Living in limbo: a temporary foreign worker’s story

Imagine being separated from your kids for seven years, losing a chance at citizenship by having your name not pulled out of a bucket and being homeless during the winter months of Alberta.

Imagine being separated from your kids for seven years, losing a chance at citizenship by having your name not pulled out of a bucket and being homeless during the winter months of Alberta.

That’s Marivic Perlawan’s experience as a temporary foreign worker. She lives precariously in the Yukon, waiting for her permanent residency application to be approved.

“It’s torture,” she said, sobbing in an interview with the News. “I’m doing this all for my daughter’s dreams to come here.”

Her daughter, now 13, was only six years old when she left her. She has been an honour roll student despite Perlawan’s absence.

“She always asks me when she will come here,” Perlawan said. She also left behind a then two-year old son, who is now eight.

The 41-year old former midwife from Pasay City, Philippines, applied for permanent residency through the Yukon Nominee Program in 2011. However, she’s really been waiting for status for at least five years, as her first employer promised her permanent residency at the end of her two-year contract when she arrived in Alberta in 2006, Perlawan said.

The hotel’s supervisors handpicked 17 out of 80 housekeepers, who were all temporary foreign workers, to nominate for residency in 2007, Perlawan said. A second batch was selected the next year, but only five were chosen that time out of 42 housekeepers.

They were selected literally out of the luck of a draw. The supervisors pulled the housekeepers’ names out of a bucket to decide who would get nominated, she said.

Many housekeepers, including herself, wept and yelled emotionally that day. She told the management, “You played with my life. You gave us false hope,” Perlawan said.

Fortunately, she found a job with the Holiday Inn in Strathmore, Alta., before her work visa expired. But she got laid off after almost a year. Since then, Perlawan faced a series of unforgettable challenges.

She still had a temporary work visa, but was not approved for employment insurance. For eight months, she tried applying for other jobs but ended up being homeless – couch surfing at various friends’ places, and sometimes living on the streets for a day or two.

“I don’t know how I survived,” Perlawan said. “Sometimes I would eat a cup of yogurt and drink seven glasses of water to avoid getting hungry,” she said.

In the winter, her fingers would swell from the cold. She would scavenge through garbage and recycle cans and bottles to pay for bus fares.

She knew her status in Canada was a “gamble” so she decided to try her luck up north, Perlawan said. She moved to Whitehorse in December 2009, hoping she would find an employer to nominate her for residency.

Filipino friends helped her a lot – one paid for airfare, others provided her a room for free for a few months.

Perlawan admits that some things did not work in her favour due to her own faults. After working at a shoe store for three months, she was fired for giving a discount to a Filipino client.

She then volunteered for Bethany Church, Copper Ridge Place and Macaulay Lodge until she finally found an employer to give her a chance at becoming a Canadian citizen.

She was nominated for permanent residency in February 2011 when she was a personal support worker for a local respite care home. Then Perlawan was laid off yet again when that place lost government funding, she said.

Now she works at Tim Hortons.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) informed Perlawan that her application had been approved for review almost a year later, in December 2011, according to an email she showed the News.

She has finally processed all the police clearances and medical documents for her children and her husband, which are necessary to grant her permanent residency and allow her to sponsor her family.

But processing the paperwork also presented other bumps in the road for Perlawan. Initially, she only sent medical exam results for her children – not knowing that even if her husband does not want to immigrate to Canada, he still has to provide his documents.

Another year was lost in the process, partly due to her email getting hacked at some point, so she only saw some CIC correspondences several months later.

Spouse’s documents are still required to retain eligibility to come to Canada in the future, Nancy Caron, a CIC spokesperson, stated in an email. The department has also yet received Perlawan’s husband’s police clearance, Caron added.

However, a medical exam and a police clearance are only valid for a year – so even if Perlawan wanted to sponsor her husband eventually, she would have to resubmit everything again.

The whole immigration process has weighed heavily on Perlawan. She longs for residency so she can work two to three jobs to save money for her children’s airfare to join her in Canada, Perlawan said.

As it stands, temporary foreign workers are tied to their employers, as their work visas designate them to one specific workplace.

She sends all her earnings to her family. “I’m always stressed, I feel so helpless. I’ve been waiting forever,” she said.

But she’s not the only one. Immigration lawyer Ronak Yousefi, based in Vancouver, has seen many cases like Perlawan.

“Unfortunately, immigration officials are not very cognizant that these people have lives and they have expectations and they have goals and they have plans,” she said. Because Canada attracts thousands of permanent resident applications per year, the government is in no hurry to process applications, Yousefi said.

Yousefi also criticized the lack of transparency within Citizenship and Immigration Canada, that officials are granted “vast powers” to accept or reject applications without scrutiny. Officials are kept anonymous and other than suing CIC, applicants do not have much say in the decision, she said.

Kevin Lamoureux, the Liberals’ immigration critic, blames the Conservative Party for creating an “absolute and total disaster” in dealing with temporary foreign workers.

“What we need to be doing is creating an immigration stream that allows a larger number of foreign workers that have demonstrated a commitment to the country to ultimately immigrate to Canada and not to have to rely on a provincial nominee program,” Lamoureux told the News.

He praised Manitoba’s immigration system for transitioning more temporary foreign workers into permanent residency than any other province or territory. From 2005 to 2009, Manitoba granted residency to 13,089 foreign workers.

Yukon approved 721 applications within a longer time frame, from 2007-2013, according to statistics from the Education Department, which handles immigration in the territory.

“If temporary foreign workers are good enough to work in Canada, and they meet some other basic criteria, then they should be good enough to stay in Canada,” Lamoureux said.

Lamoureux also criticized the government for making those who even get residency wait “in limbo” to receive citizenship. In 2012, only 2.9 per cent of eligible permanent residents obtained citizenship after an average of four years. “This is an astounding drop from the rate of 76 per cent in 2005 under the Liberals,” he stated in a press release in January.

But Perlawan is not giving up. She hopes that one day, her immigration story would be compiled into a book and represent all those waiting in limbo.

“I just think to myself, maybe I faced all these challenges so that a lot of blessings will come to my life.”

Contact Krystle Alarcon at

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