Wednesday, 01 February 2017 18:00

Listening to our International Students

Commentary by Will Tao in Vancouver
Canada’s international students, particularly those in major metropolitan cities such as Toronto and Vancouver, have been subject to intense criticism over the last year.
The students – over 363,000 of them – have been blamed directly or indirectly for a range of social problems, such as overheated rental markets, unaffordable housing, burden on public services, cheating, and bizarrely, even driving pricey cars.
The bulk of these criticisms are based on anecdotal accounts, in the absence of any strong statistical evidence. These accounts come from professors who study and interview as part of their work, and anonymous, retired institutional administrators who can now share stories freely, without needing to validate their assertions.  
These accounts also come from journalists looking to report on the latest cross-cultural phenomenon. At the end of the day, while they may capture some of the reality and part of the story, they are ultimately one-sided.  
Outsider narrative
What bothers me, as the Canadian-born son of a 1980’s international student and as someone who is now married to an international student, is that this outsider narrative represents only one side of the story. In drawing many of our conclusions, we have not been good listeners of international students, the true insiders.
In reality, we have generally silenced their perspectives and ignored their challenges, and taken for granted our own privileges while laying blame and assigning motives.
For starters, it is worth noting that an overwhelming majority of international students are bona-fide, meaning they are genuine, immigration law-abiding students.
In 2014, Canadian Bureau of International Education counted 336,000 international students, Citizenship and Immigration Canada (as it was then called) estimated that 20,000 of them were considered “high risk”, that is, likely to violate immigration law.
This accounts for only about six per cent of all international students admitted into Canada.
Jumping hoops
Next, it is important to hear from international students themselves to learn about the challenges and barriers they face, and for often understandable reasons do not feel like sharing them publicly. In my own practice, I have found that there are three major barriers.

Firstly, Canada’s own immigration policies have made it difficult for international students. On the front end, the financial requirements are difficult to meet. International students need to show unreasonably high available funds just to be approved for study permits and seek extensions for their studies.  The prohibitive cost of international tuition forces many students to take a break from their studies or resort to extreme measures (like taking up jobs in violation of their study permits or taking out private loans) to keep with the payments.

Once a student is here, Canada currently has a restrictive requirement that students ‘actively-pursue studies.’ Educational institutions now have two-tiered policies, under which international students are subject to excessive monitoring and reporting requirements. Depending on the institution, international students have to take a certain number of courses and maintain a certain attendance rate, while domestic students do not. Students with family emergencies, mental health episodes, poor grades, or who simply want to explore a different area, are often hamstrung.
On the back end, once they are ready to graduate, these same international students have difficulty obtaining post-graduate work permits based on their study history. Without the work experience from these permits, the already difficult pathway to permanent residence is mostly closed.
Societal barriers
Secondly, there are major societal barriers against international students. I have worked with many international student advisors at universities and colleges who recount anecdotal stories of students breaking down as a result of mental health issues. Without family and often inadequate knowledge or language ability to seek professional help, these students are particularly vulnerable.
Institutions, I am told by these students, have not always done the best to accommodate their cultural differences or to eliminate discriminative practices or advise without implicit biases. These issues are almost never reported in the media.
Finally, there is an underbelly of inadequate (often unethical) third-party services being offered and provided to international students. Many of these purported advisors are untrained and unqualified educational consultants and agents. Inevitably, if not sooner rather than later, students advised by these individuals find themselves personally liable in situations akin to fraud or misrepresentation, for which there are severe criminal and immigration consequences.
Seat at the table
Regardless of the economic and political questions raised by student immigration, we must not forget that international students need to have a seat at the policy-making table. We have seen the example from down south about what happens when immigration law is mandated by public opinion, fear, and top-down orders.
If we continue down this path of blaming and not understanding, I foresee only increased fracturing within our already increasingly fragile mosaic.
Ultimately, international students can only become an important asset when we as a society stop viewing them solely as cash cows or visitors. We should be viewing as prospective future citizens.
Will Tao is a Canadian immigration lawyer based in Vancouver, B.C., with a practice primary focused on complex immigration applications and refusals on behalf of educational institutions and international students. Tao is a former New Canadian Media Board Member. He currently sits on the Canadian Bar Association British Columbia’s Equality and Diversity Committee and on the City of Vancouver’s Cultural Communities Advisory Committee.
Published in Education

Dear Minister John McCallum, 

We are reaching out to you as a group of Canadians and immigrants with a vested interest in seeing improvements made in the immigration system, a system we know all too well, is broken. 

