Impact of COVID-19 on Immigration and Recent Migrants to Canada

With an aging and slow-growing population, Canada depends on Immigration for economic and demographic growth. But the COVID-19 pandemic has effectively closed our borders and virtually halted the entry of immigrants.

By Max Singh

“Troubling new evidence about Canadian attitudes, shaped by the pandemic, suggests that even when borders finally reopen, and the economic rebuilding begins, immigrants may no longer be as welcome as they have been in the past.” 

With an aging and slow-growing population, Canada depends on Immigration for economic and demographic growth. But the COVID-19 pandemic has effectively closed our borders and virtually halted the entry of immigrants. Troubling new evidence about Canadian attitudes, shaped by the pandemic, suggests that even when borders finally reopen, and the economic rebuilding begins, immigrants may no longer be as welcome as they have been in the past.

Outside Canada, the far-right has stoked anti-immigrant rhetoric in Europe. Canada is not immune to racism against immigrants, as seen in the alarming rise of Anti-Asian hate crimes in cities across Canada since Covid 19 appeared.

In 2019 Canada welcomed 341,000 permanent residents, its highest figure since 1913, but that number dipped to 184,000 during 2020. Thousands of Permanent Resident applicants have also found their applications and dates for entering Canada in limbo.

With concerns that the pandemic has made Canadians less open to Immigration, researchers at McMaster University worked with Dynata Research to conduct a national survey in early August 2020. The survey asked 1,000 Canadians aged 25 and over about their attitudes toward Immigration and their experiences during the pandemic. The interviewees wonder whether Canada should be willing to reopen its borders to immigrants after the pandemic has been controlled. Canadians ranked COVID-19 as the No. 1 problem currently facing the country. This was ranked far ahead of the economy and health care, ranked second and third, respectively. Crime, the environment, poverty, unemployment, and other issues ranked much lower.

“Immigration is essential to getting us through the pandemic, but also to our short-term economic recovery and our long-term economic growth. As we look to recovery, newcomers create jobs. Our plan will help to address some of our most acute labor shortages and to grow our population to keep Canada competitive on the world stage.”

Amid the growing Immigration numbers before the pandemic (more than 300,000 in 2019), about six in 10 Canadians had been comfortable with the number of immigrants entering the country.

In fact, most respondents said they felt Immigration has made Canada a better place. Slightly more than 50 percent of respondents also said Immigration has a positive impact on the economy and Canada’s cultural and social life. A large majority also felt that immigrants were welcomed into their communities.

But the McMaster reports a deeper look into the numbers reveals clear signs of concern over Immigration, particularly looking ahead to when Canada emerges from the pandemic. For instance, more than half of respondents felt immigrants were not adopting Canadian values, and 46 percent felt immigrants posed a risk to Canada’s social welfare system.

While the majority felt their attitudes toward Immigration had not changed since the pandemic started, some 20 percent of Canadians said they have developed a more negative attitude toward it.

COVID-19 has had devastating effects on the financial well-being of many recent immigrants, temporary foreign workers (TFWs), and international students in Canada. Migrants—regardless of their immigration status—are overrepresented in essential roles and industries that have been hardest hit. As a result, they have been disproportionately affected by job loss and by the virus itself.

According to Statistics Canada, recent immigrants were more likely to be impacted by job loss because of their overrepresentation in low-wage jobs in hard-hit sectors. Between February and April, landed immigrants experienced a 16 percent decline in employment compared with an 11 percent decline for Canadian-born workers (LMIC). Student advocates reported that many international students were particularly hard-hit because they worked on campus and lost their jobs when campuses closed. More than a quarter (26 percent) reported the temporary loss of their primary income. Over a third (35 percent) indicated difficulty paying rent or utilities, and 18 percent had difficulty affording other essentials.

To mitigate the financial impact of COVID-19, the Government of Canada implemented the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), which has since transitioned into the Employment Insurance system. This aid was made available to immigrants, temporary foreign workers, and international students; however, to be eligible, applicants had to have earned $5,000 in the previous 12 months. As a result, the long-term unemployed, many international students, and many recent immigrants were not eligible.

The pandemic has also brought renewed attention to the long-standing call to broaden eligibility and create targeted settlement and employment service interventions for temporary workers and international students. Such interventions are increasingly crucial as so many, particularly during the pandemic, are likely to transition to permanent residency. Canada Immigration and Refugee services officials indicate that broadening eligibility and other targeted measures are under consideration. Survey results also indicate that more action is needed to ensure that permanent residents, students, and temporary workers know what supports they are currently eligible for and how to access them.

The economic vulnerability of immigrants is linked to their employment in precarious, low-wage, and often essential work, reflecting the impact of gender, racialization, and the devaluing of international education and experience in the labor market. Policy interventions aimed at addressing these systemic issues across the Canadian economy—in the context of the pandemic, the recovery, and beyond—will mitigate disproportionate negative impacts on immigrants, temporary workers, and international students.

Canada still needs immigrants to help rebuild the economy, fill job vacancies, and broaden the tax base. Despite the strain COVID-19 has placed on Canadian society, Canada must continue to be open to Immigration. In acknowledgment of this, in October 2020, Marco Mendicino, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, tabled the 2021‒2023 Immigration Levels Plan, which sets out a path for responsible increases to immigration targets to help the Canadian economy recover from COVID-19. The Ministry has promised to plow through the thousands of PR application backlogs subject to border reopening and offer a pathway to permanent residence for over 90,000 essential workers and international graduates who actively contribute to Canada’s economy.

To compensate for the shortfall and ensure Canada has the workers it needs to fill crucial labor market gaps and remain competitive on the world stage, the 2021 to 2023 levels aim to continue welcoming immigrants at a rate of about 1% of the population of Canada, including 401,000 permanent residents in 2021, 411,000 in 2022 and 421,000 in 2023. The previous plan set targets of 351,000 in 2021 and 361,000 in 2022. Minister Mendicino said,

“Immigration is essential to getting us through the pandemic, but also to our short-term economic recovery and our long-term economic growth. Canadians have seen how newcomers play an outsized role in our hospitals and care homes and helping us to keep food on the table. As we look to recovery, newcomers create jobs by giving our businesses the skills they need to thrive and start businesses themselves. Our plan will help to address some of our most acute labor shortages and to grow our population to keep Canada competitive on the world stage.”

Sources: Statscan, Ministry of immigration, refugees and citizenship, WES – world education service, Business News Service, The Conversation, embedded report from McMaster University and Dynata.

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