When Meldrid Serna, who was brought to the US illegally as a child, looked into the prospect of moving to Canada a couple of months ago, her hopes of being in one place with her family without the threat of deportation were quickly dashed.
Now 23, she's been in the US since she was eight. But as President Donald Trump has decided to rescind the policy that allowed her to stay in the US indefinitely, Serna faces the possibility of being sent back to Mexico, a country she hasn't set foot in since she was a child.
With the end of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) coming in six months, hundreds of thousands of other young people could lose protection—unless an increasingly-hostile-to-Trump Congress does something about it. For many of these young people, Canada won't be an option either.
The same night Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that DACA was over, Ontario independent senator Ratna Omidvar made her case for why Canada should welcome up to 30,000 young people covered by it.
About 800,000 DACA recipients, or "DREAMers" as they're often called, who were brought to the US by their parents illegally, had permission to temporarily stay in the US under the Obama-era program. Although DACA offered no pathways for DREAMers to get citizenship, they could renew their permit every two years so long as they met certain educational requirements and had no criminal history.
Omidvar, who first wrote about the issue in February, said in a CBC interview on Tuesday that "DREAMers" are exactly the kinds of immigrants Canada should pursue.
"These individuals are low-hanging fruit for us," Omidvar said. "They speak fluent English, they've been educated in the US, most of them have been to college or university, some of them have work experience. They understand the North American working culture.
"On top of that, in order to qualify to be a 'DREAMer,' you have to have biometrics testing, you have to have a criminality check. So this is America's loss, but it could be Canada's gain," she said.
But immigration lawyers, some of whom disagree that DREAMers should be given any kind of special treatment given that Canada has its own population of undocumented children, warn that many of them will find it difficult, if not impossible, to get in as skilled immigrants in the express-entry program or find any kind of temporary visa or permit.
Omidvar has proposed giving "special consideration" to these young people either through the existing express-entry program or as international students, who are already prioritized by the government for permanent residency.
Writing in the Globe and Mail on Thursday, Omidvar called on the minister of immigration "to give flexibility to undocumented applicants on a case-by-case basis," expand annual immigration targets to three-year goals to allow for more long-term planning, and to waive requirements like legal residency in the last country of residence, which could serve as barriers for DREAMers who want to apply through non-economic streams.
Serna, who's been a DACA permit holder for most of her adult life, has a bachelor's degree in psychology and has worked part time in community outreach for a couple of years. But because she doesn't have at least a year of full-time work experience under her belt and doesn't fall into a professional category currently being sought out by the Canadian government, she doesn't qualify.
The express-entry program, which prioritizes skilled immigrants in specific sectors of the economy, is based on a points system, and getting to the top of the line isn't easy.
"My family hasn't ever really been able to stay together. We were together for four years, and then my brother got married and moved to Canada," she said. While he can petition her parents, who are in the US without legal status, she could end up having to live in Mexico. That is unless she marries her boyfriend, a US citizen, which would allow her to apply for permanent residency.
While young DACA recipients, who don't have a year of full-time work experience on their résumé, probably won't qualify under the express-entry system, those who have worked for a year could potentially score well, given that they're likely also fluent in English and have a clean criminal record, explained Toronto-based immigration lawyer Guidy Mamman.
But Calgary-based lawyer Raj Sharma said DREAMers shouldn't be given "false hope," pointing out a number of issues that could come up. If an applicant was working under the table, for example, that could be "problematic." There are also no bonus points for understanding North American working culture, he adds, in response to Senator Omidvar's argument that DREAMers would be ideal economic immigrants partly because they've worked in North America.
"That's why I say it's false hope because there are no special rules for DACA," said Sharma.
It's also unlikely any DREAMers would qualify for any kind of study permit, a work permit, or a visitor status in Canada.
"The reason why is all temporary visitors in Canada... have to prove temporary intent—that means the willingness and ability to return to their country of nationality, but most of these kids have never spent any time in their country of nationality," said Mamman.
Omidvar has also suggested DREAMers apply for immigration through the humanitarian and compassionate grounds stream—Sharma shut this idea down, saying that assessment would require applicants to prove that they're established in Canada, and it's generally accepted that that takes several years to do.
And Canada's refugee system isn't set up for DACA recipients either, said Sharma, since DREAMers are by definition people who have been out of their country of origin for many years.
"It would be difficult if not impossible for a DACA recipient to establish personalized risk back in Mexico, for example," said Sharma. Even the child of a reporter who wrote embarrassing stories about narcotraffickers and powerful politicians but hasn't been to Mexico in 15 years could have a hard time proving past incidents of persecution.
Sharma also questioned the arbitrariness of the number—10,000 to 30,000—proposed by Omidvar, and warned that the US is so huge that if "they sneeze, we are going to catch a cold." A small change in policy or even a quick welcome tweet could mean Canada's immigration system being overwhelmed by applicants.
"I wish our politicians would stop with their half-baked, on-the-fly immigration policy," said Sharma. "You're giving out a scintilla of hope to people who don't have hope. A drowning man clutches even at grass.
"Of course, those under DACA or DREAMers could make great additions to Canada's multicultural fabric," he continued. "I would like more of a wait-and-see attitude before we react and hyperventilate every time Donald Trump announces a measure that perhaps doesn't accord with our own personal values."
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