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‘I’m terrified for my own future’: Why some of Canada’s international students are anxiously eyeing calendar as post-grad work permits expire

Meghna Bajpai crosses each day off her calendar as she waits anxiously for Ottawa to reopen its draws for skilled workers like her to apply for permanent residence in Canada.

Time is running out for the Toronto woman; her postgraduate work permit expires on April 29 and there’s no sight of any government plan to extend her stay in the country or provide that pathway for permanent residence amid a staggering immigration backlog.

The international student from India will have to leave her full-time government job as an issues and policy co-ordinator and find a way to stay here legally until immigration officials finally summarize the federal economic immigration programs.

“We have worked hard to make a living and a career in Canada even during the pandemic. It really breaks you down and we’re exhausted,” said Bajpai, 23, who graduated from Humber College’s postgraduate program in public relations in 2020.

“I’m terrified for my own future. We are not asking for citizenship or permanent residence right away. All I want is to maintain my status and continue working. They are not even doing that.”

Many international graduates and workers like Bajpai are hoping Ottawa will soon deliver another special policy to help international graduates and workers who are falling through the cracks on their path for permanent residence.

Ottawa has stopped inviting candidates to apply for its federal skilled immigration program — in the skilled workers, skilled trades and Canadian experience streams — since last year, as officials were struggling to process applications already in the queue. The last draw under the Canadian Experience Class (CEC) came back in September.

According to Montreal-based immigration lawyer Colin Singer, the immigration department only invited 6,470 candidates — all under provincial immigration streams — in its talent pool to apply for permanent residence in the first three months of 2022. That’s 15 per cent of the number of invites issued by Ottawa over the same period last year, and the lowest first-quarter number recorded since the so-called Express Entry selection system was introduced in 2015.

Singer believes the much lower number of invitations reflects the reduction of the 2022 permanent residence quota for federal high skilled workers — which has been cut to 55,900 from 111,000 the year before — as well as the need to restrict intake to give officials time to first tackle the enormous backlog of applications (estimated at 1.8 million in all lines of immigration programs) created by the pandemic.

“They needed some relief. They needed to put a foot on the brake,” said Singer.

In fact, the many priorities for Immigration Minister Sean Fraser in his mandate letter included expanding pathways to permanent residence for international students and temporary foreign workers through the Express Entry system and reducing application processing times.

“I can reassure you, we’re looking at resuming draws in the near term on the Canadian experience class” — skilled workers with Canadian work experience — “and all skilled workers,” Fraser told a panel discussion by the Canadian Club Toronto in February .

Any relief measure by Ottawa is already too late for Shefali Mann, who had to quit her job as a digital account co-ordinator at a marketing firm in January when her postgraduate work permit expired while she was waiting for a draw under the Canadian Experience Class .

Like Bajpai, Mann followed all the prescribed steps toward her permanent residence by enrolling in an eligible postgraduate program in Canada, securing the needed Canadian job experience and creating her profile in the Canadian talent pool to get invited for permanent residence.

“It’s been almost seven months since they had their last CEC draw in September. Up until then, they had to draw twice a month,” said the 25-year-old, who has an undergraduate business administration degree from India and came in 2019 for an event management postgraduate program at Humber.

“We played by the rules and followed the rules. How would we know they would stop the draw?”

Ottawa did acknowledge the challenges faced by international students during the pandemic by temporarily extending all the expiring postgraduate work permits last year for up to 18 months in order to bridge the gap. But that special policy has ended.

“We understand this is a difficult situation for some applicants, as they can only receive one postgraduate work permit — they can’t be renewed or extended. This rule isn’t new,” said immigration department spokesperson Rémi Larivière in an email.

Despite the odds, he said many international graduates have successfully become permanent residents, with more than 88,000 transitioning directly from a postgraduate work permit to permanent residence in 2021, compared to 28,000 in the pre-pandemic year of 2019.

Those running out of work authorization, he said, can apply for other types of work permits they are eligible for such as an employer-specific work permit, which requires a positive labor-market impact assessment and restricts a migrant to work for a specific employer .

Mann said she’s been looking for employers who are willing to go through the paperwork and pay for the $1,000 labor-market assessment fee, but to no avail.

“As soon as I tell them about my situation they say they will get back, or ask me to reapply when I get my work permit sorted,” said Mann, who has a pending application to remain in Canada as a visitor, which won’ Don’t let her work.

“I’m living off my savings now. It will help me last for about three months. I’m on a tight budget.”

Singer said he finds it hard to understand why an employer would not spend the money to keep top talent and he’s thrilled with the recent federal budget to commit millions of dollars to immigration processing in order to reduce the backlogs.

“It is all temporary. I think this is part of Canada’s growing pains in delivering a system, an immigration tool to employers (in) much larger volume than they’ve ever been able to process,” he said, referring to Ottawa’s ambitious plan to welcome more than 1.3 million new immigrants to the country over the next three years.

“So give credit to the Canadian authorities. They recognize this problem and they’re financially taking big steps to solve this problem.”

But for Mann and Bajpai who are caught up in the delays, they need the reprieve now — either a new draw for the federal economic programs or an extension of their postgraduate work permits.

“I’m in a limbo, not knowing what will be my next step. Where am I going to go? asked Bajpai. “Why make us suffer?”

Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung

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