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Five Things I Wish International Students Knew Before Applying for Canadian Study Permits

Setting the Scene: Where We Are At and Where We Are Going

I have been struggling with this post – to capture the experiences of the many prospective clients/international student applicants who have entered our door of late asking about their study permits, more specifically why they have been refused, delayed, or found inadmissible for misrepresentation.

Remedies are both a huge time commitment and often times a big corresponding financial commitment. In thinking about how I could input myself into the process (in a helpful way) I thought about writing a post where I take those experiences of all the international students who come see me to try and remedy their refusals and summarize it into five (likely oversimplified, but deeply important) points. These points are important both for international students to protect themselves (be it emotionally, financially (from those all-too-eager to exploit), or even just to help plan their futures during tumultuous times.

We all know the starting point: Canada has become an increasingly attractive study destination especially compared to other countries. While international tuition is still what I personally believe to be dangerously high, it is comparatively cheaper to study in Canada than many other Five Eyes countries. Our immigration options for international students also provide much more flexibility around work while studies, post-graduate work permits, and work permits for accompanying dependents.

We also know that COVID, as my colleague Lou Janssen Dangzalan uncovered through a recent ATIP request, has had a major detrimental effect on study permit applicants.

This has impacted overall refusal rates:

If we look at the two largest international student generating countries – India and China, we see the impact in terms of the change in approval rates:

The stark numbers of how many less study permits were issued in 2020 (granted the data is not entirely complete) cannot be ignored:

For the time being, new restrictive and frankly, confusing, policies such as IRCC’s rule on accompanying dependents of international students (for example discrepancy between: https://www.canada.ca/en/immigration-refugees-citizenship/services/coronavirus-covid19/students.html#family or https://www.canada.ca/en/immigration-refugees-citizenship/services/coronavirus-covid19/students.html#family) along with the new quarantine rules are a signal the Government wants to get through the vaccine phase before admitting too many more international travellers (including international students).

This is my theory about where post-COVID recovery will ultimately go:

With this in mind, we have a timeframe of a few months for most international students to consider carefully their next move. Perhaps, for some, it may even be re-evaluating. I would not throw caution into the wind. Whether you are the paying parent of an international student who insists they ‘got this’ or if you are the international student, wondering what your agent (who is very likely being paid more by your school than by you) doing.

Without further ado, here are the five things I wish international student knew before applying for a study permit in Canada.

 

Thing 1: Be Very Intentional and Careful About the School/Programs/Immigration Advisors You Choose 

Not all schools are treated by Canadian immigration (“IRCC”) the same. There are schools with excellent reputations, many of them being public/higher-level institutions. There are others that have not-so-good reputations – perhaps being smaller private colleges that often take students with lower academic accomplishments. These lists are also not static. Many schools on both sides of the aisle have taken steps and/or hits. Do some research on the reputation of the school.

Be also intentional about where you study. A Visa Officer may have questions already about where you are coming from (see Thing 3 below) and wonder why you are going to a particular Province and that particular school.

As an Applicant you need to be able to make a business case for this: that likely should go beyond the access to permanent residence pathways. As I discussed in this post, dual intention has been utilized as a buzzword but it packs a complex case for meeting the R.216 IRPR requirements to demonstrate you can leave Canada at the end of your authorized stay.

If you are a student from a refusal-producing country (i.e. the statistics, which are accessible if you look hard enough, demonstrate most applicants are being refused), I would suggest it becomes more important  to demonstrate that your studies are bona fide. If you receive scholarships or are entering a level of education that is considered a major upgrade to your education, these are factors that can assist towards maximizing your chances of success. I use the word chance very specifically.

There are no guarantees anymore in the area of international student immigration law/policy.

Be also very aware an intentional about the systems operating around you.

These systems include your family members (what your parents want for you, siblings, other family in Canada).

They include the Designated Learning Institutions (“DLIs”) which have a mandate to protect their own interests. If they refer you to someone (as institutions do to me) it is very fair to ask them why this individual. Be due diligent. This definitely includes agents who say they can do your immigration work for 100 or 200 dollars without disclosing that they are neither authorized immigration representatives (and therefore ask you to sign your own forms) or that they are making a 1/3rd of your tuition back as their finders/placement fee.

This extends to banks/creditors who might be financing your studies for their various reasons but perhaps willing to bend rules and documentation to assist you. Don’t underestimate immigration’s own access to finding out whether a document provided is genuine or not. Same goes with language tests, that are increasingly under scrutiny for fraud prevention.

If you are applying, as most are, from outside Canada know too that immigration fraud unfortunately does exist and if there are red flags (agents who claim they have connections or apparently bizarre correspondence between them and the visa office) take action. Many applicants can save their own situation by seeking a withdrawal (either with or without new counsel) and/or an opportunity to correct the record before it is discovered. Check and ask to see every document that leaves your hands, including making sure that they are submitted in the form you want them to be submitted.

