Business as unusual: Immigration planning during a pandemic
Tuesday, September 22, 2020 @ 8:51 AM | By Kelly Goldthorpe
The plan did not anticipate that 2020 would be marked by a global pandemic causing border closures, travel restrictions and a dire warning from the International Organization for Migration that the “age of migration itself may now be coming to an end.”
Prior to the onset of the pandemic, the first two months of 2020 saw 30 per cent more new immigrants versus the same period in 2019. When the border closures halted most entries of foreign nationals in mid-March, the number of new immigrants admitted to Canada also fell sharply. In April 2020, only 4,135 new immigrants were admitted compared to 26,900 new immigrants who arrived in April 2019. In the first half of 2020, 103,420 new immigrants were admitted to Canada. At this rate of admission, Canada will not meet the target of 341,000 new permanent residents in 2020.
The border closures contribute to the decrease in admission, but it was also driven by practical reasons such as operations and processing capacity. With government offices closed and staff working remotely, prioritizing critical infrastructure, essential services and the containment of COVID-19, processing permanent residence applications is falling behind. Due to processing centre closures and reduced staff at visa offices, the ability to assess and approve applications has been hampered.
The COVID-19 pandemic has reduced the number of new immigrants to Canada, but has it decreased the demand for immigrants? IRCC continues to believe that immigration is critical to Canada’s economic recovery from COVID-19. Immigration continues to be positioned as a driver of demographic and economic growth in Canada.
Economists warn of the long-term effects of a significant decrease in immigration such as potential labour shortages in the years to come. Since most of Canada’s population growth comes from economic immigration, a slowdown in the number of new immigrants entering the country now could have economic repercussions in the post-COVID recovery.
Due to practical constraints resulting from the pandemic, IRCC had to be creative and innovative in its processes and flexible in its approach to assessing applications. As necessity is the mother of invention, IRCC piloted e-mail or virtual landing processes for applicants who were physically present in Canada. In the spring, it was estimated that IRCC converted Permanent Resident status to about 6,000 new immigrants who were already in the country.
Innovative ideas, protocols and plans must be made to figure out how to welcome immigration back to the country. The immigration processing system needs to modernize, including finding innovations in processing and more efficient decision-making. The pent-up supply and demand for new immigrants could cause a surge in people seeking to enter the country which may overwhelm the already stretched IRCC operations. Moreover, a large influx of new immigrants in a short period of time could put pressure on housing, essential services and integration efforts.
Targeting groups of people who are already in Canada to become permanent residents such as international students, foreign workers and refugee claimants can fill the numbers until overseas immigration can return to pre-pandemic levels. One recent example is the pathway to permanent residency for refugee claimants working in the health-care sector during the pandemic. IRCC is allowing asylum claimants who provide direct care to patients as orderlies, nurses, nurses’ aides and certain home support workers in hospitals, long-term care homes, assisted living facilities or home care facilities to apply for permanent residence.
IRCC is showing flexibility and adaptability by piloting temporary measures such as the facilitative measures for international students, allowing international students who cannot enter Canada at this time to study abroad while still being able to obtain a post-graduation work permit upon completion of studies.
A new temporary public policy was also recently announced to allow visitors in Canada to apply for a work permit without having to leave. This measure was aimed at helping foreign nationals who were unable to leave the country due to travel limitations or foreign workers who had to switch to visitor status because they could not extend their work permit in time. A policy to allow foreign workers to change employers and begin working for their new employers before the work permit is fully approved was also implemented to let workers who are able to contribute their skills to employers facing challenges in recruiting and hiring workers.
Certainly, when the 2020-2022 Immigration Levels Plan was announced, it did not include a contingency that there would be a worldwide pandemic that would close the border and send the economy and our daily lives to a standstill. As the country gradually inches back to some semblance of pre-COVID life, immigration policy decisions will remain a part of the long-term planning. For now, IRCC operations and immigration services are trying to operate “business as unusual.”
Kelly Goldthorpe is an immigration lawyer at Green and Spiegel, LLP.
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