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Canada’s tighter rules for international students mean another back door to permanent residency is closing

When University of British Columbia graduate Ritika Saraswat went back to India to speak to students about the challenges they could face if they came to study in Canada, she was shocked by their most common assumption about her.

“People just thought I am incredibly rich, that I am just minting money,” she said after talking to nearly 1,500 students in six cities. “They thought we are all living amazing lives in Canada, that all we do is party. But that’s definitely not what we’ve been doing.

“I feel that at a very young age, we are being trained with that mindset. Even if you talk to the teachers or the professors who work there, they have the same perception.”

While at UBC, Saraswat founded ReDefined, an organization that creates awareness of the realities of being an international student in Canada. She joined a financial services firm after graduating in 2022, but also continues to grow ReDefined.

She believes that it is this perceived image of Canada that makes some people want to come here at all costs — even if it means enrolling in an educational institution of questionable reputation — so that one day they can get Canadian citizenship through the back door.

Many of these institutions operate under curriculum licensing agreements, enabling private colleges to deliver curricula of an associated public college. They face less oversight and are therefore very successful in attracting international students.

“Talking to the students themselves, you see the difference and the kind of knowledge they come with,” said Saraswat, referring to students who go to these centres, which were referred to as “the diploma equivalent of puppy mills that are just churning out diplomas” by Marc Miller, Canada’s Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship.

“Almost 40 per cent of their day is spent working a part-time job, they may spend 30 per cent studying, and the other 30 per cent catching up with university work or other things. A lot of them say they don’t get proper education from professors, so they then have to go home and study online, so that they can cope and get good grades on their assignments and exams.”

Saraswat’s trip to India ended in December, just days before Canada announced caps on the number of study permits issued to international students planning to pursue undergraduate education at 360,000 for 2024. That number is 35 percent lower than its targets for the previous year and the latest in a series of measures aimed at preventing back door pathways to becoming a permanent resident.

These measures include requiring future international students to show an increased proof of funds; making future graduates from colleges operating under licensing agreements ineligible for post-graduate work permits; prioritizing study permits for students who wish to pursue master’s degrees and doctorates in Canada; and requiring all future letters of acceptance from higher education centres to be accompanied by letters of attestation from the corresponding province or territory.

Saraswat provided an example of the challenges faced by students from such undergraduate programs: A distraught married couple had to live on their savings from back home because they were unable to find work in Canada.

“The market is so tricky, and her husband just had a two-year work permit, so employees were not likely to hire him,” she said. “It takes six months to just train you, so people are hesitant about that. Even though they knew all this when they were back home, they came to Canada despite this being one of their biggest challenges.”

In this context, Saraswat blames agencies that charge expensive fees and paint a rosy picture of Canada. Their families, desperate to see their children do well, often go with whatever their immigration agent tells them.

“A consultant said that if you graduate from this college, you will get a job within six months from graduating,” she said, recalling what a college graduate told her at a recent event. “It’s now been a year and a half, and he still doesn’t have a job.”

For most newcomers, their Canadian journey begins several thousand kilometres away — in their home countries. Many prospective immigrants know someone who has moved overseas, and newcomers are good at documenting their new lives on social media, driving many back home to immigrate, even if through the back door.

Internet-savvy immigration agencies often post dramatic videos of agents handing over stamped passports to candidates, while accompanying parents break down with emotion, or of people gleefully broadcasting their emotions once their passports have been stamped. And then there are the illegal migrants — videos showing illegal immigrants jumping the U.S.-Mexico border fence, or swimming across rivers, while on the way to Canada. Some brazenly post their routes or even testimonials, sharing contact details of the agent who helped them immigrate illegally.

Lately there are also social media posts that feature interviews of immigrants in city centres, asking them about their occupations and income. Most featured interviewees are highly skilled workers, whose earnings easily put them in the top one percent. Put these jigsaw pieces together and the resulting image portrays a very different reality, creating higher demand for back door mechanisms that make the Canadian dream seem within arm’s reach for everyone.

Kanwar Sierah, a Brampton, Ont. immigration consultant registered with Canada’s College of Immigration and Citizenship Consultants has been vocal about the issues plaguing the country’s immigration system.

“I believe that Canada knowingly kept these back door entries open until the situation spiralled out of control, as they contribute significantly to the Canadian economy,” said Sierah. He said that while Miller’s announcement last month plugged one loophole, it has put pressure on agents to use other back door mechanisms to compensate.

Sierah says agents could charge clients more money for exploiting other alternative entry options, such as the Temporary Foreign Worker, Temporary Resident Visitor, and Refugee/Asylum programs. He says Canada must take immediate steps to ensure the integrity of other programs. Blaming both agents and their clients alike, Sierah says both are hand-in-glove using student permits not to study but to merely enter Canada.

“Canadian colleges and universities still rely on aggregators that connect unscrupulous agents abroad with the education system in Canada,” Sierah said. “Hefty commissions are siphoned through these aggregator channels to the same agents who sell the study abroad dream in the name of permanent residency and other false promises abroad.”

The problem of bad faith actors is equally serious on other fronts. For example, the Montreal Bar Association recently launched an awareness campaign to warn people of ‘fake advocates’.

Sierah called the immigration minister’s decision to cap international student numbers “much-needed” and “sensible,” but fears it might be tough for him to stick to his decision.

Lou Janssen Dangzalan from Toronto-based LJD Law Professional Corporation says that people were unfortunately sold dreams that may have been unattainable in the best of situations.

“The sheer number of international students in Canada vis-a-vis the slots open for new PRs clearly do not match,” Dangzalan said. “Canada cannot keep a stiff upper lip in saying that a majority of these 900-plus thousand students do not desire PR. Assuming just half of them do, the plans don’t add up.

”Years of ignoring program integrity issues are finally being addressed. My hope is it is not too late.”

While in the short-term, Dangzalan says all parties will lose, but if done right, these reforms will benefit Canada and international students in the long term.

Gautam Viswanathan and Elvin Jacob, Local Journalism Initiative Reporters, New Canadian Media