Code-named operation Papyrus, it aims to “lift institutional hypocrisy and put an end to the exploitation of people without papers,” said Geneva's economy minister Pierre Maudet when the scheme was finally revealed to the press on Tuesday.
The Geneva authorities, workers' unions and immigrant associations have for more than 15 years been striving to find a way of dealing with the numerous undocumented migrants working in the canton.
Most are from Latin America, the Balkans and the Philippines. Three quarters of them work in domestic service, others in restaurants or construction.
Many have been living and working in Switzerland for some time, supporting themselves and their families.
Operation Papyrus has been developed in secret over the past six years with the cooperation of federal authorities including justice minister Simonetta Sommaruga to help these people become legal and therefore end exploitation including low salaries and bad working conditions.
Since a test phase began at the end of 2015, 590 illegals from 147 families have been granted a B permit, a residency permit normally given to immigrants arriving to work.
A further 297 applications are being processed.
“The people we speak of today are certainly undocumented, but they lead a normal life,” Maudet told the press.
“They are financially autonomous and often have children educated in our schools. Despite that, they are sort of ghosts without a legal existence. This is about ending hypocrisy and validating what is already established”.
Papyrus has not required Geneva to change the law, but to soften certain criteria that are only vaguely defined in the Swiss law on foreigners, said Le Temps.
To apply for ‘regularization' through Papyrus – which is not open to asylum seekers – candidates must have a job and be financially independent. Families with children must prove they have lived in Switzerland for five years; single people must have been here for ten.
They must not have broken the law and must be integrated, with a good level of French.
“Papyrus is not a collective regularization or an amnesty,” Cornelia Lüthy of the Swiss migration office (SEM) told the press. “Each case will be examined individually, with Bern having the final say”.
There is, therefore, a risk to the applicant that in applying for the scheme, they could be turned down and deported.
Consequently, organizations involved in the rights of foreigners will work with potential applicants to determine if they meet the criteria, before putting them forward officially, said Le Temps.
Those that are regularized must then give the authorities details of their employer, who may then be subjected to checks to ensure they are complying with employment law.
Potentially, the scheme could help 13,000 people in Geneva.
It will run for two years initially, with an evaluation mid-way through to assess in particular whether the scheme has caused an influx of unauthorized migrants to the canton.
Indeed, with around 76,000 undocumented workers in Switzerland as a whole, the risk is that some will seek to move to Geneva to take advantage of the scheme.
But speaking to Le Temps, Denise Efionayi-Mader, migration specialist from the University of Neuchatel, said that was unlikely.
“Employment is the anchor point for many illegals. The job market is not inexhaustible... it's difficult to imagine that an illegal will quit their job and move to Geneva.
“Remember that it's also difficult for someone without papers to move around easily,” she added.
Efionayi-Mader said she hoped the rest of Switzerland would eventually follow Geneva's lead, so immigrants living in the country illegally would be treated equally across the country.
However, while some cantons such as Zurich may be inspired by Geneva's project, others, such as the cantons of Ticino and Valais, which already have a hardened attitude towards foreigners, may become even more restrictive, she said.
Unions and immigrant groups involved in the development of the scheme hailed Papyrus as "revolutionary" and "the best news for the rights of foreigners in a very long time," reported La Tribune de Geneve.