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People demonstrate outside an immigration office on July 26, where they called on the government to give residency status to all migrant workers and asylum seekers.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Tens of thousands of future Canadians are missing. Because of closed borders brought on by COVID-19, only a fraction of those who were supposed to become new permanent residents this year and next will actually arrive.

This country relies on immigrants to sustain its population and expand its economy. But Canada admitted only 34,000 permanent residents in the second quarter of this year, down 67 per cent from the same period in 2019. Most new permanent residents were already in Canada on work or study permits.

And lockdowns and closed visa offices overseas could suppress immigration for years to come.

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There is a fix, though only for the short term. Tens of thousands of international students, temporary foreign workers and asylum claimants who are in Canada right now could be fast-tracked to permanent residency.

“We’ve got all these people that are here,” Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, said in an interview. “And if we give them permanent residence, they’re going to be able to contribute to Canada. So we end up benefiting from it.”

Converting students, temporary foreign workers and asylum claimants into permanent residents could ease the shortfall of immigrants until Ottawa can get the overseas applications process back on stream, air travel fully resumes and barriers between countries come down.

If they come down.

In an August report, the International Organization for Migration warned “the age of migration itself may now be coming to an end.” More than 90 per cent of the world’s population live in countries with pandemic-related restrictions on new arrivals.

A recent report from the Royal Bank of Canada estimated that, best case, immigration in 2020 will be down 30 per cent from the target of 341,000 set by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.

“The worry is that what happens in the short run may turn into the long run,” said Andrew Agopsowicz, a senior economist at the bank and author of the report.

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Consider the situation of international students. There were 642,000 of them studying in Canada in 2019. Only the United States and Australia take in more foreign students. As well as contributing $22-billion to the Canadian economy and helping to sustain 170,000 jobs, they serve as one of the main sources of new permanent residents each year. But not this year. In the second quarter, the Immigration department issued just over 10,000 new study permits, compared with 107,000 a year earlier.

The University of Waterloo, with its strong reputation in engineering and computer sciences, plays host to about 7,000 international students each year, along with about 35,000 Canadian students.

But apart from the roughly 2,000 students who are already here, almost all foreign students will be taking their courses online from their home country, said Christine McWebb, the university’s assistant vice-president responsible for international operations.

Those international students who are in Canada and wish to remain provide a pool of applicants who could be fast-tracked to permanent residency. And those who can’t get here this year can be encouraged to come as soon as conditions permit.

Ottawa agrees. Last week, the Immigration department announced new measures that will make it easier for students to study from abroad while still being able to later obtain a work permit in Canada.

Another potential pool of permanent residents can be found among temporary foreign workers. Although the federal government took special measures to ensure agricultural workers were admitted this year, TFW permits were down about 50 per cent in the second quarter. These workers are critical to sustaining not just agriculture, but health care, construction, transportation and other sectors.

“We call them temporary foreign workers but the work they are doing is neither temporary nor superfluous,” said Usha George, director of the Centre for Immigration and Settlement at Ryerson University. “These people are called unskilled, but they are essential workers.”

Asylum seekers cross the border from New York into Canada in Hemmingford, Que., this past March.

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

A third group of potential permanent residents might be more problematic, at least to some.

In 2019, just over 16,500 people sought asylum in Canada by making use of unauthorized border crossings, such as Roxham Road in Quebec. But as of the end of July, this year, just over 3,100 asylum seekers had been intercepted by the RCMP, owing to the closing of the border between Canada and the U.S. and the severe reduction in international travel.

The majority of claims referred to the Refugee Protection Division are eventually approved, although the process can take years. Many claimants are already working. They speak or are learning English or French, have housing, and have forged ties within the community. Expediting their claims would provide new permanent residents to make up for those not arriving from overseas, while eliminating the backlog.

“We’d be better off saving the money of the refugee claim process,” Ms. Dench said. “And the sooner they can obtain permanent residence, the sooner they can get on with their lives and really contribute to Canadian society.”

Ottawa has already announced that some asylum claimants working in the health sector may apply to become permanent residents.

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Canada’s average population growth rate,

by natural and migratory increase

Natural increase

Migratory increase

Addition of

Newfoundland

and Labrador

3.5%

Proj.

3.0

2.5

By 2056, migration

could be the sole

driver of population

growth

2.0

1.5

1.0

0.5

0

-0.5

-1.0

1861

1901

1941

1981

2016

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: STATSCAN

Canada’s average population growth rate,

by natural and migratory increase

Natural increase

Migratory increase

Addition of

Newfoundland

and Labrador

3.5%

Proj.

3.0

2.5

By 2056, migration

could be the sole

driver of population

growth

2.0

1.5

1.0

0.5

0

-0.5

-1.0

1861

1901

1941

1981

2016

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: STATSCAN

Canada’s average population growth rate, by natural and migratory increase

Natural increase

Migratory increase

Addition of

Newfoundland

and Labrador

3.5%

Projected

3.0

2.5

By 2056, migration

could be the sole

driver of population

growth

2.0

1.5

1.0

0.5

0

-0.5

-1.0

1861

1881

1901

1921

1941

1961

1981

2001

2016

2036

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: STATSCAN

Immigrants to Canada tend to be better educated than the native-born and they start more businesses. As Canada’s population ages, they will be vital to providing both the labour and the taxes needed to care for older citizens.

With luck, either a vaccine or effective treatments will arrive next year, weakening the impact of COVID-19 to the point where borders can reopen. In the meantime, the opportunity exists to convert as many students, foreign workers and asylum seekers into permanent residents as possible, to make up for the shortfall.

Whatever their background, we can expect the new arrivals will make splendid Canadians. They almost always do.


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