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Advocacy group says undocumented migrants need access to government benefits

VANCOUVER — A section of Canada's workforce is being overlooked as the federal government expands subsidies for workers affected by COVID-19, a rights group says.

VANCOUVER — A section of Canada's workforce is being overlooked as the federal government expands subsidies for workers affected by COVID-19, a rights group says.

The Migrant Rights Network called on the federal government Thursday to issue individual tax numbers to undocumented migrant workers, allowing them to access subsidies like the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit.

The group is also asking the government to reinstate the expired social insurance numbers of migrant workers so they can also access the benefit.  

"One missed paycheque significantly alters the rest of your life," said Syed Hussan, the executive director of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, a member organization of the Migrants Right Network.

"I've never seen anything this bad. We're dealing with abject despair and complete disillusion."

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Access to government subsidies would mean the difference between a home and living on the streets, undocumented workers say.

Liliana Trejo, a Colombian woman who worked as an orderly in Montreal before losing her immigration status, said she's struggling to look after herself and her daughter.

"I lost my job because of COVID-19," she said through a translator. "Who is going to pay my rent and my basic needs?"

Trejo said undocumented people work and contribute in tremendous ways to this economy.

She said she fears that as public health restrictions tighten due to COVID-19, she could be stopped on the street by police and sent to a detention centre.

Undocumented workers make up a quiet part of the Canadian workforce. From construction labourers to house cleaners, they are often paid in cash and can face discrimination from other workers over their undocumented status, the groups say.

The Canadian Border Services Agency said it is not going through with deportations because of the pandemic.

"It's an unbearable situation," said Cesar Paredes, whose wife is due to give birth in late May.

Paredes has been working in the construction industry without a social insurance number and is facing thousands of dollars of hospital bills without a reliable source of income.

"We need basic financial support to survive the pandemic," he said.

Despite sending letters to the government, Hussan said the group's concerns aren't being taken seriously.

The federal government announced $50 million in funding to ensure temporary foreign workers complied with COVID-19 screening earlier this month, along with the ability to apply for employment insurance and the emergency benefits. 

But that doesn't help some workers already here, Hussan said.

"The complete lack of the federal government sitting down with us is part of the problem," he said. "They don't know how to solve this problem. They don't understand the scope or scale of this."

A 2007 survey by the RCMP tallied the undocumented migrant community at 500,000, an estimate Hussan said is much higher now.

Even if the federal government isn't able to provide immediate relief, the executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees said there's an easy solution to help some of those affected workers.

"There are a lot of people who have medical training, but because they are qualified outside of Canada they're not allowed to contribute," said Janet Dench. "We're depriving ourselves of the contributions some people would be able to make if we were more open minded."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 16, 2020.

Nick Wells , The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version misspelled the last name of Syed Hussan.