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Numbers obtained by The Globe and Mail under access to information laws show that almost 8,000 applications submitted last fall under the Canada Experience Class (CEC) were returned because they were received after the 2014 cap in the program was reached.

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Thousands of international students were rejected for permanent residence this winter, caught up in changes to Canada's immigration system intended to speed up recruitment of skilled workers but criticized as leading to uncertainty for prospective immigrants and employers.

Numbers obtained by The Globe and Mail under access to information laws show that almost 8,000 applications submitted last fall under the Canada Experience Class (CEC) were returned because they were received after the 2014 cap in the program was reached. International students made up at least 40 per cent of those eligible for CEC – which is also open to highly skilled temporary foreign workers.

Those whose applications were returned had rushed to beat the introduction of the Express Entry system on Jan. 1, 2015. Express Entry is a preliminary screening tool that processes particularly strong prospective immigrants much faster. But applicants must wait to see if they have enough points to be invited to apply. Under CEC, former international students with Canadian work experience were almost guaranteed acceptance as permanent residents.

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"Students now have to engage in this kind of lottery. When someone is coming here and paying international tuition fees and getting work experience, why should they be judged like someone applying from abroad," said Lev Abramovich, an immigration lawyer in Toronto who represents students whose applications were returned.

Like the thousands of others in the same situation, Mr. Abramovich's clients will apply through Express Entry and hope to be accepted before their work permits run out.

Until last week, applicants with a positive labour market impact assessment – meaning that they would not take a job away from a Canadian – had been the primary recipients of invitations to apply for permanent residence. On Friday, the government announced that many in its latest group of invitees under the new program did not have that qualification, making it more likely that international students would be among those able to apply for permanent residency.

Still, some foreign residents who studied in Canada say the new system can make it harder to find work. A graduate of Simon Fraser University who came to Canada from Hong Kong said she can no longer give prospective employers clear answers on her immigration status.

"Under the old system, you could tell your manager legitimately that you are applying for permanent residency. It created more of a trusting relationship. Under the new system, you are waiting to be invited. … there's now a risk that is involved," said the graduate in accounting and marketing, who wanted to remain anonymous.

The federal government insists that once it is fully implemented by 2017, Express Entry will provide international students with a faster path to residency. In addition, international students will not need their credentials assessed for Canadian equivalency because they earned their degrees here.

Nevertheless, Canadian universities have been monitoring the situation.

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"We are working with the federal government to ensure … that international graduates of Canadian universities continue to have opportunity for permanent residency," the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada said in a statement.

Other countries that have changed their immigration rules have seen steep drops in international students. The U.K., for example, had a 50-per-cent decline in students from India and Pakistan after it imposed limits on these students' ability to work in England after graduation. With international tuition fees more than double those of domestic students, Canadian universities can ill afford to lose international students.

The government needs to rethink how Express Entry can better recognize international students, some say.

"We went from a system of certainty to complete uncertainty," said Evan Green, a partner and immigration lawyer at Green and Spiegel LLP in Toronto.

About 133,000 undergraduate and graduate international students were enrolled at Canadian universities last year and 120,000 study permits were issued to foreign students at colleges and universities. About half of international students say they want to stay in the country after graduation, according to surveys.

As late as December, Citizenship and Immigration Canada had said on its website that thousands of spots were still available under the prior regulations. By early winter, however, CIC said the cap in the program was reached in mid-October.

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