Parliamentary committee publishes study on COVID impact on Canadian immigration

Shelby Thevenot
Published: May 17, 2021

The parliamentary committee on immigration has released the results of its study on how the pandemic has affected Canadian immigration.

Salma Zahid, the Chair of the committee, presented the report in the House of Commons on May 13. It touches on issues pertaining to the three classes of Canadian immigration: economic, family, and refugee.

The report is a result of the findings of the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration, after hearing testimonies from immigrants, interest groups, lawyers, and other stakeholders. The committee is comprised of Canadian members of parliament, who are elected officials. There is at least one member from every major political party sitting on the committee. Their mandate is to monitor federal policy relating to immigration and multiculturalism, as well as oversee the immigration department and refugee board.

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Some of the topics covered include application backlogs, barriers preventing family reunification, travel restrictions affecting COPR holders, among others. The government, which is currently led by a Liberal minority, has 120 days to table a response. Although the government is not obliged to change policy, some of the 38 recommendations have already been implemented to a degree, or are in the works.

Here is an overview of the recommendations, which CIC News has categorized by topic:


Modernizing the immigration system

Six of the recommendations touch on digitizing the immigration system.

Firstly, the committee recommends fully digitizing the immigration and asylum systems, while keeping an option for paper applications. Applicants should be able to submit documents and signatures online, and immigration officers should be able to conduct interviews virtually and issue visas electronically. Permanent residency (PR) visas should be issued with a scannable barcode instead of being affixed to physical passports.

This idea has been in the works, especially after Canada went into lockdown in 2020. Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino has said his vision is to digitize the immigration system across the board. Also, Canada had previously announced $430 million to modernize the immigration system.

In addition, the committee recommends that Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) increase funding to settlement services to promote digital literacy, and the availability of digital tools.

Transparency, communication, accountability

There are six recommendations calling for more transparency, and accountability.

The committee recommends IRCC publish anonymous processing and application data for all immigration streams, disaggregated by applicants' race, religion, gender, age, source-country, and parental status.

They also call for an international student helpline, equipped with appropriately trained officers. Applications should be tracked in real time and provide realistic processing times for individual applicants, the report says. Communication protocols should be strengthened, and officers should release to applicants the full records of all reasons for any application refusal.

Finally, the committee recommends creating an immigration ombudsperson to oversee IRCC and receive complaints.

International students

IRCC opened the door to international students in the fall of 2020, after temporarily suspending their entry when the pandemic first hit. The committee recommends continuing to allow international students to enter Canada to study in-person.

In addition, the committee wants to see IRCC facilitate the process for international students who want to work full time for an internship or co-op placement that is part of an educational program. Instead of international students having to apply for a work permit, the ability to do an internship would already be built in to the conditions of the study permit.

The committee also calls for IRCC to work with provinces and territories to look into expanding eligibility for federal settlement support to include temporary residents on study or work permits. Finally, they ask for IRCC to examine acceptance rates for international students whose applications are processed in African countries.

PR pathway for essential workers

IRCC has already implemented one of the committee recommendations to create a pathway to permanent residence for essential workers. While the International Graduate stream of these new programs is full, Mendicino told the Globe and Mail he is open to raising caps.

Areas in need of more priority

The committee is calling for more funding for Visa Application Centre (VAC) staff in francophone countries in Africa. This would help accelerate the processing of student biometrics and permits.

Also, that IRCC should prioritize family reunification for protected persons. Some families have been separated from their children for many years due to delayed processing.

The report also recommends that IRCC speed up the processing of extension applications for temporary residents, and prioritize issuing the usual Acknowledgement of Receipt (AOR) for permanent residency applicants.

Temporary measures for immigration documents

Three recommendations reflect the need for exceptional measures during the pandemic. For instance, many people who had been approved for PR abroad were unable to come to Canada before their documents expired. The committee recommends IRCC allow people with expired permanent resident cards to travel to Canada, while the pandemic is still ongoing. Also, that medical exams should be extended beyond a year, and be processed concurrently with biometrics and criminality checks.