Our group is called Canada Spousal Sponsorship Petitioners. We are an advocacy and support group of more than 3,000 spousal sponsorship families.  

The group began as a response to the painfully slow process of sponsoring a spouse for permanent residency; to campaign for improved processing of inland spousal sponsorship applications. 

In parallel, we also provide support via the sharing of information and guidance through what is an intensely difficult process. However, our main goal is to address the difficulties we face at the source, with improved processing times and improved conditions for Inland sponsored spouses. 

Program allows families to survive 

We would like to bring your attention to the upcoming expiration on Dec. 22, 2015 of the one-year pilot program that allows spouses of Canadians under spousal sponsorship permanent resident applications to apply for open work permits. 

Processing times for the first stage of the spousal sponsorship application are currently at an unbearably long 17 months, and no lasting improvements have been seen. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]"Those without valid status are often in the most desperate need of a work permit.”[/quote]

With the continuation of the work permit pilot program, Canadian families will be better able to endure this punitive wait without falling into crippling debt and suffering the lasting damages of great emotional stress. 

The Canadian Bar Association, as well as several immigration experts, has raised this issue before. In a letter sent to Mike MacDonald, Director General of Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) on May 6, 2015, the Bar expressed the following: 

“… [W]hy is the Open Work Permit Pilot Program limited to those with valid temporary status in Canada? Those without valid status are often in the most desperate need of a work permit.” 

Also, in an interview for the documentary The Backlog, Life Doesn’t Wait, immigration lawyer and a former senior manager at CIC, Klaudios Mustakas, said: 

“If the person is out of status, then give them status because, at the end of the day, whether you do it in four months or whether you do it in 26 months you’re still going to give that person permanent status, so why put the family through the financial hardship that is involved? If the sponsored person is the breadwinner, how is that family supposed to survive? From a humanitarian point of view, we are doing them a disservice by having to wait that long. You’re giving them a two-year conditional visa anyways, so if you’re worried about fraud, you have two years to determine whether that case is fraudulent.” 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]"If you’re worried about fraud, you have two years to determine whether that case is fraudulent.”[/quote]

The many benefits for Canada at large 

The open work permit pilot program has provided many benefits to Canadian families and to Canadian society: 

  • Sponsored spouses contribute with their taxes
  • Canadian sponsors pay more in taxes, as they no longer receive tax cuts based on the fact that they are the sole income earner for their household
  • Sponsored spouses not eligible for provincial health care can afford private insurance, allowing them to seek treatment for illnesses, increasing the general health of the community, as well as ensuring that an accident or serious illness does not financially cripple Canadian families
  • Canadian families with decreased stress levels show increased productivity and health
  • The economy benefits from the increased activity of a family with two income earners, as they increase their consumption of goods and services 

These benefits would be made even greater by the inclusion of all sponsored spouses. 

For the aforementioned reasons, we feel that it would be beneficial for sponsorship couples and their communities for the pilot program to not only be continued as a permanent policy, but also extended to include all inland sponsored spouses, regardless of immigration status. 

We humbly request that this be done before the expiration on Dec. 22. 

Kind regards, 

Canada Spousal Sponsorship Petitioners 

This letter was sent by members of the Canada Spousal Sponsorship Petitioners group to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship John McCallum, the Parliament Secretary to the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, Arif Virani, and members of Parliament for the ridings where these Canadian families live. 

This letter has been edited for clarity and published with permission here.

Published in Policy

by Will Tao in Vancouver 

Dear Hon. Minister McCallum:

I want to take this opportunity to share with my thoughts on family reunification.

Attending an early platform-planning conversation you organized in 2014, it became clear that family reunification and the challenges faced by new Canadian immigrant families formed the central issue of stakeholder concerns with the immigration system.

