When Jorge Amigo chose to come to Canada for university, he hadn't expected to want to spend his life here.
"My decision to come here as a student had nothing to do with immigration," says Mr. Amigo, 33, who's from Mexico City. "But after living here for a few months, I realized I loved this place and I wanted to stay."
Before Ottawa's points-based Express Entry system was introduced on Jan. 1, international students with a year of Canadian skilled work experience were almost guaranteed to stay by getting permanent residency under the Canadian Experience Class (CEC). But with the change, Mr. Amigo – who has bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of British Columbia, an impressive post-graduate résumé and a job with a booming Vancouver-based tech company – fears he may have to leave when his work permit expires in June.
With the new system, it's nearly impossible for most international student graduates such as Mr. Amigo to get permanent residency under Express Entry – unless their employers can prove that no Canadians can do the job, immigration lawyers say.
"Tens of thousands of students are now heartbroken, stressed and don't know what to do with their lives because they were misled by the government," says Vancouver immigration lawyer Zool Suleman. "Employers are looking to lose a group of well-educated students who would be a benefit to the labour market."
The online system, intended to eliminate a massive backlog of immigration applications from outside of Canada, now makes students compete in a points-based system with everyone else trying to get permanent residency.
"They shouldn't have included [the CEC] in the Express Entry system because there never was a backlog with it – they never even met their quotas," says Matthew Jeffery, an immigration lawyer in Toronto. "These are the ideal immigrants because they're educated in Canada and they have skilled work experience in Canada and they usually still have that job – they hit the ground running."
Under Express Entry, applicants get points for education, age, work experience and their skills in English and French. If an applicant's points are over the minimum score set by the government, they're invited in.
"The problem for people who came in as students is they can't rank very highly in the pool," Mr. Jeffery says. "They're young and they only have a year or two of work experience, so their score from the beginning is going to be low."
When Express Entry started in January, applicants needed to get a score of 900 to get invited. Since then, the cutoff score has varied in each round – and applicants have no way of knowing in advance what the score will be.
"I've got clients every day who say, is this high enough?" says Shoshana Green, an immigration lawyer in Toronto. "But nobody knows because it's kept a secret."
So far, the lowest score to get an invitation was 453. That was the score for two rounds in March and April. In May, it rose to 755.
But even that lowest score isn't high enough for most international graduates.
"A [CEC] applicant with a Canadian bachelor's degree and one year of skilled work experience would get about 410 points," Mr. Jeffery says.
There are two ways for applicants to get 600 bonus points – which would essentially guarantee an invitation. They need either a Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA) or a nomination from their province or territory.
For the LMIA, the employer needs to post the applicant's job for 30 days to prove that no Canadians are available – even though the applicant is already working there.
"Good luck finding someone to do that for you," Mr. Jeffery says. "And even if you did, these students aren't highly skilled – nine times out of ten that application will be denied."
If an employer does do an LMIA, they'll have to open up their HR records to the government and show that they have a hiring plan in place so they won't have to rely on immigrants in the future, Mr. Suleman says.
In practice, unless an employee is a "brain surgeon who speaks six languages," the LMIA is likely to get rejected, Mr. Suleman says. "The [LMIA] was meant to cure the abuse of using low-skilled workers to replace Canadians. But what it's also done is make it very onerous for Canadian companies who legitimately want to hire foreign workers."
It's especially tough on small business that don't have massive HR departments – and might not even have HR staff at all, Mr. Suleman says. "Small companies don't function the way the government thinks they do. They don't sit around saying, 'What is my human resources plan for the next five years?' or 'How will I recruit Canadian employees?' They're busy trying to get their products to the market or sell and market their services."
The other option is a provincial or territorial nomination. These let provinces choose who they want to let in and what the criteria will be. But they're backlogged, Mr. Suleman says. "The provincial programs are oversubscribed because employers choose the provincial nomination as a way to circumnavigate the LMIA process."
Even then, they don't let in huge numbers. Out of 12,000 invitations issued under Express Entry until July of this year, only 698 were from provincial nominations.
Mr. Amigo, whose score is 449, did get a provincial nomination through B.C.'s program.
For that program, his employer at the time, a "small creative agency," had to post his job for three months and interview replacements to prove that nobody could do it.
It's been expensive, too – Mr. Amigo thinks he's spent "five or six grand" on lawyers and fees.
During the election, the Liberals promised to "make changes to the Canadian Experience Class to reduce the barriers to immigration that have been imposed on international students."
When asked whether those changes are coming, a Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said it would be "premature" to comment.
"We are in the early stages of implementation of Express Entry and we continue to monitor how it works closely," says spokesperson Nancy Chan in an email. "This will inform decisions on any possible future changes or improvements."
Mr. Amigo hopes the program will change so graduates have a realistic hope of staying.
"Right now, the only way for candidates like myself to get invited to apply was to convince an employer to go through the arduous, and expensive, process of getting them a provincial nomination," he says. "I got lucky that my employer decided to fight for me to get me a provincial nomination, and doubly lucky that B.C. decided that I was worthy of their program."
Mr. Amigo thought he was safe with 1,049 points. But the tiny company restructured and he got laid off, he says.
He found another job right away, but he says he didn't know whether his nomination would stay valid with a new job. And he can't reapply because B.C. has shut down nominations except for a few specific job categories paying more than $100,000 a year. That means after living in Canada for eight years, Mr. Amigo fears he may have to leave the country.
"I haven't been able to sleep in a year. You build a whole life thinking you'll stay in a place you love and a community you care about – and you might not be able to because the options were removed from the table."
Editor's note: A previous version of this story stated that employers have to pay a $1,000 application fee for the LMIA, which is incorrect. Employers only have to pay the fee if the LMIA is part of an application for a work permit, but not when it's part of an application for permanent residence.