Even as COVID-19 continues to pose challenges, the flow of immigrants into Canada will continue.
Among the proverbial game-changers in the life of the world, COVID-19 was a big one. The pandemic forced change to happen. We saw the vaccination of increasing numbers of people, the provision of long-term information (and disinformation) campaigns, the politicization of medicine, the impact of the pandemic on race and culture, the management of discord, and the need to explain a complex issue in clear, simple terms.
For many it allowed an opportunity to work from home and reconnect with themselves and others in ways they never considered pre-pandemic. But for others, the pandemic’s human costs included lives lost, job losses and, for those seeking a new life in Canada, a barrier to realizing their dream.
Many people seeking to immigrate found their plans spoiled by COVID, a wrench tossed into a sometimes-slow-moving machine designed to allow people to shift from one place to another. Despite this, Canada’s proactive immigration policy sees immigration numbers approaching one percent of Canada’s total population, edging close to 400,000 per year. Currently, more than one in five Canadians (21.5%) is an immigrant, and it is a number that will grow. In 2020, the Migrant Integration Policy Index (MIPEX) placed Canada in the top five countries for integration. According to MIPEX, these countries “adopt a comprehensive approach to integration, which fully guarantees equal rights, opportunities and security for immigrants and citizens.” Along with Canada were Finland, New Zealand, Portugal and Sweden.
As geopolitical specialist Parag Khanna pointed out on the public affairs show The Agenda in November 2021, Canada needs immigrants. The latest generation, called Alpha (those born 2013 to 2025), comprises (mostly) the children of Millennials but represents a population decline. Generation Z (those born 1997 to 2012) is the biggest cohort in human history, Khanna said. But the subsequent numeric decrease with Alpha means that immigration is not only desirable but necessary. People have never stopped moving from one place to another, and COVID has done little to slow migration. As such, Canada will be a “role model” and key target for immigrants, “not just some kind of fanciful future dream but a place that’s getting it right, right now,” Khanna said.
It is no secret that migrants take jobs others often do not want. They build economies and support families in their home countries. While migrants are vulnerable to COVID in countries affected by the pandemic spread, those from the “20 countries with the highest number of COVID-19 cases” accounted for a third of the “total international migrant stock” and “36% of all remittances to their countries of origin” in 2020, according to the website Migration Data Portal.
Yet according to a Stats Canada labour force survey, COVID’s social and economic hardships also spurred some immigrants to return to their home countries. The number of permanent residents with less than five years in Canada declined by four percent by the end of 2020, to 1.02 million. This is a serious shift given the number had grown a steady three percent a year over the past decade. On top of that, the number of permanent residents in the five- to 10-year range dropped from 1.17 million in 2019 to 1.15 million in 2020.
During the pandemic, a Government of Canada immigration website encouraged immigration applicants to continue applying:
Our ability to review and process (applications) is still being affected by COVID-19. … We can’t currently estimate any processing times … If you can’t get a (supporting) document because it’s delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, you can send proof that you’re trying to get it (like a receipt).
Impacting business lines
Raj Sharma – lawyer, immigration specialist, and founding partner at Calgary firm Stewart Sharma Harsanyi – said in an interview that the uniqueness of COVID, and its impact on “every business line of immigration”, made it stand out.
“COVID presented a challenge and an opportunity for government,” said Sharma, who recently authored the immigration law book Inadmissibility and Remedies with Aris Daghighian. Among COVID’s “silver linings” was a shift to a paperless application process, said Sharma.
In November 2020, Sharma made a presentation to the federal Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration. He reported to the standing committee that “COVID-19 has caused an unprecedented disruption to our immigration system…IRCC (Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada) was caught flat-footed, as were we all.” Among the areas affected:
- IRCC workers having to work remotely
- the suspension of visitor visa applications, biometrics, and medical examinations for months
- the separation of families by borders or travel logistics
- the delay of citizenship ceremonies and landings for permanent residents
- significant delays in processing submitted applications
“There was and continues to be massive uncertainty as immigration policy is being made almost daily via websites,” Sharma told the standing committee. He continued:
COVID-19 has demonstrated the importance of front-line workers. During this pandemic we continue to exploit and put migrant agricultural workers and new immigrants in harm’s way. Persons of colour and new immigrants are disproportionately affected by COVID-19 because they are also disproportionately on the front lines as health care workers and essential workers in transit and in meat and agricultural processing … There should be greater employment mobility and a clear pathway to permanent residency for all essential and front-line workers irrespective of whether they are in so-called low-skill jobs. This change can be made easily through expanding the existing express entry system.
According to Sharma, subtle discrimination exists in the immigration system, and this has been impacted by the pandemic. “Different groups are impacted in different ways (especially with) some community-sponsored family members. The impact is felt disproportionately among racialized communities because racialized communities have family members back home.”
The costs to the economy of reduced immigration are measurable. For example, international students, many of whom seek permanent status after finishing their studies, contributed almost $20 billion to Canada’s economy in 2018. In April 2021, then-Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister Marco Mendicino announced a pathway to permanent residence “for over 90,000 essential workers and international graduates who are actively contributing to Canada’s economy,” a government news release said. The policies would grant permanent status to temporary workers and international graduates “already in Canada and who possess the skills and experience we need to fight the pandemic and accelerate our economic recovery.”
The policy focus is on workers in three streams:
- 20,000 applications for temporary workers in health care
- 30,000 applications for temporary workers in other selected essential occupations
- 40,000 applications for international students who graduated from a Canadian institution
Mendicino’s successor, Nova Scotia MP Sean Fraser, who took on the immigration minister job in late October 2021, told media in November that the challenges continue to be many. His department’s statistics cited more than 561,000 people in line for permanent residency, almost 750,000 with pending temporary residence applications (students, visitors and workers) and a 375,000-strong citizenship backlog.
One thing is certain: as we continue to work our way through the pandemic, the flow of immigrants into Canada will continue. This situation is not only desirable, but necessary, as the country continues to grow.
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The information in this article was correct at time of publishing. The law may have changed since then. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of LawNow or the Centre for Public Legal Education Alberta.
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