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Gaurav Purohit, a Toronto-based finance professional who has worked at a prominent global financial services company for the past 15 months, on Oct. 7.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

Thousands of highly skilled immigrants who in previous years would easily have qualified for permanent residence in Canada are being forced to return to their home countries as their work permits expire – the result of a backlog created by federal policy decisions intended to boost immigration during the pandemic.

Many of them are former international students who landed jobs in Canada mid-pandemic, during a critical labour shortage. Now they find themselves in limbo, waiting for opportunities to apply for permanent resident status – opportunities that may never arrive.

“I have spent weeks trying to figure out what to do, but I don’t think there’s anything left that I can really do but leave Canada and find a job elsewhere,” said Gaurav Purohit, a Toronto-based finance professional who has worked at a prominent global financial services company for the past 15 months.

Mr. Purohit came to Canada from India in 2017 and completed a master’s program in Indigenous Studies at Trent University the following year. His work permit expires this month.

His immigration problems, and those of other people who now find themselves in similar situations, stem from the earliest days of the pandemic, when COVID-19 caused a steep drop in the number of immigrants being granted permanent residence in Canada. Sensing trouble for the country’s immigrant-dependent work force, the federal government introduced measures to reverse the trend.

Those measures succeeded in attracting a great many applications for permanent residence, but there was an undesired side effect: Canada’s immigration bureaucracy soon buckled under the pressure to process the avalanche of paperwork. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), the federal immigration ministry, responded to the backlog by imposing a moratorium on new applications from people who had already lived and worked in Canada. The pause lasted for almost a year.

Now, Mr. Purohit and other immigrants with Canadian work experience, many of whom would likely have sailed through the federal vetting process before the pandemic, are still waiting for the government to invite them to apply for permanent residence. If their work permits expire before that happens, many of them will be unable to remain in the country.

“Our immigration system is already a particularly complicated one, but the pandemic and the decisions made by the federal government during the pandemic created an even bigger mess,” said Meika Lalonde, a partner at McCrea Immigration Law in Vancouver. “We are now in a situation where tens of thousands of individuals who are integrated into the labour market – the perfect individuals to stay here forever – have to leave.”

Canada’s economy relies heavily on immigrants. Every year, the government sets a target for the number of them it hopes to turn into permanent residents, who can live and work in the country indefinitely and eventually apply for citizenship.

The target in 2020 was 341,000 – but, because of the pandemic, only 185,000 new permanent residence visas were granted.

This was the exact opposite of what the government was trying to achieve. In late 2020, it announced that it was increasing its targets for the next three years, in the hopes of admitting over 1.2 million new permanent residents by the end of 2023.

And so the government decided to take steps to boost the number of permanent residence applications it was receiving. One of the first things it did to accomplish this was make a dramatic adjustment to Express Entry.

Skilled immigrants who want to live permanently in Canada usually start by submitting their personal information to Express Entry, which is a federal program that puts them all in a pool of candidates who are competing against one another for permanent residence.

Each person in the Express Entry pool gets a score from the government’s Comprehensive Ranking System (CRS), which awards them points for having positive attributes like Canadian work experience, advanced academic degrees or fluency in English or French. Everyone in the pool is waiting for the government to invite them to apply for permanent residence. Normally, only those with the highest CRS scores get invites.

Immigrants like Mr. Purohit, who have already worked in Canada for at least one year, typically apply for permanent residence through the Express Entry program’s Canadian Experience Class (CEC) stream, whose candidates form a smaller pool within the Express Entry pool.

The government usually issues 3,500 to 4,000 CEC application invitations every two weeks, which gives the pool time to replenish its supply of high-scoring candidates. But in February, 2021, during the push for more applications, IRCC handed out invitations to all 27,332 people remaining in the CEC pool at the time. To send out all those invites, it lowered the minimum CRS score to 75, from its usual average of 450.

Another way the government boosted 2021 immigration levels was by creating a new program: the “temporary resident to permanent resident pathway,” or TR to PR. The special program was designed as a quick path to permanent residence for foreign nationals who were already in Canada and working in essential sectors like health care.

The resulting increase in the number of permanent residence applications created a processing backlog at IRCC.

“It’s easy to make an announcement that you’re going to boost immigration levels. But they created a massive problem for the people who worked in the department, who had to now process tens of thousands more applications,” said Mikal Skuterud, a professor of labour economics at the University of Waterloo who has spent decades researching Canada’s immigration system.

In September, 2021, to stop that backlog from growing, IRCC abruptly paused permanent residence invitations for work permit holders in the CEC pool. The invitations didn’t resume until July, 2022.

“If you happened to be in the CEC pool when the CRS score was lowered to 75, you plainly got lucky. If you were in the CEC pool during the pause and your CRS score was high, above the old average of 450, it didn’t matter. You had to sit and wait, even if your work permit was on the brink of expiring,” Ms. Lalonde explained.

IRCC acknowledged these backlogs in a March, 2022, internal memo, which said “existing federal high skilled inventory would have to be reduced by more than half” before any new invitations were sent out. Caught up in this delay were immigrants like Mr. Purohit.