Be very intentional, careful, alert, and aware to the profit industry that is international education and your own role in the system. The more control and guidance you have over your own situation, the better you will be able to rationalize the outcome and prepare for your experiences in Canada.

 

Thing 2: Get to Know Your School Registrar and International Student Advisors Really Well

Get to know the school registrar.

Why?

You may need to defer studies depending on processing times and your own ability to obtain documentation. You may need to ask for refunds or for further letters. Make sure you have direct contact with the registrar and do not over rely on an agent or third-party who may not have your best interests in mind.

Get to know the RISIAs and RCICs who often work for the schools.

RISIAs stand for Regulated International Student Immigration Advisors and RCICs are Regulated Canadian Immigration Consultants. These individuals are often employed by Universities and Colleges to assist with international students. A flag for you may be how few resources the school may have for international students. Schools that have more international student support, more resources, tend to be better positioned both in terms of achieving student approvals but also to help once you are here. This is of underestimated importance. When you become an international student, you must navigate leaves, full-time student status, and post-graduate work permit eligibility, events and occurrences that are very crucial to your success and eventual pathway to permanent residence.

Each DLI (and often each departments) has their own policies surrounding how much they can help out, particularly for applicants who are overseas. I tend to find that students who receive scholarships or are attending specialized programs do get specialized treatment. Some DLIs even assign certain staff to focus just on these programs. This may be crucial, especially in light of a first stage refusal that requires reconsideration or a re-application, with school support. Good DLI RISIAs and RCICs have single-handedly been able to make an impact for students, by providing additional letters of support, explanation, or even a referral to a Member of Parliament that can change one’s prospects.

The better the relationship you can build with them and start fostering early on, the better it is. Again, do not rely on your agent or educational consultant, who has a very different end goal and outcome from being that liaison (getting paid off your end enrollment, with payouts depending on the school you attend and their agreement with them).

 

Thing 3: There Are Constraints on Approving Your Application That Are Outside Your Control and Highly Irrational

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Summer ’18 – Study Permit and International Student Law Federal Court Case Law Summary

Global_Education

By Desmond1234 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46866616

As Canadian students ease their way back into studies and as school staff and administrators start thinking about the million responsibilities that come with a new cohort of international students, I thought it would be useful to review Federal Court Case Law over the past few months and uncover a few points.

I will focus on four points.

[1] PGWP regime not unconstitutionally vague, does not trigger s.7, and refusing a graduate from a private institution that was  not eligible under guidelines, not unreasonable. Brown v. Canada (Citizenship and Immigration)  2018 FC 452 [link to decision] – Manson J. presiding.

Jeremiah Eastman (a former DOJ lawyer for over 11 years)  appeared to make a valiant effort attacking the PGWP regime from all sides, but Manson J upheld the reasonableness of the decision and constitutionality of the PGWP regime. It is important to note that IRCC has now proactively addressed the issue at the heart of this matter by adding a list that sets out whether the DLI is PGWP-eligible and/or if certain programs offered are eligible.

[2] In the context of the requirement of  “actively-pursuing studies,” it is often parallel proceedings that will trigger investigation. CBSA Officers found to have broad discretion by Courts.  – Kone v. Canada (Citizenship and Immigration) 2018 FC 845 [link to decision] – Locke J. presiding.

 

Kone is a fascinating decision because it occurs in a context that I have lectured on for several years in my international student presentations. The Actively-Pursuing Studies requirement (which I have written about several times as being problematic) is most problematic when triggered by CBSA. There are many cases of international students who have missed one or two semesters (due to scheduling/health issues) but have not had issues entering new programs or getting student renewals. Kone gets triggered, not by an investigation into his studies initially, but by a related fraud matter where he is arrested.

Once this occurs, the books become open and the actively-pursuing studies allegation was sought after. We have seen this occur in other contexts as well – border entry incidents, criminal charges, arrests, etc.

The individual at that stage is often in a situation where their ability to provide further explanation is compromised. IRCC’s own process (triggered by compliance reporting and their own investigations) is much more fairer and consists of a PFL that often looks like this.

IRCC actively pursuing studies PFL letter

Students can then present a timeline including explanations as to why certain programs were unavailable or registration was delayed.

I also find the decision fascinating because, it does not (it appears) parse out the statutory requirements of what defines a failure to actively-pursue studies. At one point Justice Locke writes about one period of study:

[62]  First, I note that the applicant makes no reference to any authority indicating that his absence from Canada could excuse him.

The very provision of R. 220.1(1) of IRPR requires actively-pursuing studies only when in Canada on a study permit. Indeed, one of IRCC’s pieces of advice on this issue is to depart Canada or seek a visitor record if there is major gap due to issues such as illness or inability to enroll.

