For immigrants and refugees, their status and ability to stay in Canada has been thrown into flux as the entire immigration establishment has been virtually frozen by the federal government response to the threat of the novel coronavirus.

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For immigrants and refugees, their status and ability to stay in Canada has been thrown into flux as the entire immigration establishment has been virtually frozen by the federal government response to the threat of the novel coronavirus.

There will be long-term ripple effects, but there are also immediate implications for those who are new to the country, according to Winnipeg immigration lawyer Alastair Clarke, with Clarke Immigration Law. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Free Press: Are you concerned about how coronavirus response and the economic impact of the pandemic will influence people's ability to land in Canada and to process applications on the permanent residency and citizenship track?

Clarke: Absolutely... we’re dealing with emergencies on a daily basis. Clients are concerned about their work permits, international students are worried about their status if they’ve been granted study permits, but they're now not able to come for whatever reason. We have clients who have requirements to get biometrics (fingerprints and photo), but they're not able to get the biometrics because the offices are closed.

This pandemic has affected the entire system. Not to mention the (Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada) tribunal is virtually closed, 90 per cent of our hearings have been postponed.

We expect there are going to be delays in processing times. We expect this is going to impact many applications. Canada, as everyone knows, is dependent on immigration and our economy is tied very closely with immigration.

FP: What if someone had been on track to apply for a permanent residency permit and just got laid off? Are they still going to be eligible to remain in Canada? Would they be eligible for the emergency employment benefit?

AC: Every case is different. So, we're dealing with these questions on a case-by-case basis.

I had one trucker who called me and he has a permanent residency application in process and his employer has supported his application. But the routes he has are all to the United States, and this client doesn't feel comfortable going to the United States anymore. He's asked his employer for domestic routes, but they don't have any. So now he's asking whether or not he can quit — and that would be a huge risk; he puts his visa application at risk.

I will say, generally speaking, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, I'm on the phone with officers almost daily and they have been incredibly open about what they're dealing with. The officers are incredibly sympathetic; they understand how these applicants are being affected.

Other times, where we're dealing with officers that, in many cases, are less flexible. They're more rigid with their decision-making standards. So right now, what we're seeing is officers are being much more flexible, and they're being much more understanding with people's circumstances.

It'll be interesting to see, in the long term, whether or not they can agree that maybe in the past they were just being a bit too rigid, and whether or not they're going to continue to be flexible on how long this kind of period of tolerance is going to last.

FP: Does claiming Employment Insurance or, in this case the federal response benefit, influence permanent residency or citizenship applications? Or further down the line, does it influence someone’s ability to sponsor a spouse or family member to immigrate?

AC: There is a lot of confusion surrounding this, because some applications are influenced when an applicant receives social assistance. However, Employment Insurance is not classified as social assistance; EI is considered income and so it only impacts applications where there is a minimum necessary income, or a low-income cutoff. But a citizenship application does not have a minimum income requirement or low-income cutoff, and many other permanent residency applications do not have those requirements.

FP: So when you say social assistance can influence applications, what are we talking about? What kind of assistance are we would actually influence those kinds of applications?

AC: Social assistance is not defined by the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. However, generally speaking, the federal court interprets social assistance as being welfare. So those would be the welfare cheques provided by the different provinces. There has been case law suggesting it could include housing subsidies.

It's very hard to be certain about it because things are changing so frequently, but at the moment, the emergency response benefit is an EI program.

As for sponsorship applications, there are three different types: you can sponsor your spouse, your dependent child, and then there parents or grandparents.

So the last one, applying to sponsor parents or grandparents, that would probably have the most chance of being impacted if you applied for the federal emergency response benefit because with that application, you need to show minimum necessary income.

sarah.lawrynuik@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @SarahLawrynuik

Sarah Lawrynuik

Sarah Lawrynuik
Reporter

Sarah Lawrynuik reports on climate change for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press climate change reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.

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