Canada did succeed at hitting its immigration target for 2021. That December, the government announced it had admitted more than 401,000 new permanent residents, the highest annual number on record.

“There was a cost to reaching those 2021 immigration targets. You now have huge numbers of talented, high-skilled workers, who would have previously qualified easily, sitting in this pool, just waiting,” Prof. Skuterud said.

In a statement to The Globe, IRCC said it paused invitations to “manage growing inventories.” It added that Express Entry is an application management system, meaning reducing or pausing invitations is “precisely part of what the system was designed to do.”

IRCC also said new applications will now be processed within the usual six-month time frame.

In response to a question about why the minimum CRS score was lowered to 75, IRCC said the average score of candidates invited in that round was 415.

“All candidates in the Express Entry pool, even those with the lowest CRS scores, qualify for at least one economic immigration program and therefore have the necessary skills to succeed and contribute to the economy,” the ministry said.

The government has offered some supports to immigrants who now find themselves with expiring work permits and no way to apply for permanent residence.

In January, 2021, IRCC introduced a special temporary program that gave people with postgraduation work permits 18-month extensions on their permits’ expiry dates. The permits, which are given to people who studied in Canada, typically expire after eight months to three years.

The rationale for the extensions was pandemic-related: because much of the country was in lockdown, many former international students struggled to find work in Canada. Without Canadian work experience, it’s much harder for a person to gain permanent residence.

The government estimated that roughly 52,000 former international students would benefit from the extensions. Mr. Purohit was one of them. “I was really happy to get the 18-month extension in April, 2021,” he said.

He worked as a part-time instructor at Trent University before landing his current job in July, 2021.

By October, 2021, Mr. Purohit had worked full-time in Canada for a year, his CRS score was high, and he was confident he would get an invitation to apply for permanent residence before the extension on his work permit expired.

But by the time the government resumed draws from the CEC pool in July, 2022, there were so many applicants in the pool that the average CRS score required to receive an invite had risen above 500.

“Now I’m in a situation where I’m not going to get an invitation for PR because my score is too low,” Mr. Purohit said. “And it is ironic, because when the government granted us the 18-month extension, they said it was to ensure we would all get permanent residency.”

Ramkumar Narayanaraja, a Vancouver-based graphic designer who came to Canada from India, is in a similar situation.

His 18-month extension expired in September. He is now waiting for his employer to agree to apply for a labour market impact assessment, which would allow the company to get government approval to hire a certain number of temporary foreign workers. Meanwhile, Mr. Narayanaraja’s wife is about to give birth, and the couple has been racking up hospital bills because their immigration status prevents them from getting public health benefits.

“It just seems unfair that I paid my taxes, contributed to the system, and I’m faced with so much uncertainty,” Mr. Narayanaraja said. His CRS score is high, but not high enough to clear the new, elevated bar for a permanent residence invite.

If he’s able to remain in Canada as a temporary worker, and if the minimum CRS score eventually declines, he might one day be able to apply. But it’s more likely that he and his wife will have to leave the country.

In August, the government announced another 18-month extension for post-graduation work permit holders, but only for those whose initial permits had expiry dates between September, 2021, and December, 2022. Neither Mr. Purohit nor Mr. Narayanaraja are in that category.

In response to questions about whether they and others will be granted further extensions, IRCC said it “cannot speculate on future policy or program decisions.” But the ministry noted that in some cases people who were issued extensions under the 2021 policy will also be eligible for the extension announced this year.

It is unclear exactly how many skilled immigrants are currently living in limbo, unsure when or if they will obtain permanent residence, but Prof. Skuterud and Ms. Lalonde estimate that there are tens of thousands. The number of people in the Express Entry pool currently waiting for permanent residence invitations has ballooned to nearly 240,000 since early 2021.

Prof. Skuterud argued that the government lost sight, during the pandemic, of the real objective of economic immigration.

“Look, the Express Entry program and the CRS score was created in 2015 in order to get the best immigrants into this country,” he said. “And for years, it worked well. There’s been a clear improvement in the average earnings of new immigrants since 2015.”

“But the government got really fixated on making up for the 2020 shortfall, so they lowered the CRS score for the CEC pool, and created the TR to PR pathway. The result is we gained a lot of low-skilled immigrants, and we are currently losing high-skilled immigrants because of an avoidable backlog.”

Ms. Lalonde said the obvious solution is to hand out targeted work permit extensions to people like Mr. Purohit and Mr. Narayanaraja, who have high CRS scores and would easily have qualified for permanent residence had the pandemic not happened. And she said the government should be more transparent about how it intends to address the current backlog.

In September, the government announced steps to shorten application processing times. Those included hiring 1,250 new employees at IRCC and exempting permanent and temporary residence applicants who are already in Canada from medical exams.

But that won’t help people whose work permits are on the verge of expiring.

“There is so much uncertainty. And it’s unfortunate, because these people did so much to get to this point,” Ms. Lalonde said. “We really shouldn’t have to lose them.”