A year later, in September 2015, I was not at all surprised when the Liberal party released its immigration platform focused on family reunification as a core priority.

I applaud your party’s pledge to give spouses immigrating to Canada immediate permanent residency and drop the current two-year waiting period.

Rather than protect sponsors from being victims of marriage of convenience schemes, this rule trapped foreign national spouses by tying their statuses completely to their sponsors.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Foreign national spouses were left with little recourse in the case of psychological abuse, adultery, or other types of marriage breakdown.[/quote]

Foreign national spouses were left with little recourse in the case of psychological abuse, adultery, or other types of marriage breakdown. While some channels were available to report wrongdoing, the law put applicants in a difficult and vulnerable situation.

Along a similar line, the return of the maximum age of a dependent child to 22 from 19 is good for Canadians. This rule prevented several families from uniting due to the fact their children were too old and several years away from any possibility of their own economic immigration.

Canadian families and their reunification concerns

Before writing you, I thought I would survey several stakeholders – sponsors and applicants – who are currently in the process of sponsoring spouses and family members.

You may be interested to note that backlogs and processing times are not the overwhelming source of concerns.

Instead, the way immigration authorities are handling their inquiries and applications, and their lack of short-term options in Canada topped the list.

While Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) provides several instruction guides, they are unavailable in non-official languages and often list only minimum requirements.

Because of this, Canadian families have to spend money hiring lawyers and consultants when their applications are refused or when further information is requested by immigration officials.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]I believe today’s families deserve more from immigration authorities in terms of greater transparency and better technology.[/quote]

If unlucky, they will hire an unqualified practitioner that could ruin the family’s entire future. Many of these individuals operate abroad with little oversight by Canadian regulatory bodies.

Once applicants apply, they have a difficult time tracking the process of their applications.

The Electronic Case Application System (eCAS) does not often provide the necessary detail when missing documents and/or information are an issue.

Letters from CIC asking for further information are unnecessarily vague. Call centre agents, who are understandably under significant pressure due to the high volume of calls, are often prevented from providing updates.

For most applicants, who are without professional help, the only solution, Access to Information Requests (ATIPs), are a challenge to navigate.

I believe today’s families deserve more from immigration authorities in terms of greater transparency and better technology.

Often, during the time of application processing, the applicant cannot even visit or reside with their Canadian family member.

Given that processing times can take up to several years, this has the effect of separating families. This is particularly true with permanent resident sponsors, who simultaneously must meet their own Canadian residency obligations.

There is currently a pilot project providing open work permits to eligible spouses and common law partners living in Canada.

To qualify for an open work permit, a foreign national spouse must have be in Canada on a visitor, student, or worker visa prior to making their in-Canada sponsorship and work permit applications.

This program needs to be expanded to include all applicants who are found eligible to be sponsored. A spouse that has overstayed his/her Canadian visa for a legitimate purpose – such as to be with a Canadian partner – should have some options to work legally in Canada.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Canadian families want nothing more than to be here together and start contributing to the struggling economy earlier.[/quote]

A closing thought 

As you begin your term, Mr. McCallum, please direct your promises at giving Canadian immigrants and their families a greater peace of mind.

Canadian families want nothing more than to be here together and start contributing to the struggling economy earlier.

Yes, we as Canadians, may endure some short-term costs in facilitating this, but these individuals – wives, husbands, partners, children, parents and grandparents – are the foundation of this country and its future. They will pay it back.

Canada is a great country, an attractive country and personally, one that my foreign national fiancée and I hope to call our permanent home. However, it is not our only option and, as my fiancée reminds me on a daily basis, not our easiest option.

Like many other aspiring Canadians, she has an uphill battle to first earn the right, and then find the limited opportunities available, to work or study here. Anything your ministry can do to make our lives easier, and reduce the unnecessary fears engrained by the previous government, would be most welcome.

Will Tao is a Canadian Immigration Lawyer at Larlee Rosenberg, Barristers and Solicitors, in Vancouver, British Columbia. He would like to thank his Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers British Columbia mentee and University of British Columbia law student, Maria Qian, for her helpful edits.

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Published in Commentary

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