Canada’s foreign-student policy needs public review, say experts

Author: Douglas Todd | Publishing date: Jan 20, 2021 | Vancouver Sun
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Analysis: “Immigration is first and foremost about nation building,” says specialist Chris Friesen.

The public is in the dark about how Canadian immigration policy has been changed to give preference to international students, say experts.

Ottawa should set up a royal commission to look into issues such as whether Canadians agree that foreign students, who tend to come from the “cream of the crop” in their homelands, should go to the front of the line for permanent residence status, says Chris Friesen, who chairs the umbrella body overseeing settlement services in Canada.

Most Canadians have no idea that roughly one in three people approved each year as immigrants — especially during COVID-19-battered 2020 — were already living in the country as either foreign students or temporary workers, says Friesen, who also directs the Immigrant Services Society of B.C., which has provided support to tens of thousands of newcomers.

While Friesen can see the logic of giving some priority to in-country international students as future immigrants, he asks, “What about those you’ve got waiting overseas? They’ve paid their fees. They’re doing the point system and all the rest of that. What do they think when they find out the quickest way to Canada is to come on a study visa or as a temporary resident?”

In the past five years, Ottawa has gone from welcoming about 300,000 immigrants a year to more than 400,000, but Friesen said most Canadians don’t realize that this country also takes in at least that many people every year as students or  guest workers.

In addition to international students being a possible brain drain on their countries of origins, Friesen said, “the vast majority of international students are of a certain economic status. They have the network of financial resources that allows them to consider studying abroad in a country like Canada.”

Immigrants to Canada should come from diverse economic backgrounds, said Friesen. “Immigration is not about the private sector dictating economic theory. Immigration is first and foremost about nation building.”

Even though foreign students bolster the budgets of Canada’s high schools, private language schools and post-secondary institutions, Friesen said, “I don’t personally believe we have a handle at all on international students.

“It feels like the federal government is just reacting to educational institutions. There isn’t any plan. We might plan for permanent residents, but we don’t plan for temporary residents.”

Canada doesn’t just need educated tech workers, bankers and financial analysts, Friesen argues.

The country also needs people in essential services such as farming and elder care, not to mention plumbing and garbage collection, which he called “valued professions that are devalued in our society.” As for the debate over whether large numbers of newcomers lower the wages of domestic workers, Friesen says he’s not too concerned about that happening.

As chair of the national Canadian Immigrant Settlement Sector Alliance Friesen is calling for a country-wide discussion on Canada’s foreign-student policy in the same month that Ottawa has again been more generous than virtually any other country by offering long-term work permits to international students to encourage them to become permanent residents.

This month, Immigration Minister Marco Mendocino announced they could stay and look for jobs up to 4.5 years after graduating.

Controversy also hit Canada’s student program this week when Global TV uncovered how the Immigration Department has in the past decade paid almost $200 million to a private offshore company to process hundreds of thousands of study-visa applicants. The company has been based in a tax haven in Mauritius, off the coast of Africa, and is backed by a Chinese state-controlled investment fund . The news is raising alarms over privacy.

Such debate is starting to swirl at the same time that the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to the tightening of Canada’s borders, has reduced the number of people obtaining permanent resident cards. An estimated 280,000 people were set to receive permanent resident status in Canada in 2020 compared to 340,000 in 2019, according to figures provided by a UBC geography professor, Daniel Hiebert.

The number of immigrants to Canada has dropped since COVID-19 tightened border controls in March, 2020. And a large portion of those who did receive permanent resident status were already in the country as students or guest workers. (Source: UBC prof. Dan Hiebert. Note: CEC stands for Canadian experience class, FSW for federal skilled worker program and FST for federal skilled trades class. PNP stands for provincial nominee program).

With some border restrictions expected to continue, both Hiebert and Friesen doubted that Mendocino will be able to reach his expanded target of more than 400,000 immigrants a year through to 2023. That’s more than 60 per cent higher than the 250,000 taken in in 2015 , when the Liberals were elected.

There’s an additional problem with foreign-student policy, which contributes to its complications and unintended consequences.

That is, the federal government’s decision to allow an almost unlimited number of international students into Canada is setting up many for disappointment when they later apply for permanent resident status, say Friesen and Vancouver immigration lawyer Richard Kurland.

By having more than 600,000 international students in the country in any normal year, Canada has been building up far too big a pool of people who will be highly qualified for immigration status, say the experts. Not every student who wants to will be able rise to the top of the immigration system’s points-system competition, which has an annual cut-off point.

Vancouver-based Lorie Lee, who provides services to some of Canada’s hundreds of private language schools, has also pointed to how entire families around the world are pinning their hopes on young offspring eventually getting permanent resident status in Canada and then sponsoring relatives.

“Families are chipping in large amounts of money to pay for the education abroad of their child because they’re buying their own immigration futures,” Lee said, acknowledging that failure can be devastating.

While the migration specialists generally support large-scale immigration to Canada, Friesen wants a royal commission because he believes the public has a right to provide much more input on high-impact migration policies that always get set behind closed doors in Ottawa.

A Nanos Research poll in October showed only 17 per cent of Canadians want more immigrants , with 36 per cent seeking fewer and the rest hoping rates stay the same. The political decisions being made now about permanent and temporary newcomers coming into the country, Friesen said, are “going to fundamentally change Canada.”

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