Express Entry Q1 2021 report: Canada smashes record as it eyes 401,000 immigration goal

Mohanad Moetaz, Kareem El-Assal, Shelby Thevenot
Published: April 2, 2021

Canada issued invitations to 44,124 immigration candidates in the first quarter of 2021, by far the most it has issued in a quarter since Express Entry was launched in 2015.

Express Entry is the main way that Canada welcomes economic class immigrants. It is a two step process. In step one, candidates must meet the eligibility criteria of one of the three skilled worker programs that are managed under Express Entry. Eligible candidates upload their profiles onto the Canadian government's website and obtain a Comprehensive Ranking System (CRS) score based on their human capital characteristics such as their age, education, language skills, and work experience.

In step two, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) holds Express Entry draws inviting successful candidates to apply for permanent residence. Generally speaking, IRCC holds draws every two weeks and invites candidates with the highest CRS scores, but it has temporarily departed from this approach due to the pandemic. Now, IRCC is focusing on inviting Express Entry candidates most likely residing in Canada during the pandemic. For the time being, program-specific draws are the new normal.

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New normal: program-specific draws

Canada has been holding Express Entry draws throughout the COVID-19 pandemic despite travel restrictions that have been in place since March 2020.

Many foreign nationals are exempt from the restrictions such as the close family members of Canadian citizens and permanent residents, some temporary foreign workers, and certain international students. However, with few exceptions, newly approved economic class immigrants overseas have been unable to complete their landing in Canada throughout the pandemic.

As a solution, IRCC has shifted to program-specific draws. Whereas it would usually consider all candidates in its Express Entry draws prior to the pandemic, it has been considering certain candidates who are either being invited due to provincial labour market needs, or because the candidates are likely living in Canada at the moment. The group particularly impacted by this policy shift are candidates eligible under the Federal Skilled Worker Program (FSWP), who made up the bulk of Express Entry candidates who became permanent residents prior to the pandemic.

In the first quarter of 2021, IRCC has been alternating between Provincial Nominee Program (PNP) Express Entry draws and Canadian Experience Class (CEC) draws. Canada held 10 Express Entry draws in the first quarter. Six of them were PNP-only, and four of them only invited CEC candidates. A total of 41,708 went to CEC candidates and 2,416 went to PNP candidates.

Every province or territory operates a PNP except for Nunavut and Quebec. The provinces look to welcome skilled workers to promote economic development. The CEC is a popular immigration pathway for those who studied or worked in Canada. Candidates need to have at least one year of Canadian work experience and meet minimum language requirements.

Saturday Surprise: February 13, 2021 draw does the heavy lifting this quarter

IRCC held a historic draw on February 13, inviting a whopping 27,332 immigration candidates to apply for permanent residence. To compare, in its second-largest Express Entry draws ever, IRCC invited just 5,000 candidates.

Only Canadian Experience Class candidates were invited in this record-breaking draw, and they needed a CRS score of just 75 to receive an invitation — the lowest CRS requirement ever. Generally speaking, CRS cut-offs were usually comfortably over 400 prior to this draw.

The draw accounted for 62 per cent of all ITAs issued this quarter. Prior to this quarter, IRCC would issue a comparable level of ITAs in a three-month period as what was issued in a single draw on February 13.

The exceptional draw was a function of the pandemic.

In the first quarter of 2020, Canada had invited a total of 22,600 immigration candidates to apply for permanent residence.

That number was almost doubled this quarter as IRCC looks to make up for its immigration shortfall in 2020. IRCC sought to welcome 341,000 new immigrants in 2020 until the pandemic resulted in the weakest year for Canadian immigration since 1998.

To compensate, IRCC announced the most ambitious immigration levels targets in Canadian history.

Canada is hoping to welcome a staggering 401,000 new permanent residents in 2021 with Express Entry set to account for roughly one-fourth of new arrivals.

Recognizing the persistent impact of the pandemic on immigration, IRCC has mainly focused on inviting CEC candidates. IRCC says about 90 per cent of CEC candidates are likely already in Canada.

Express Entry-aligned PNPs

Many PNP streams are aligned with the federal Express Entry system. This means that the provinces and territories use invite immigration candidates who have profiles in the Express Entry pool to apply for a provincial nomination.

This benefits the candidate since a provincial nomination adds a total of 600 CRS points to their score. This effectively guarantees receipt of an invitation to apply in the next Express Entry draw.

Alberta, B.C., Manitoba, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, and Saskatchewan have all issued nominations to Express Entry candidates so far this year.

What to expect in Q2 and beyond

IRCC kicked off the second quarter of 2021 by inviting 5,000 CEC candidates on April 1st. 

If last year is any indication, we can expect IRCC to continue to hold program-specific CEC and PNP draws over the next few months. However, IRCC returned to all-program draws in the second half of 2020, and it may do the same against this year. The rationale would be that inviting as many PNP and CEC candidates in the first six months of the year will enable IRCC to land as many of these candidates as possible by the end of 2021, which would support its 401,000 newcomer goal for the year. Then, it can hold all-program draws in the second half of this year and complete the landing of these candidates, such as FSWP candidates, once the pandemic situation improves and travel restrictions are lifted.

Following the February 13 Express Entry draw, IRCC noted it looks forward to welcoming candidates currently overseas into Canada once the devastating pandemic has been placed under control.

Hope is on the horizon here in Canada, as the country aims to vaccinate the majority of its population by the summer thanks to major expected shipments of COVID-19 vaccines.

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