IRCC has issued authorization to travel letters to many of the affected expired visa holders who were approved before March 18, 2020. However, Confirmation of Permanent Residence (COPR) holders who got their documents after travel restrictions first went into place are not allowed to come to Canada. These people have been starting to see their documents expire, since the COPR's validity is tied to that of the medical exam and the holder's passport.

To address the need for COPR holders to land in Canada and complete their permanent residency landing, the committee wants IRCC to issue authorization letters automatically. Furthermore, they want IRCC to waive the need for expired documents to be renewed while the pandemic endures.

Also, the committee recommends IRCC allow sponsored spouses with no access to a medical exam in their own country to do the process in Canada on a visitor visa during the pandemic.

Family sponsorship

A large section of the recommendations deal with family sponsorship. Although Mendicino and IRCC officials have said that family reunification is a priority, many fell through the cracks. Some of the issues were present well before the pandemic, although travel restrictions initially prevented many from reuniting with loved ones in Canada.

The committee calls for IRCC to issue temporary resident visas to spousal sponsorship applicants. Currently the clause known as 179(b) in the Immigration and Refugee Protection Regulations prevents many from being with their spouse while PR applications are in processing. Despite the concept of dual intent, which means foreign nationals can apply for both a temporary residence and permanent residence visa, immigration officers have been known to refuse applicants because they are not satisfied that the applicant will leave at the end of their authorized stay. The result is many are separated from their spouses for the entire duration of the PR process.

The committee recommends creating a Super Visa for spousal sponsorship applicants, similar to the one that is already available for Parents and Grandparents Program (PGP) applicants.

One of the recommendations, "Building compassion into the system and communicating mistakes," calls for IRCC to contact applicants to correct mistakes and provide sufficient time to respond before returning their entire file. Furthermore, these files should regain their place in the queue if re-submitted to the same stream.

There are also a number of recommendations on how to handle children's files, such as locking in the age of all dependent children as of March 1, 2020, until PR applications are processed so that they do not age out of the system due to the backlog. The committee also recommended international adoptions be prioritized, and that clear guidelines should be developed in cases where children have urgent medical needs.

Parents and Grandparents Program

The Parents and Grandparents Program (PGP) was done on a lottery system in 2020, after a first-come-first-served intake model failed for many applicants in 2019. This program was known for having an application back well before the pandemic.

The committee recommends creating weighted system that would give priority to older applications. Also, that IRCC adjust the financial requirements to be the minimum necessary income for the years impacted by the economic consequences of the pandemic.

Work permits

The committee recommends the government grant Bridging Open Work Permits to temporary residents who are waiting for permanent residency through Quebec’s Skilled Worker Program.

Also, that work permits for caregivers be waived from needing an Labour Market Impact Assessments (LMIAs) during the pandemic, if they do not already have an occupation specific work permit. They also recommend that hours interrupted due to the pandemic be counted toward their qualifying work experience under the pilot programs.

Permitting the Entry of Asylum Seekers

Using the Guardian Angel Program as a model, the committee says IRCC should permit refugees and asylum seekers to enter Canada. They advise the immigration department to work with resettlement partners such as the International Organization for Migration and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Also, that IRCC should develop a program, similar to the Guardian Angel program, to foreign workers who contributed during the pandemic, regardless of their status.

Hong Kong residents

IRCC has already implemented an open work permit available to Hongkongers, which is one of the committee's recommendations. However, the current work permit is available for a period of three years. The committee recommends creating a five-year Post-Graduate Work Permit for graduates of Canadian institutions from Hong Kong.

The committee also wants to see two new streams for Honkongers under family class and refugee class immigration. They want a stream for extended family members of Canadian citizens, and pro-democracy activists living in Canada. Plus, a temporary public policy to address Hong Kong refugee claims. The committee calls for IRCC to grant asylum to pro-democracy activists within Hong Kong using initiatives such as Rainbow Railroad as a model in order to identify and support asylum seekers discreetly.

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