She worked on the front lines during COVID-19. Now she could be deported and ripped from her daughter
One year after the federal government vowed to do more to give status to undocumented workers, Canada is pressing forward with deporting a personal support worker, separating her from her child and sending her back to the country from which she says she ran for her life.
Fatumah Najjuma, a 29-year-old, fled Uganda while pregnant in 2018 after she says she was disowned by her family and her life was put in danger for her religious and social affiliations.
For three years, she’s worked as a personal support worker in long-term care homes and at people’s homes, including during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a role in which she says she’s found meaning, despite privately facing the terror of losing the life she’s built in the safety of Canada.
“The elderly, they really need our help,” she told CBC Toronto. “You assist them with doing everything so that they feel normal, like every other person.”
But “normal” is something Najjuma hasn’t been able to feel with her new life on the brink of collapse. Despite applying to stay in Canada on compassionate and humanitarian grounds in March, she faces deportation on Jan. 7.
“My mental health is worsening every day. I’m not sleeping, I’m not eating… Each day that passes, I get more scared.”
Federal Immigration Minister Sean Fraser’s mandate includes working to “further explore ways of regularizing status for undocumented workers who are contributing to Canadian communities.” Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada says that work is underway, but that it cannot comment on programs or policies under development.
Fraser recently met with approximately 100 undocumented migrant leaders from around the country, to hear directly from them, the department added.
“As we advance our work on further programs, we will continue listening to experts as well as undocumented workers themselves… Until new policies are announced, the existing ones remain in effect,” spokesperson Jeffery MacDonald said in a statement.
‘Completely irrational,’ says advocate
That means while a change could soon be coming to ease the path to permanent residence for those like Najjuma, she is nevertheless set to be deported to Uganda while the specifics are ironed out.
That’s unacceptable to Syed Hussan, executive director of Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, who says his organization was told a decision on regularization would be coming this year.
“It’s completely irrational,” Hussan said.
“People are continuing to be ripped apart from their families, mistreated because they don’t have permanent resident status, despite the promise… A policy is being developed and deportations are happening at the same time.”
Najjuma’s deportation date approaches as another personal support worker and her son who also stood to be torn from their Canadian family members finally received their permanent residence.
Nike Okafor and her son, Sydney, had been in Canada for 19 years and waiting on their sponsorship application to be processed when they were suddenly hit with a deportation order by Canadian Border Services Agency.
As CBC Toronto reported, their nightmare finally ended last Monday, when they got word that their permanent residence application had been approved.
But for Hussan, “It’s not about finding exceptional cases, but to take on an unfair and discriminatory system that denies permanent residence to people… then wrenches them apart from their communities and puts them in situations of risk.”
According to the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, there are an estimated half million undocumented people in Canada, and another 1.2 million with study and work permits or claiming asylum — many who can’t access basic services and face exploitation by landlords or at work.
Thousands have been deported or face deportation since the immigration mandate a year ago, the group says.
IRCC says tens of thousands of temporary workers transition to permanent status each year. Of the 406,000 foreign nationals who became permanent residents in 2021, it says nearly 169,000 of them transitioned from worker status.
CBSA says it considers ‘best interest of the child’
In a statement to CBC Toronto, the Canadian Border Services Agency said it cannot comment on individual cases for privacy reasons, but that it has a legal obligation to remove those who are inadmissible to Canada under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, and who have removal orders in force.
“The decision to remove someone from Canada is not taken lightly,” the CBSA said, adding the agency only acts on a removal order “once all legal avenues of recourse have been exhausted.”
Najjuma’s deportation order came months after she had already submitted a humanitarian and compassionate grounds application. Humanitarian applications don’t automatically stop a deportation unless they receive the first stage of approval, but Najjuma says her application is still being reviewed.
Having a Canadian-born child also doesn’t prevent someone from being removed, the CBSA said.
The agency says it “always considers the best interest of the child before removing someone,” adding a family can be kept together by removing the child from Canada too.
That would mean uprooting Najjuma’s three-year-old daughter, Ilham, a Canadian citizen, to a country where her mother says her life too would be endangered.
Judge cites ‘moral debt’ owed to front-line workers
Toronto-based lawyer Vakkas Bilsin worked to help secure permanent residence for Okafor. While he is not involved in Najjuma’s case, the two women’s stories have much in common.
“In my opinion, Ms. Fatumah’s sudden removal from Canada is neither reasonable nor sensible before she receives the final decision on the outstanding humanitarian and compassionate application,” Bilsin said, adding he hopes someone in authority will hear her story and intervene.
In fact, in a ruling this year against the Immigration Appeal Division, a federal court judge indicated applicants who have worked as health care aids or on the front lines during the COVID-19 pandemic deserve special consideration.
“The moral debt owed to immigrants who worked on the front lines to help protect vulnerable people in Canada during the first waves of the COVID-19 pandemic cannot be overstated,” Justice Shirzad Ahmed wrote.
For now, as the clock ticks and her deportation approaches, Najjuma is trying to remain hopeful.
“All I want is to stay with my daughter, to be with her, to raise her in this country and not anywhere else,” she said.
“Because this is home.”