TORONTO — As she watched the coronavirus close schools, businesses and borders, Gaëlle Ledan sometimes became so overwhelmed she lost her appetite.
“I thought, ‘You have to give your best and make people’s lives better,’ ” Ledan said. “I was there for better or for worse.”
Ledan is one of at least several hundred asylum seekers risking their lives, and in some cases dying, for as little as $10 an hour in the trenches of Canada’s coronavirus fight, working the “essential” jobs few Canadians want, even as their own futures in the country remain uncertain.
Now, under pressure from advocacy groups and some lawmakers, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is considering ways to recognize their contributions, including regularizing their legal status.
“Our immigration system is anchored in respect for processes and fairness and equality for everyone,” Trudeau said last month. “It’s important to follow these processes, but in an exceptional situation one can evidently consider some exceptions.”
Advocacy groups have held demonstrations outside Trudeau’s constituency office in Montreal.
“In an extraordinary context, we can have extraordinary measures,” said Wilner Cayo, president of the nonprofit organization Debout pour la Dignité — Standing for Dignity. “These people sacrificed themselves. … The logical response is to recognize their effort.”
Kevin Lemkay, a spokesman for Canada’s immigration minister, said officials are looking at the situation closely, are particularly grateful for asylum claimants caring for seniors and would “have more to say in due course.”
But such proposals have not been universally cheered.
Peter Kent, immigration critic for the federal Conservative Party, said asylum seekers have done “valuable” work during an outbreak that has killed more than 8,000 people in Canada. But any plan to regularize their status, he said, should be based on the validity of their asylum claims.
“It’s admirable that they took these jobs before the covid crisis, and it’s admirable that they have, in most cases, stayed in these positions to care for the most vulnerable,” Kent told The Washington Post. “But we don’t believe that that should be a shortcut to Canadian permanent residency. … It would be, I believe, an unacceptable precedent.”
Calls to regularize the legal status of these asylum seekers have been loudest in Quebec, where more than 80 percent of deaths have been linked to long-term-care homes or private seniors’ residences, and more than 1,000 soldiers have been deployed to fill chronic staffing shortages in those facilities.
It’s also where asylum seekers have in recent years arrived in large numbers, walking into Canada at Roxham Road, an unauthorized border crossing north of Plattsburgh, N.Y.
More than 58,200 people have entered the country via such “irregular” border crossings and made asylum claims since the inauguration of President Trump in January 2017. The Trump administration has worked to limit asylum, refugee resettlement and illegal immigration.
A 2004 agreement between Canada and the United States allows people who cross at unauthorized points of entry to file asylum claims and stay in the country until an immigration and refugee board makes a determination on their cases.
Canada has asked the United States to amend the treaty. When the countries agreed in March to close the border to nonessential travel, they also agreed to temporarily turn back asylum seekers at unofficial crossings — a move widely criticized by advocates.
Since then, 38 irregular asylum seekers have been turned back to the United States, according to a spokeswoman for the Canada Border Services Agency. Lemkay said “any effort to regularize the status of asylum seekers would only apply to those already in Canada.”
Approximately one-quarter of claims by irregular crossers have been accepted; nearly 12,000 have been rejected. The influx of arrivals has created a backlog of 90,000 claims, leaving migrants stuck in bureaucratic purgatory for years.
While asylum seekers wait for their claims to be adjudicated, they may apply for work permits. If their claims are rejected, they can apply to stay on humanitarian or compassionate grounds. In that case, according to Guillaume Cliche-Rivard, president of Quebec’s association of immigration lawyers, work experience bolsters applications.
Ledan trudged into Quebec with her one suitcase at Roxham Road in August 2017. She said she entered the United States the year before on a visitor’s visa. Trump’s rhetoric about immigrants and threat to revoke the temporary protected status granted to Haitians after the 2010 earthquake made her feel she was no longer safe, she added.
Canada has often cast itself as a safe haven for refugees. But the influx of irregular arrivals overwhelmed authorities and met with a backlash in some quarters.
In 2017, then-provincial lawmaker François Legault said elected officials have a “responsibility not to make emotionally charged decisions.” He wasn’t indifferent to the plight of refugees, he said, but the border had become a “sieve,” and Quebec could not accept “all the world’s misery.”
Now Quebec’s premier, Legault has followed through on pledges to reduce immigration and subject newcomers to a “values” test. He has cast the measures as necessary to better match immigrants with the needs of the labor market and to safeguard the identity of the French-speaking province.
But Quebec is now at the center of Canada’s coronavirus outbreak — it’s home to more than half the country’s reported cases and 63 percent of its deaths. Legault has praised the “guardian angels” — many of them asylum seekers — who work in hard-hit long-term-care homes, their labor invisible until now.
But some advocates say he’s sending mixed messages. When an independent provincial lawmaker introduced a motion last month to call on the federal government to regularize their status, Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec party voted against it.
“We cannot open the door to say, ‘If you come illegally, if you find a job, that’s okay, I will accept you as an immigrant,’ ” Legault said. “That’s not how it works. There are some rules.”
Days later, he appeared to relax his stance. He said he would ask the provincial immigration minister to examine the applications of asylum claimants “case by case” to see whether they might qualify as economic migrants — a class over which the province has control.
Elisabeth Gosselin-Bienvenue, a spokeswoman for the minister, said the department was analyzing the applications and talking with the federal government.
“This is an exceptional situation aimed at recognizing the contribution of these people during the unprecedented crisis we are going through,” she said.
Frantz André, a spokesman for the Action Committee for People Without Status, noted the shift in tone.
“When they came, they were considered the zero of this world,” he said. “Now they are heroes.”
Jennifer Lys Grenier, coordinator of a coalition of 150 nonprofit groups in Quebec that work with immigrants, said she hopes lawmakers consult with them. She worries that the plans might have “the perverse effect of encouraging people to integrate into essential services at all costs and sometimes putting themselves in harm’s way.”
Advocates hope any program to regularize legal status will include asylum seekers working in any essential role during the pandemic, not just those caring for seniors.
“The devil’s in the detail,” said Marjorie Villefranche, director of a Haitian community center in Montreal.
Marie-Paule Hie, a 40-year-old asylum seeker from the Ivory Coast, has spent much of the outbreak working in a seafood-packaging plant in Granby, Quebec.
“If I work, I can get sick,” she said, “but I work so people can eat. … I want to work to live, to build my life, to integrate into Canada.”
One asylum seeker from Nigeria said she worked 17-hour shifts at a private seniors’ residence in Montreal after some co-workers stopped showing up. She said she tested positive for the coronavirus in April.
“We work under pressure because we don’t even know if we’re going to be sent back,” said the woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid jeopardizing her asylum claim. “I personally see this country as my home.”
Ledan, who was a general practitioner at a hospital in Port-au-Prince before she left, paid nearly $520 for a six-month course to become a nursing assistant. She feeds residents, brings them medications and helps dress them.
“Some people think it’s too low for them, but I don’t see it like that,” she said. “There are humans at the center of this career.”
She has a message for Trudeau and Legault as they debate regularizing her status.
“It’s not a loss, but a win for them,” Ledan said. “We are loyal people and we are ready to continue to work for a better Quebec and for a better Canada.”