OTTAWA — A much-heralded program to grant permanent residency to some asylum seekers working on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic has yet to accept a single application.
Federal Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino unveiled the program in August in response to public pressure that so-called Guardian Angels be recognized for their work in health care.
But how soon they'll be able to apply or receive that status remains unclear.
"The application process for this initiative will open up in the coming months," said a spokesperson for the Immigration Department when asked about the status of the initiative this week.
When the program was unveiled, specific criteria were laid out for who could apply.
Among them are that a person must have requested asylum before March 13, and must have worked or be working in very specific jobs for a minimum of 120 hours between March 13 and Aug. 14.
Critics immediately raised questions, including what would happen if workers' claims were rejected or if a person did not hit the 120 hours because he or she fell ill with COVID-19.
A spokesman for the minister said the government wants to make sure the program is fair.
"We are in the final stages of ironing out the details and criteria," said Alexander Cohen.
Another challenging element is the criteria must be agreed to by the Quebec government, which has a large degree of control over immigration criteria for the province.
Since 2017, thousands of asylum seekers have arrived in Quebec after crossing from the United States. Their arrival there, and in other places, has been politically polarizing.
The surge has placed pressure on an already struggling social safety net for newcomers, and added to a growing backlog of cases before the Immigration and Refugee Board.
Political critics charged that the federal Liberals had lost control of the border, as the crossers were able to enter thanks to a quirk of the agreement governing refugee claims made by people entering Canada from the U.S.
The Safe Third Country Agreement forbids such claims from being lodged at official land border posts, on the grounds that both countries are safe and those in need of refuge must request it in the first safe place they arrive.
But, once they are inside Canada, how they arrived doesn't matter. Anyone inside Canada can file a refugee claim.
So 58,625 people since 2017 have made the trip through unofficial crossings and once in the country, asked for refugee status. The vast majority have arrived in Quebec, which has easy crossings from New York.
As they've awaited decisions on their claims — a process that can take years — many sought jobs that would be deemed essential as the pandemic's first wave swept through Canada.
Many found work in the health care sector and in particular nursing homes, which went on to be major hot spots in Quebec and elsewhere for the novel coronavirus.
As it became clear how integral the newcomers were to providing support, public sentiment began to shift and the cohort was dubbed the "Guardian Angels."
That led to pressure for the provincial and federal government to grant them status in Canada in recognition of their service. The Quebec government has supported the federal program.
NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan said the Liberals need to move swiftly to make the program work.
Asylum seekers are but one of the many vulnerable immigrant populations whose work has been crucial to keeping Canada functioning during the pandemic, she said.
"It is time to ensure there is a status for all."
Earlier this year, the Federal Court struck down elements of the Safe Third Country Agreement as unconstitutional, and gave the government six months to find a solution.
Both sides are in court Friday arguing whether that stay should be extended.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 22, 2020.