they would resume deportations of migrants and refugees, following a months-long moratorium in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This announcement caused concern in Quebec, where politicians have negotiated a deal with Ottawa to grant permanent residency to refugees who have provided frontline care in the province during the pandemic as nurses and orderlies. CBSA was quick to clarify that these “guardian angels,” and only those the government designates guardian angels, would not be deported. 

Migrant advocacy agencies, such as the Quebec Immigration Lawyers Association (AQAADI), have pushed for the exemption to be extended to other workers in health care, such as cleaners. However, Quebec’s right-wing premier, Francois Legault, has said that permanent residency should only be granted to those providing direct care.

What this debate over granting permanent residency to health care workers reveals is that Canadian multiculturalism and liberal immigration policies aren’t motivated by anti-racism or human rights but by access to the labour of racialized workers. What is valued aren’t the lives of migrants themselves, but the value of their labour and knowledge at a time when Canada’s health care system is over-strained and short of workers.

Cite Sans Frontieres / Solidarity Across Borders demonstration in Montreal, December 6 2020 (CiteSansFrontieres Facebook page)

Since the beginning of the pandemic politicians and journalists have used the metaphor of war to describe efforts to respond to the virus. In speeches and articles healthcare workers are compared to soldiers, fighting on the “frontlines” of the pandemic, while those in the rear are urged to do our part to help the nation in its fight. However, the frontlines are defined in racist, sexist, and class terms. Those workers who directly care for the bodily health of white Canadians in hospitals are referred to by the media as guardian angels. The term “guardian angel” is itself gendered, evoking a woman who is willing to sacrifice her own wellbeing for those in her care. At the same time the lives of migrants performing less professionalized but no less dangerous jobs, such as cleaning hospitals or working in food processing plants, are devalued and ignored. 

In determining which workers are deemed worthy of escaping deportation both Legault and the AQAADI support a policy of exclusion. In either case the Canadian state gets to decide who gets permanent residency and who gets deported; who is given some degree of security and who is at risk of social dislocation and death. Both sides in the debate divide migrants into two groups: good migrants who serve the nation and bad migrants who deserve deportation. Neither side questions this. What they argue over is where exactly to draw the line. 

Far from being a generous offer on behalf of the Canadian government, the “guardian angel” program reinforces Canada’s racist immigration policy. Rather than granting residency status based on human need or the dangers refugees and other migrants face should they be deported, the eligibility of a particular migrant to access regular residency in Canada is determined by the scale of their service to the nation, measured on a capitalist metric of the value created through their labour power. 

In doing so they continue Canada’s tiered system of immigration. Under this system migrants who have money to invest or professional credentials are able to apply for permanent residency while those migrants who have nothing to sell but their labour power come to the country under the temporary foreign worker program, in which they are denied permanent status and experience even greater rates of exploitation. The “guardian angel” program maintains this distinction, drawing a line between professional and other working-class migrants within the health care sector.

In response to CBSA’s announcement that they are resuming deportations, Montreal-based migrant justice group Solidarity Across Borders called for an emergency demonstration. Unlike the Legault government and the AQAADI, Solidarity Across Borders does not debate which migrants’ lives are valuable and which aren’t. Instead they call for an end to deportations and status for all. They say, “Deportation is always an act of violence, which we condemn under any circumstances. We all have a right to permanent status, and a life of dignity and peace for ourselves and our children!” By taking to the streets, Solidarity Across Borders refuses “to allow a return to ‘normal’ that continues to force hundreds of thousands to live in conditions of exploitation and fear of deportation.”

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