Open arms in an era of closed borders: pandemic-era immigration plan to be released

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Immigration

OTTAWA — Canada’s tradition of welcoming newcomers with open arms is being challenged in an era of closed borders.

How great that challenge is will become apparent today as the federal Liberals release a status update on immigration to Canada so far this year and a plan for how many they intend to admit next year.

The plan for 2020 had been to settle around 341,000 new permanent residents, a goal in keeping with ongoing increases to immigration levels for the last several years.

This year’s number, however, was released literally on the eve of Canada beginning to cut itself entirely off from the outside world to control the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The day after, Parliament would close its doors, the week after the border with the U.S. slammed shut to all but essential workers and travel restrictions reduced air travel to Canada so sharply that airports became ghost towns.

Families were stranded oceans apart, the agricultural sector’s steady flow of temporary workers dried up, university campuses were devoid of international students whose tuition helps pay the bills, refugees were left stuck in untenable situations abroad and bosses who’d pinned their hopes for growth on new arrivals were left in some cases not even able to run their businesses, let alone hire new employees.

At the same time, the machinery that drives the system also went on hiatus as thousands of civil servants in Canada were sent home, and immigration officers overseas boarded up visa offices and stopped doing interviews.

The result? In the first eight months of 2020, immigration was down more than 40 per cent over last year’s numbers.

Backlogs are amassing that could take years to clear up, both in terms of applications being processed and newcomers actually being able to arrive.

Still, the system is beginning to reboot, in the context of the pandemic.

A decision to reopen an exceptionally popular parent-and-grandparent sponsorship program earlier in October came with a promise to lower the income threshold required for would-be sponsors, in acknowledgement that people’s incomes may have been affected by the pandemic.

The Immigration Department has also advertised for help overhauling its systems to move away from a decades-old dependency on paper files and in-person interviews to vet applicants.

Pilot projects at airports into the feasibility of testing incoming travelers for COVID-19 and adjusting potential quarantine requirements are also now underway. While testing for now will only be done on those already authorized to come into Canada, the pilot projects’ results could pave the way for more people to be allowed into the country.

In the recent throne speech, the Liberals insisted a return to robust immigration is a priority.

“As part of both the short-term economic recovery and a long-term plan for growth, the government will leverage the advantage we have on immigration to keep Canada competitive on the world stage,” the speech said.

The Liberals need to present details on how they intend to achieve their goals, not just bottom line figures, said Conservative Immigration critic Raquel Dancho.

“The Liberals have failed to effectively manage the immigration system during the pandemic,” she said in a statement.

“Now, they are announcing new levels of immigration for 2021, but without a plan of how it will be implemented.”