Navigating the complex web of immigration laws in Canada can be a challenging task for even the most seasoned legal counsel. Now imagine trying to steer through these complex processes alone, after arriving in a foreign country with little money and limited English skills. With cuts to Legal Aid, drastic legislative reforms and very few services for those newcomers with limited financial means, it is a near impossible task for many recent immigrants. In many cases, proceeding without legal advice or guidance can have devastating consequences.
Recognizing the need to provide pro-bono legal services to low-income immigrants and refugees, Calgary Legal Guidance (CLG) started a new immigration program in March 2012. Since opening our doors, the immigration project has assisted several hundred clients and families with a variety of immigration and refugee issues. CLG’s mandate goes beyond providing only summary advice, which often sets us apart from many other poverty law immigration programs.
All too often, a person fleeing persecution has a compelling story and a legitimate claim, but loses at their hearing due to poor preparation or a misunderstanding of what evidence is needed.
A significant component of the program is refugee work. We have represented refugee claimants fleeing persecution in their home country at hearings before the Immigration and Refugee Board. It is extremely important for those seeking refugee status to receive as much assistance as possible in preparing for their hearings, because the legal requirements to be considered as a Convention Refugee are onerous and difficult for the layperson to understand. All too often, persons fleeing persecution has a compelling story and a legitimate claim, but loses at their hearings due to poor preparation or a misunderstanding of what evidence is needed. For this reason, CLG is committed to ensuring that any client who comes through our doors wanting to make a refugee claim is provided with as much information and preparation for the hearing as possible, even if we cannot provide full representation for the hearing.
We have also prepared Federal Court applications, and assisted with applications for permanent residence, work permits and temporary resident visas. For those clients without a clear path to permanent residence, such as failed refugee claimants and victims of domestic violence whose partners have withdrawn their spousal sponsorship applications, we have filed several applications for permanent residence based on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. In addition, many of our clients are trying to reunite with their families who remain overseas. Some have not seen their spouses or children for several years. We also work with live-in caregivers, temporary foreign workers, and those without status in Canada.
CLG has celebrated some recent successes in the program, including a positive decision in a difficult refugee case. Some of our very first clients, who came to us soon after we opened our doors, have also just been granted permanent residence based on Humanitarian and Compassionate grounds. A Humanitarian and Compassionate application allows a person to ask for an exemption to the normal requirement to apply for permanent residence in Canada. A person might find themselves in Canada under circumstances beyond their control, where returning to their home country would cause an unusual, undeserved and disproportionate hardship. For example, one client came to Canada as a child several years ago, but his refugee claim was not successful. However, due to Canada placing a Temporary Suspension of Removals (TSR) on this client’s country of origin because it is so dangerous to go back there, he was not able to be removed and has been in immigration limbo since that time.
In another all too common example, a woman will arrive in Canada sponsored by a Canadian spouse through the family class sponsorship application, only to find that the relationship quickly turns abusive. The woman is then placed in a difficult situation: she can either remain in the relationship until the application is processed in order to secure her permanent status in Canada, or leave the relationship. In the second scenario, the sponsorship process stops once the marital breakdown occurs, and the woman may find herself without status in Canada.
As with most of the Immigration lawyers across Canada, CLG has had to adapt its services in response to laws and policies that change on a daily basis. While we are not strictly an advocacy organization, we advocate for our clients to the best of our ability in light of these changes. This could mean working closely with the client to meet tight deadlines, ensuring that the client is aware of upcoming changes to the law, or, more recently, facilitating a client’s participation in litigation challenging aspects of the new laws.
In addition, our clients often face other complex legal problems that may or may not affect their immigration status. Fortunately, through CLG’s other programs, including:
- Domestic Violence Legal Intervention and Family Law;
- Criminal Law;
- Homeless Outreach;
- Social Benefits Advocacy; and
- Elder Law
CLG is able to assist low-income newcomers and immigrants facing additional types of legal challenges.
The work we do in the immigration program is challenging and fascinating, often sad, yet always rewarding. To date, we have assisted clients who come from 51 different countries, and each one has a unique story to tell.
The immigration program currently consists of four in-house staff, supported by a dedicated team of volunteers. The work we do in the immigration program is challenging and fascinating, often sad, yet always rewarding. To date, we have assisted clients who come from 51 different countries, and each one has a unique story to tell. Although the program does not have the resources to provide full representation to everyone, we believe that every client who walks through the door should be able to leave with something of value, whether it is brief summary advice or a referral to another agency.
CLG as an organization started over 40 years ago, as a small, primarily student-run, legal clinic. Since then, CLG has expanded to 25 staff – including lawyers, students, advocates and administrative professionals. However, we still rely heavily on our volunteer base – without the support from the legal community we would not be able to reach so many people. In that regard, CLG runs free legal clinics on-site every weekday evening. The immigration program works closely with various immigrant serving agencies, including the Calgary Immigrant Women’s Association, Centre for Newcomers and Immigrant Services Calgary, to run free legal advice clinics and deliver public legal education workshops.