Over the last two years, Katherine Scott has been putting down roots in Toronto and was planning to study in the city while continuing her work as a manager at a coffee shop in Liberty Village.
Scott, who is from Australia, always wanted to live in Canada But, instead, she's packing her belongings to go live with her parents in the United Kingdom. Her work permit expired before she was able to apply for her permanent residency and now she has to leave the country.
"I feel a little bit deflated," she said. "I never wanted to leave Canada."
Scott has been waiting for paperwork from Australia since October, which are necessary for the application process. She says receiving the documents should have taken just a few days, but COVID-19 delayed the process.
"I was hoping that everything would line up in time," she said.
But, it didn't. Now, she's missed the opportunity to get a bridging permit, which would allow her to continue working while her application was being looked at.
"All these things come back to COVID and it's super frustrating," Scott told CBC Toronto.
In a statement, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) said as the pandemic unfolded, it encouraged temporary residents living in Canada to renew their status or permits. The ministry also extended the length of time a temporary resident has to do so.
But, Scott's type of work permit can only be extended under "very specific situations," according to the IRCC's website.
Scott says once she realized the paperwork she needed wouldn't arrive on time, she couldn't find a way to stay in Canada and hiring a lawyer wasn't financially feasible.
Scott says she's likely just a few months shy of being able to apply for her permanent residency and is hopeful she'll be accepted while she waits in the U.K.
'I'm very worried and stressed'
Others, like live-in caregiver June Reyes, are worried about being in the same situation.
Reyes, who is from the Philippines and lives in Creemore, Ont., hasn't been able to complete a language test because the pandemic forced testing centres to close. She needs to complete the exam to apply for her permanent residency.
"There's a lot of questions, like where am I going to live? Am I going to survive Canada? she said.
"I'm very worried and stressed," added Reyes, who is a single mother and supports six children who live in the Philippines.
"We came here to Canada to really give our kids a brighter future," she said of herself and other migrant workers.
Her work permit expires in October and Reyes says she's hopeful the timing will work out before then.
Syed Hussan, the executive director of an organization called Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, says workers face multiple challenges if securing their status is delayed.
"If you don't have your work permit, you can't get your work experience and then you can't get your permanent residency. Also, you can't get health coverage."
He also says the pandemic is preventing many immigrants from getting the high-wage work and positions necessary to apply for permanent residency.
"As a result, former students, care workers, other work permit holders are not able to qualify for permanent residency through no fault of their own," Hussan said.
Innovation needed to fuel immigration post-pandemic: lawyer
Toronto immigration lawyer Mario Bellissimo says Scott's situation isn't unique; there are thousands who are forced to leave Canada while waiting to secure their status, who not able to enter the country even though they have it, or others who are in limbo.
"That's happening on a daily basis," he said. "We've had to come up with a lot of innovative solutions for clients to try to either keep them in status or restore their status."
"You're dealing with people that have to deliver critical work, heartbreaking family reunification issues. It's a challenge," he said.
Bellissimo says the federal government has taken a lot of steps to help with the flow of migration during the pandemic, but there is still a challenge when it comes to modernizing health services linked to immigration.
He mentions being able to have digital health documents on a phone, as an example.
"Until they can really sync the two, there's ongoing challenges," he said.
Ottawa hoping to boost immigration after pandemic drop
Bellissimo says a drop in immigration due to the pandemic will likely result in supply chain issues and gaps in the workforce, which could take a couple years to get back on track.
"Immigration fuels every sector of our society," he said. "It's really a dramatic impact."
IRCC didn't say how many immigrants Canada admitted in 2020, but in October the government said it was on track to meet just half of its target of 341,000 by the end of the year.
In the third quarter of last year, Canada accepted 40,069 permanent residents, which is a 61 per cent decrease compared to the same time frame in 2019, according to Statistics Canada.
To make up for the shortfall, Canada aims to admit 401,000 new permanent residents in 2021, 411,000 in 2022 and 421,000 in 2023.
IRCC is 'adapting, innovating and evolving,' ministry says
IRCC's website says it's still accepting most permanent resident applications, but its ability to review and process them is affected by COVID-19, and it can't estimate how long it will take.
In a statement to CBC Toronto, IRCC said it's taken quick action and "come a long way" since the beginning of the pandemic by providing additional resources, streamlining its processes and ramping systems back up.
"In the face of great challenges, IRCC is rapidly adapting, innovating and evolving to best serve Canadians and those who wish to come here," the statement reads.
IRCC says it's processing applications for priority cases, including vulnerable people, family members seeking to reunite and those in essential services.
"We are processing those as quickly as possible. We are also making great strides in processing more applications virtually, while emphasizing safety and security."