Canada's border control stings should be targeting companies evading the law, not the low-level migrant workers who are brought in as low-paid labour, some advocates for migrant workers say.

The Canada Border Services Agency came under fire this week after details emerged about a reality TV crew accompanying officers on an immigration raid at an East Vancouver construction site.

Eight men were arrested and detained Wednesday by the Canada Border Services Agency for allegedly working without documentation, and many of them are now facing immigration and possibly deportation hearings.

Documents acquired by CBC News indicate that permission for CBSA's co-operation with the television production company came straight from the top, with approval from Public Safety Minister Vic Toews.

'You don't take the illegal workers. You go for the root problem, which is the illegal employer.' —Richard Kurland, immigration lawyer

The documents also indicated that someone from the Prime Minister's Office viewed a demo reel for the series Border Security, provided by Force Four Entertainment to CBSA senior management for review.

Crackdowns targeted low-level players

But lawyer Richard Kurland says the CBSA's strategy of going after the workers is underhanded and misguided.

"Grab the books, not the bodies," he said. "You don't take the illegal workers. You go for the root problem, which is the illegal employer, paying cash, off the books."


A man puts his hand over a CBC News camera lens at a construction site in East Vancouver. The CBSA is drawing criticism for allowing a TV crew for the series Border Security to film an immigration raid at the site Wednesday. (CBC)

Kurland says a better way of cracking down on undocumented workers is to target employers, but the construction industry's muddled regulations — overseen by all three levels of government — makes enforcement difficult.

"The ineffectiveness of federal, provincial, municipal governments to go after the number one target — the construction industry — is the root cause. It's not the availability of the illegal workers that creates this illegal underground," Kurland said.

The government has cracked down on employers before. In 2011, the owner of two Freshslice Pizza franchises was fined $44,000 after being caught hiring workers who lacked proper permits.

Those who assist migrant workers say that targeting the workers only ends up putting people at risk.

Byron Cruz, an outreach health worker with Sanctuary Health, says such crackdowns can have fatal consequences.

"They scare people. Then, people are going away from services and they are pushing everything underground," he said. "When things are underground, that's worse and people die."

Cruz would like to see the province's temporary foreign worker program extended to the construction industry.

He says the province's illegal workers will be best be served by renewed discussions — not reality TV.

"There is an opportunity to establish that dialogue with everyone. It's not about penalizing, it's about looking for solutions," he said.

With files from the CBC's Matthew Black