Thousands of would-be Canadian permanent residents stranded abroad

Shelby Thevenot, Kareem El-Assal
Published: October 21, 2020

When Prashant Gupta got his confirmation of permanent residence, he quit his job and booked his flight to Canada to leave on March 18, 2020. Two days before his scheduled trip, borders closed and Canada went into lockdown.

Now, seven months later, Gupta is one of thousands across the globe who were not able to travel to Canada before their immigration documents expired, and still cannot travel to Canada even though they are one step away from permanent residence.

When immigration candidates get a confirmation of permanent residence, or COPR, and a Permanent Resident Visa (PRV), it means they have completed almost every step of the Canadian immigration process. All they have to do is land in Canada and apply for their permanent residence card.

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COPRs can be valid for up to one year. People use this time to resign from their jobs, sell their property, pull their kids out of school, say goodbye to their families, and complete the other arrangements they need to make before settling permanently in Canada.

However, foreign nationals with expired COPRs and PRVs cannot board a plane, even if they are exempt from travel restrictions. This rule has existed before the pandemic. In order to travel to Canada, they need an authorization letter from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC). So, IRCC launched a webform in an effort to process the sudden influx of people in this situation. The new online process was launched in July, 2020.

This is where expired COPR holders are currently stuck. As of October 19, IRCC has responded to 2,700 principal applicants who filled out a webform. Of these, 120 have received their authorization letters.

"That is the issue...Many of us have done the webform," said Favour Elegbede, an expired COPR holder from Nigeria, "Someone will just tell you, 'We've forwarded your documents to the responsible office—' to who? Who is this responsible office? And, why is the responsible office not acting on our files?"

Their first point of contact is an IRCC agent who is only responsible for responding to webform requests. This agent will send them a generic response saying that an IRCC officer will contact them once a decision is made on the applicant's file, but they do not give them a timeline on when they will hear back, nor when they can travel.

"They are giving a confusing type of response," Gupta said. "When I booked my flight in July for August they were saying 'priority will be given to booked tickets.'"

The IRCC program delivery instructions to immigration officers says, “Priority will be given to clients with a proposed or confirmed and detailed travel plan, or a willingness to book and confirm travel plans immediately once approved.”

Gupta soon became one of the many people who booked one-way flights to Canada, and then had to cancel them because they did not receive the authorization letter in time.

Ikenna Madueke, an offshore oil worker, estimates he has lost at least $1,600 booking and cancelling flights for him and his family to fly to Canada from Nigeria. This, after seven months of unemployment.

“The other day we cried,” Madueke said. “We are in limbo right now. We think...Why did we make such a decision to move to Canada? We’re really regretting everything right now.”

In a statement to CIC News, IRCC wrote:

"IRCC is working on solutions to bring these future permanent residents to Canada, while ensuring the health and safety of Canadians during the pandemic. With or without travel restrictions, travellers cannot come to Canada with expired documents. Since many of these clients were delayed from travelling because of COVID-19, we developed a new process to extend their COPRs electronically if they were approved on or before March 18 (and thus are exempt from the travel restrictions) and are ready to come to Canada to live. Capacity at IRCC and CBSA, both at port of entry and in support of air carriers, determines our ability to ramp up this innovative workaround, so that more can benefit from it."

Still, some question if it is a capacity issue. IRCC has a planned budget of some $2 billion in spending for 2020-2021, and has more than 7,000 employees.

"It is a simple one or two page document," Gupta said in a video conference with CIC News, "I do not know what is holding them back and why they are not giving the extension."

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Calls for help met with "loud" silence

David Ojo is a banker whose COPR expired after international flights out of Nigeria came to a standstill on March 24. He followed IRCC's instructions sending in his settlement plans, quarantine plans, and proof that he had cut ties with his home country, including his resignation letter from when he quit his job in February.

But since then, all he has received is generic replies. Emails that say, “the responsible office” who will contact him “if further information is required or if a decision is made on [his] application.” The email replies also include links to other online government resources, but no timeline on when he can expect to make travel arrangements.

While waiting for IRCC to make a decision on his file, Ojo has been squatting at a friend's house living out of his suitcase as he waits for the authorization letter.

"We need them to fast-track this thing considering the fact that we have been stuck in our home countries for so long," Ojo told CIC News, "Nine months is too long without doing anything."

But, Ojo has not been idle. He has lobbied the Canadian government, sending emails to the prime minister, the minister of immigration, the shadow minister, and the standing committee on immigration. He also launched an online petition that has garnered at least 2,900 signatures, and is active in several online groups of other expired COPR holders. He says his efforts have not seen any tangible results.

"It has been a loud silence," Ojo said, adding that all he received from the prime minister's office was a response saying their message had been forwarded to the minister of immigration. "Nothing happened. Nothing, practically, happened."

New permanent residents slow to a trickle

Canada saw a year-over-year 64 per cent drop in new permanent resident arrivals in August.

Just days before Canada shut its borders in March, immigration minister Marco Mendicino announced Canada would target 341,000 arrivals this year.

Data provided to CIC News by Mendicino's department strongly suggests Canada will fall well short of this target due to the pandemic.

Prior to the pandemic, Canada regularly welcomed over 20,000 new permanent residents per month but it has not been able to reach this threshold since February. This is partially due to COPR holders exempt from the travel restrictions not being able to secure IRCC authorization letters to complete the landing process in Canada, and secondly, due to Canada imposing the travel restrictions on those who obtained their COPRs after March 18.

COPR holders who were approved after March 18 can travel to Canada if they are travelling from the U.S. to settle and live in Canada. But, if they are travelling from anywhere outside the U.S., they can only come to Canada if they are exempt from travel restrictions under another category, such as immediate family members.

This had a devastating impact in the early months of Canada's travel restrictions with immigration levels plummeting in April to perhaps Canada's lowest since the Second World War. Meanwhile, the number of COPRs expiring increased due to future permanent residents being stranded abroad. Since then, the number of COPRs expiring per month has declined, which could be a function of IRCC's permanent residence processing slowing down, resulting in fewer new COPRs being issued than prior to the pandemic, hence fewer are expiring.

What's next?

Next week, minister Mendicino is set to announce Canada's Immigration Levels Plan 2021-2023. A number of signs provided by his government strongly suggest Canada will maintain immigration targets north of 300,000 in 2021 and beyond.

One strong sign is the record-breaking Express Entry draws that IRCC has been conducting throughout the pandemic. Those who are receiving permanent residence invitations through Express Entry, which is Canada's flagship application management system for skilled workers, will go ahead and submit their permanent residence applications to IRCC. They will then receive COPRs and PRVs to support their travel to Canada.

When they, and tens of thousands of others such as Gupta, Elegbede, Madueke, and Ojo will be able to officially obtain permanent residence is an issue that remains unresolved.

Find out if you are eligible for Canadian immigration

© 2020 CIC News All Rights Reserved

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