The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken a lot of the certainties about migration for major destination countries like Canada. But it has also led to important policy innovations. It led to unprecedented flexibility in terms of blanket work permit extensions and renewals, and it introduced new pathways to transition from temporary to permanent residency for different categories of migrant workers, front-line workers and international students.

At the same time, Canada also increased its targets for permanent migration in a double effort to spur economic recovery — through an increased labour force as well as by boosting its competitive edge as a global magnet for talented migrants.

Assessing the success or failure of these important policy changes will depend on what their objective was: to increase immigration in view of Canada’s long-term demographic deficit; to boost the economy in the short-term (including through consumption, real estate and service provision to newcomers); to safeguard migrant workers’ rights; or all three at once.

With vaccination rates rising, governments across the world are beginning to consider how to build back their economies. As part of their plans, many states will turn to immigrants who are known to bring with them increased economic outputs, entrepreneurship and the added benefit of building a flexible labour market.

Opening the door to more immigration

Throughout the pandemic, the Canadian government has shown significant resilience in addressing an unprecedented breakdown of migration and mobility, aiming to put Canada at the forefront of the global race for talented migrants. Canada’s efforts stand in stark contrast with, for instance, Australia — a country that shares many common features of Canada’s economic migration regime. Data shows that nearly 600,000 temporary visa holders left Australia in 2020, many of whom were waiting for permanent residency. As Rebecca Wickes from Monash University in Melbourne argues, those who remained struggled to find work or support themselves as they were excluded from any form of financial support from the Australian government. Australia’s prime minister simply told those who could not afford to remain “to make [their] way home.”

In Canada, the sentiment surrounding migrants has been different, with Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino stating: “Your status may be temporary, but your contributions are lasting — and we want you to stay.”

Ordinarily, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) sets annual projected admission ranges for the number of permanent residents it aims to admit. As per Figure 1, from 2014 to 2019, permanent resident admissions rose from approximately 240,000 to 300,000, but fell short of the high end of the target range. In 2020, due to the pandemic and strict border controls, Canada admitted just under 185,000 new permanent residents.

Mendicino announced in October 2020 Canada’s intention to welcome 1.2 million migrant workers and their families by 2024. The increase of approximately 50,000 people per year compared to past annual targets is meant to compensate for the reduced intake in 2020 and to provide flexibility over the next three years.

Permanent residency targets

For the Canadian government, increased immigration is a policy lever to drive economic growth. However, Parisa Mahboubi and Mikal Skuterud recently argued that the decline in immigrant applications and entries during the pandemic is actually a natural market adjustment, not a failure of Canada’s immigration policy, and the government need not rush to address this adjustment.

Nevertheless, three measures introduced by the Canadian government stand out as exceptional and unprecedented: the option for international students to renew their three-year post-graduation work permits for another 18 months; the invitation to all workers in the Canadian Experience Class to apply for permanent residency in February 2021; and the introduction of a large special program for temporary migrants who are already in Canada to transition to permanent resident status.

Notably, most of the permanent residents expected to “land” in 2021 are already working in Canada right now. Thus, these policy initiatives may fulfil the target of 401,000 new landed immigrants for 2021, but they are not bringing in additional people. This is a small but important detail, as forces us to ask why those working in Canada have not been considered for permanent residence before now.

Innovations in immigration policy

Among Canada’s new immigration policy initiatives was relief for international students whom the pandemic left stranded and facing significant economic challenges. Temporary jobs in hospitality or retail, typically occupied by students, disappeared overnight. For those holding a soon-to-expire Post-Graduate Work Permit (PGWP) who had not yet completed one year of work at a job that would allow them to apply for permanent residency, the prospects were particularly dire.

The government’s unprecedented decision to extend PGWPs came after significant pressure from student and migrant organizations and offers a blanket solution for concerned international students. IRCC estimates that as many as 52,000 graduates with expired or expiring PGWPs could benefit from this policy, and of approximately 61,000 PGWP holders whose work permit was set to expire last year, about half have either already become permanent residents or have a permanent residence application pending.

Following these extensions, nearly every candidate eligible for the Canadian Experience Class (a federal migration program for skilled workers who have Canadian work experience and want to become permanent residents) in the Express Entry pool was invited to apply for permanent residency. Previously, the median cut-off score for those invited to apply was 461 points; the changes lowered the cut-off to just 75 points. At the same time, instead of average draws of 2,000 to 3,000 eligible candidates, a total of 27,332 candidates were invited in one single draw.