Finally, one thing that still needs to be resolved (in my mind) is whether this type of non-compliance can be cured by leaving Canada in the same way as other unauthorized work or study. IRCC’s Enforcement Manual – ENF 2- Chapter 11 states as follows:

Screen Shot 2018-09-09 at 12.14.59 PM

If a student who has not been actively-pursuing studies leaves Canada and returns either as a visitor (awaiting the re-engagement of their studies) or at a time prior to studies commencing, can the Border Officer go back to previous periods of study and render a decision that they were not actively pursuing studies while holding their study permit. It seems like an area where there is still not absolute clarity, and I’ve certainly seen most border officer’s take the later approach. Even IRCC’s PFL letter suggests that this assessment can be made irregardless of the Applicant’s travel history.

It is also worth noting a second case came out this summer El Kamel v. Canada (Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness) 2018 FC 730 [see attached link occured in the context of a student who was advised by his consultant to seek to amend his study permit at the Port of Entry (likely by flagpole) where he was subsequently issued a s.44 report and exclusion order.  The Officer noted the student’s good faith action at the Border, but noted that there were no grounds for review of the decision finding Mr. E-K did not actively pursue studies.

Expect that the actively-pursuing studies issue continues to be pursued as a ground for refusing non-compliant students but in many cases capture students that border the cusp of being also unfortunate, unhealthy, or unsuccessful which the provision can also apply to.

[3] Study Permit Refusals Should Continue to be JR’d – Raymundo v. Canada (Citizenship and Immigration) 2018 FC 759 [see linked decision] – LeBlanc J. presiding.

As discussed in my last post on the Omijie case [see link here], there has been an increasing judicial scrutiny around study permit refusals. It is understandable. There are now increasing number of study permit applicants, and while Canada has pledged more seats, within a global context it cannot take all applicants. Rates of granted study permits in many countries are still very low (15% or less, and in some cases close to 5%).

Many of these applications will begin with the starting point that the visa officer will likely refuse the application and assume the applicant will not leave Canada at the end of their stay, unless the applicant can demonstrate otherwise. While this is not how the laws and regulations should directly apply, it is a reality of the over-extended demand on a Canadian study permit.

In Raymundo, a study permit applicant from the Philippines applying for Centennial College’s International Business Program was refused a study permit. He had explained in his application why he intended to return to the Philippines to start a marine transportation business. It appears he had family in Canada who would be providing financial support but Mr. R’s wife and kids would be staying in the Philippines. The Officer found that the proposed studies in Canada were not consistent with a logical study plan and that the Applicant did not demonstrate significant socio-economic ties to the Philippines.

Justice LeBlanc found that the decision was not reasonable, rendering the following lines:

Screen Shot 2018-09-09 at 12.36.04 PM

The Applicant directly addressed his attempts in his personal study plan that he tried to find a similar program, yet the program was still found not to make sense.

The Officer also took major issue with the fact that the Applicant had left his wife and son in the Philippines and that this factor was not mentioned at all in the reasons for refusal.

Screen Shot 2018-09-09 at 12.36.12 PM

These are such common reasons for refusal that I see in many study permit consultations. Even with the Federal Court’s guidance with these cases, I still believe that visa officers will continue to refuse study permit applicants with short, trite, and little explained reasons knowing that 95% of them will either abandon their plans or re-apply to a similar refusal. I think the only way to challenge the system is to bring up these cases to judicial review.

I note a second decision this summer, Demyati v. Canada (Citizenship and Immigration) 2018 FC 701 [see link to decision] where a 18-year old Syrian national with a scholarship was refused a study permit.  Justice Roy seemed very concerned with the lack of transparency and intelligibility in concerns that the individual would not return home because of the country conditions. Justice Roy also appeared pertrubed by the type of requirements IRCC was expecting of a young student with respect to his employment history, etc. This is particularly true as parsed out in the facts presented by Justice Roy.

Screen Shot 2018-09-09 at 3.57.52 PM

One of the key differences in this matter that the officer appeared to also go too far in presuming the Applicant would not “actively pursue studies” in Canada without pointing to any evidence. The speculative nature in which was done was criticized by Justice Roy, ironically in the context of s. 7 of the Charter which is rarely ever in the same context of international students, who have no Charter rights in a context of a study permit application. Yet, his criticism, highlights the very real concerns about arbitrary reasoning that comes with many temporary resident visa refusals.

I expect more and more judicial review of these types of decisions. It may be worth considering whether the Government eventually is better off with a per country quota system (that allows for the ceasing of intakes) as opposed to needing to find reasons to refuse applicants that often times will prima facie meet statutory requirements, pending issues about credibility or misrepresentation.

[4] Students Need to Better Pathway Their Studies –  Masam v. Canada (Citizenship and Immigration) 2018 FC 751 [see link to decision] – Walker J. presiding.

I will not break down this case too much (as it is somewhat related to what occurred in Brown above). Ms. M appeared to, likely on the cases of other students, transition from a DLI, George Brown College, that was on the PGWP list to a non-eligible DLI, Canadian College for Higher Studies (CCHS). Upon completion of that second program, it had already been 90-days + since the completion of studies […]

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Will Tao is an Award-Winning Canadian Immigration and Refugee Lawyer, Writer, and Policy Advisor based in Vancouver. Vancouver Immigration Blog is a public legal resource and social commentary.

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