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As refugees pour into Manitoba, activists worry about changes to key immigration program

As refugees pour into Manitoba, activists worry about changes to key immigration program

Dozens of refugees from the U.S. have made the dangerous crossing to Manitoba on foot in recent weeks, with 22 people arrested on Sunday for illegal entry near the border town of Emerson.

Some experts believe the “Safe Third Country Agreement” between Canada and the U.S. is largely to blame, forcing refugee claimants to walk across the border illegally, in precarious conditions. The provincial government has refused to lobby the federal government to scrap the agreement, telling CBC News it “supports the government of Canada’s position to uphold this agreement in order to preserve the integrity and fairness of the immigration system.”

But according to some Winnipeg-based migrants’ rights groups, that particular decision sheds light on what they believe is the provincial government’s problematic stance on refugees and immigrants. It has already tightened the province’s key avenue for immigration and cut funding to programs that specifically serve newcomers.

Hazim Ismail, an international student from Malaysia who received refugee status in April 2016 and now lives in Winnipeg, says recent statements by Premier Brian Pallister “carry tinges of how Trump got to where he is.” He pointed to a speech in late November in which the premier suggested a link between immigrants to welfare use and that they have “to depend on social supports for far too long a time.”

Ismail — who helps organize the local chapter of No One is Illegal, which hosted recent rallies against Trump and Pallister’s migrant policies — says a major example of this sentiment is the impending changes to the Manitoba Provincial Nominee Program (MPNP).

“Tinges of how Trump got to where he is.”

Originally introduced in 1998 as the first of its kind in Canada, the MPNP has been a means of attracting “skilled workers” with guaranteed permanent resident visas, including temporary foreign workers, international student graduates and friends and family of people living in Manitoba.

Ismail says that while the MPNP “wasn’t a perfect program” and “had its problems,” it has been the main way that international students have attained permanent resident visas, as well as how many people have reunited with their families.

In 2014, over 12,000 immigrants arrived in Manitoba via the program, which represents over one-quarter of all nominees that arrived in Canada that year. But there’s currently a “backlog” of some 4,000 applicants to the program.

In response, the government announced in late November that it will introduce a $500 fee for successful nominees starting in April. It’s a “cost recovery model” that Ismail and others have suggested is a “rehash of the Chinese head tax,” adding to the existing requirement of having a $10,000 and $2,000 for each dependent in a “settlement fund.”

Liza Fontillas, a Filipino immigrant and member of the Save MPNP Coalition, says she doesn’t think the backlog will be meaningfully addressed by adding $500 to the costs, but instead serve as a “burden” and make it more “stressful.”

“Currently, 66 percent of all provincial nominees arrive in Manitoba without confirmed employment.”

The PCs also announced that the MPNP will be altered in April 2017 to only accept applicants who have been sponsored by an employer or who can “meet priority labour market requirements,” disqualifying many applications by friends and relatives of current residents who don’t have a confirmed job offer or skills for the current market.

Fontillas says these changes will serve as an overall disincentive for immigrants to choose Manitoba as their long-term home. She also suggests it may make workers more “vulnerable to abuses, to cheap labour, to exploitation” given the need to keep the employer satisfied.

Minister of Education and Training Ian Wishart wasn’t available for an interview.

A spokesperson for the minister wrote: “Currently, 66 percent of all provincial nominees arrive in Manitoba without confirmed employment and it can take anywhere from a few months to over a year to find a job. Recent changes to the Manitoba Provincial Nominee Program (MPNP) are designed to eliminate the backlog, improve processing time, provide better information to applicants and make it easier for newcomers to get jobs.”

Pallister himself talked about the importance of the provincial nominee program recently when discussing the needs of refugees pouring over the border.

“We have people who have waited many, many years to come in legally, into Canada and into Winnipeg. We have the provincial nominee program, which we are committed to getting those wait times down by the end of March. But they’ve been [waiting] five, six years, sometimes,” the premier said.

“We have people who have waited many, many years to come in legally, into Canada and into Winnipeg.”

Statistics Canada data from 2011 shows that immigrants to Manitoba have the highest employment rate (82.5 percent) and second-lowest unemployment rate (six percent) of all provinces.

Migrant activists are also concerned about recent funding pauses and cuts announced by the provincial government.

The Islamic Social Services Association recently lost $110,000 in funding for a program catering to Syrian refugees, with the government suggesting that “few actual clients were served.” Perhaps the biggest concern is the pause of future funding for the “Neighbourhoods Alive!” program, which distributes money to community centres and organizations in “high needs neighbourhoods.” In 2015/16, it invested $4.8 million in almost 200 projects.

A government spokesperson writes in an email the ongoing review will “ensure funding will be straightforward and predictable to enable better civic, business and stakeholder planning, and provide a measurable return on investment.”

“(Manitoba provides) absolutely no funding for settlement services.”

Val Cavers, executive director of Mosaic Newcomer Family Resource Network, says the $40,000 grant her agency receives from Neighbourhoods Alive helps fund family programs for new migrants who are ineligible for federal funding such as asylum seekers who haven’t secured refugee status yet. A local foundation has stepped in to cover the looming funding gap, but Cavers says that will be temporary.

She adds that unlike other provinces, Manitoba provides “absolutely no funding for settlement services.”

This is a reality that has also becomes very visible with the recent influx of refugees from the U.S. On Feb. 12, the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council’s Welcome Place, which provides temporary shelter for refugee claimants and doesn’t receive any government funding for it, announced that it’s full and won’t be able to house anymore migrants due to a lack of resources.

In the meantime, the local No One Is Illegal chapter is attempting to pressure Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman to declare Winnipeg as a “sanctuary city” for migrants regardless of immigration status.

Cover: John Woods/The Canadian Press

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