The logic behind this decision was to invite people already socio-economically integrated into Canada to stay, and to cast a safety net for some categories of temporary migrant workers at risk of becoming undocumented. However, this raised important questions about the validity of the points system. Some critics also questioned whether permanent residents admitted with lower-than-usual points scores would fare well in the Canadian labour market, as their skill level might be lower than the average immigrant admitted before the changes. However, already having Canadian experience is an important positive factor for the labour market outcomes of newcomers, and inviting individuals already in Canada to apply bypasses travel restrictions and practical problems in obtaining documents.

The most novel innovation in Canadian immigration policy was the government’s decision to introduce a new path for transitioning from temporary to permanent status for 90,000 people. As of May 6, IRCC is accepting applications under three streams: 20,000 applications for temporary workers in health care; 30,000 applications for temporary workers in other selected essential occupations; and 40,000 applications for international students who graduated from a Canadian educational institution. The streams will remain open until November 5, or until they have reached their limit. These new public policies apply to workers in 40 health-care occupations and 95 other essential jobs, including caregiving, food production and distribution.

To appreciate the importance of these innovative policies, one only needs to look to former pathways to permanent status for those with lower skills. Rupa Banerjee and Daniel Hiebert recently reviewed these programs, noting they are all small in scale, highly targeted and often involve specific partnerships between IRCC and specific provinces, employers or labour organizations. For example, the Agri-Food Pilot program established in May 2020 offers a pathway to permanent residence for up to 2,750 individuals per year and will run until 2023. The qualification requirements are complex, as applicants must not only have worked in Canada with a temporary work permit in a designated occupation in an agricultural or food processing industry, but that should also be in a non-seasonal job. Additionally, they must have attained at least a Canadian high school education equivalent and meet a relatively modest (CLB Level 4) language knowledge requirement. Another example is the Temporary Public Policy for Out-of-Status Construction Workers in the Greater Toronto Area, introduced in January 2020, for 500 individuals and their family members. The program has a two-year duration and focuses specifically on workers who entered Canada legally but who are currently working in construction in the Greater Toronto Area without valid status.

While the current program is far-reaching and unprecedented, it is not without its flaws. By the end of the program’s opening day, there were 22,436 applications from international students, 2,776 from non-health care essential workers and 335 from health-care workers. As of June 1 — nearly four weeks later — the stream for recent international graduates from a Canadian institution had already reached the maximum number of applications. By contrast, the essential, non-health care stream was almost 38 per cent full and the health-care stream was only 8.2 per cent full. The French-speaking streams, where an unlimited number of applications will be accepted, together had received a total of 662 applications.

While international students likely had their papers prepared as their schools are in Canada, and they are highly skilled and tech-savvy, it’s not clear whether the 50,000 temporary workers in health care and other occupations will manage to fulfil the requirements and put together the necessary paperwork. Several migrant organizations have pointed to barriers standing in the way of many of these workers, such as having to provide education certificates from countries of origin that are currently under the grip of the pandemic and therefore unresponsive. Additionally, with language certification centres across the country suddenly overwhelmed by a surge in requests, the next available language test for many individuals is six months out. This has raised suspicions that the government has left the sorting of immigration applicants to the complex application system, allowing only those with the technical skills, education and competence to navigate the application portal successfully.

To make the most of this policy window, the Canadian government should endeavour to ensure that the application system is accessible to all eligible candidates, and provide support through settlement organizations for filling in the applications. It would also be useful to explore alternatives to the language certification requirement. For instance, proof of language skills could be skipped for the application process for those going through this particular transition channel, on the condition that they take language classes in their first year as permanent residents.

With vaccination rates rising, governments across the world are beginning to consider how to build back their economies. As part of their plans, many states will turn to immigrants who are known to bring with them increased economic outputs, entrepreneurship and the added benefit of building a flexible labour market.

The Canadian government should be careful to not undermine the points system it has established through the Express Entry stream. Large draws like the one described above may help the government reach its immigration targets, but may overwhelm the country’s ability to receive and ensure the smooth transition of newcomers. At the same time, the government needs to consider appropriate channels for transitioning from temporary to permanent status those less skilled migrants that are needed in the labour market, many of whom are already in the country.