TORONTO — Arjan van Dam came to Canada in 2017 on a work permit with his wife and children to help his Dutch employer, a purveyor of agricultural equipment, set up shop.
But Canada’s immigration system was not weighed in his favor. His age, lack of postsecondary education and average English-language skills meant that qualifying for permanent residency was a challenge, said his Toronto-based lawyer, Barbara Jo Caruso.
Canada wants more immigrants — 401,000 this year, to be exact — and is not letting pandemic border controls get in the way. That means some new programs, including ones granting residency status to people already in the country and in jobs that might not have previously qualified.
Canada has long been a destination for economic immigration. But the retooling of its policies reflects wider shifts globally as countries reel with the fallout of a global pandemic that has deeply disrupted movement and migration.
From Chinese students who dreamed of studying in the United States to migrant workers in the Persian Gulf, pandemic border closures, flight bans and the scaling back of visa services have wrought unparalleled upheaval to the flow of workers, students and regular and irregular migrants across borders.
“Immigration fits very prominently into the plans that we have to accelerate our economic recovery,” Marco Mendicino, Canada’s immigration minister, told The Washington Post, “as well as continuing to strengthen Canada’s long-term prosperity.”
The overarching aim of these new initiatives and Canada’s increased immigration targets have been generally well received. Some analysts, however, have raised concerns, including about whether they could have been better designed, exclude too many vulnerable people or are feasible given processing times and backlogs.
Before the pandemic, Canada’s population was growing at a rate not seen in decades, outpacing the other Group of Seven industrialized nations. International migration was the main reason, said Statistics Canada, accounting for 86 percent of population growth in 2019. That year, Canada accepted 341,175 permanent residents, up from 271,840 in 2015.
Then came the virus. In 2020, the number of permanent residents plunged by almost half to 184,595, far short of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s target of 341,000 and a potential headache for a country that has long relied on immigration to offset the impacts of low birthrates and an aging population on its labor force and public finances.
Population growth in the United States in the decade to 2020 slowed to the lowest rate since the Great Depression, according to data released in April by the U.S. Census Bureau, tied in part to decreased fertility rates and slowing immigration.
The United States — with nearly 10 times the population of Canada — granted permanent resident status to 707,362 people in 2020, down 31 percent from 1,031,765 in 2019, according to U.S. government data.
Since 2010, immigration has declined, driven by the economic crisis early in the decade and government restrictions under the Trump administration.
“Immigration is increasingly becoming the primary, if not the only, source of labor force growth” in Canada as the baby boomers retire, said Andrew Agopsowicz, a senior economist at the Royal Bank of Canada.
To make up the shortfall in 2020, the Canadian government in October announced even loftier immigration targets. It hopes to welcome 401,000 permanent residents in 2021, up from a previous goal of 351,000. That target would increase by 10,000 in 2022 and again in 2023.
Marian Campbell Jarvis, an assistant deputy minister of immigration, told a parliamentary committee in May that the government expected border restrictions would soon ease, allowing the country to admit permanent residents from abroad. But the pandemic’s grip tightened. So Canada had to get “creative,” Jarvis said.
Canada had already invited more than 27,000 people to apply for permanent residency under one stream of its “express entry” program for skilled economic immigrants with recent work experience in Canada — more than five times the previous record.
The program uses a points system to score applicants based on criteria such as age, education and work experience. In recent years, the minimum score needed to qualify for an invitation was well more than 400 points, according to government data. For that particular round, in February, 75 points cleared the bar.
“It’s definitely unprecedented,” said Andrew Carvajal, a Toronto-based immigration lawyer. “The number of invitations that we’ve seen this year, how low the scores have gone … are very interesting and very different.”
Then, in May, the government opened a new program: a temporary pathway to permanent residency for 90,000 people already in Canada with temporary status. They include 40,000 recent international student graduates, 20,000 health-care workers and 30,000 people in other “essential” jobs such as cashiers, janitors and butchers.
“I think it’s great,” said the Dutch agriculture-products executive van Dam, who has not yet heard whether his application has been successful. “Everything is easier if you have a permanent resident card.”
These efforts have not been without critics.
Analysts at the C.D. Howe Institute, a nonprofit research group, said lowering scores under the points system amid the economic recovery would mean “admitting immigrants who will experience more significant integration challenges.” Advocates took aim at the exclusion of asylum seekers and undocumented people in “essential” jobs from the temporary pathway program that opened in May.
Other analysts supported the initiatives, but found flaws in their design and rollout.
“I think it’s both important and necessary and the right thing to do to turn to people who are already in the country who wish to stay and facilitate their transition to permanent residency,” said Anna Triandafyllidou, the Canada excellence research chair in migration and integration at Ryerson University in Toronto.
She said that the pandemic has forced Canadians to rethink what work is “essential” — not just highly-skilled engineers, for instance, but also caregivers on the front lines of the pandemic.
In June, other analysts at Ryerson University wrote that while “the justification for the program is sound, the implementation process does not promote equitable access for all eligible occupations.”
“Some workers, especially in lower-skilled occupations, may effectively be excluded by the complex application process which involves a proliferation of lengthy forms to complete; tests to take; documents to obtain, translate and upload; technology to utilize; and fees to pay,” they wrote.
Caruso and a law clerk sat with van Dam as he completed his application, walking him through it.
“There’s no way he could have done it on his own,” she said.
It took three months for the immigration department to acknowledge receipt of his application.
The international students category was fully subscribed within days. The stream for “essential” workers took longer to fill up. But just 3,295 health-care workers have applied for 20,000 spots, according to government data. The program closes in November.
From January to the end of July, Canada admitted 184,215 permanent residents, according to data from Canada’s immigration department. Mendicino, who champions these initiatives as “cutting edge” immigration policy, said he’s confident the country will meet its target.
In a December speech before the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade, Bank of Canada Governor Tiff Macklem cited Canada’s “well-educated and diverse workforce” as its “biggest asset.” But he also pointed to a potential wrinkle: renewed competition with the United States for global talent under the Biden administration once the pandemic eases.
“For the past four years, the policies and attitudes of the U.S. administration helped make Canada look more attractive to students and workers, giving us an advantage,” he said. “With the incoming U.S. administration, Canadian schools and companies may have to fight harder to attract and retain talent. But being a welcoming country remains an important advantage, and immigration creates economic capacity.”