Five hundred thousand new immigrants in a single year is an exciting prospect for immigrants, their loved ones, and employers and communities across Canada. It gives hope to international students, temporary foreign workers, cross-border families, and all the folks abroad who wish to become permanent residents one day.

But for some who have been watching Canada’s immigration backlog, the 500,000 figure raises an eyebrow and the question: Can Canada actually welcome 500,000 immigrants in a single year?

Why Canada’s immigration backlog matters

The total backlog is hovering around the 2.6 million mark, which includes temporary residents, citizenship applicants, as well as permanent residency applicants. The immigration department—Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada—has been providing backlog updates on its website.

Out of the 614,600 permanent residence applicants in the inventory on September 30, 47 percent are being processed within the service standard. IRCC’s goal is to increase this to 80 percent to account for complicated cases and other factors that might slow down the process for certain applications.

Canada’s immigration minister, Sean Fraser from the Liberal party, says the challenges with the backlogs have been more so on the temporary residence side, which includes temporary foreign workers, international students, and visitors.

“There’s no one silver bullet,” Fraser told reporters at a news conference on November 1. “It takes every tool in the toolbox to solve this challenge. It takes resources, it takes policy, it takes technology—more specifically, we’re in the middle of a hiring blitz to add at least 1,250 staff to process applications more quickly.”

Tom Kmiec, the Conservative Party’s shadow minister for immigration and citizenship, has doubts as to whether the immigration targets will be achieved in 2025—or 2023.

“With an historic backlog of 2.6 million, the new targets of 465,000 in 2023 and 500,000 by 2025 are unlikely to ever be met,” Kmiec’s office wrote in an email to Moving2Canada.

Kmiec’s letter also pointed out that IRCC has more staff and more funding compared to 2016, yet “the Liberal-made backlogs only got worse.”

While it’s true the decisions taken under the Liberal Party during the pandemic contributed to the backlog, we cannot know exactly what would have happened had the government been under the leadership of another party during the pandemic.

We know that under the Liberals, IRCC kept holding Express Entry draws even when IRCC operations were severely impacted. We know that on February 13, 2021, there were 27,332 Canadian Experience Class candidates invited to apply for immigration. This meant that every candidate with the required recent skilled work experience in Canada was invited that day, regardless of their points total. And we know that IRCC created the TR2PR program to help meet its target of 401,000 newcomers amid travel restrictions in 2021.

All of these factors played their part in the permanent residency backlog. IRCC missed its immigration target in 2020 by a longshot. As a result, it tried to make up for it the next year and the system buckled under itself.

That being said, although it had a slow start to the year in 2021, IRCC ended up exceeding its immigration target by the end of the year, admitting a record 405,999 new immigrants to Canada. Also this year, IRCC is on track to meet its new target of more than 431,000 permanent residents.

So, we are seeing IRCC process immigration applications, and we are seeing them meet their targets—but let’s not forget there are currently more than 300,000 people whose permanent residence applications are outside of IRCC’s processing standard. Some of them could become the immigrants who land in 2023 to 2025.

IRCC is modernizing the immigration system

IRCC is on what it calls “a multi-year transformational digital journey” to modernize immigration programs and services. These efforts will be delivered through the Digital Platform Modernization Program (DPM). It began in 2020 and is expected to run until 2026.

IRCC says the DPM will improve the overall client, employee, and partner experience.

We’ve already seen some work completed on this front. For instance, the majority of immigration programs now accept online applications, which is intended to speed up the application process.

There are enough foreigners already in Canada to meet targets

If for some reason IRCC cannot meet its targets, it is certainly not for a lack of interest to move to Canada. The numbers speak for themselves.

Last year, more than 191,000 immigrants had previous Canadian experience. There were almost 446,000 study permit holders and 416,000 foreign workers on temporary status. Although not all of these temporary residents will become permanent residents one day, it demonstrates the number of people with vested interest in Canada.

That’s not even taking into account the number of undocumented migrants in Canada. Experts estimate that there are anywhere between 20,000 and 500,000 people who are in Canada without status. The majority fell out of status and either did not qualify for an immigration program or failed to apply to extend their status. Only a small fraction of these people entered the country unlawfully or through human trafficking, according to government research.

Criticisms of the 2023-2025 Immigration Levels Plan

NDP immigration critic, Jenny Kwan, told Moving2Canada that while her party supports the increase in targets, the Immigration Levels Plan 2023-2025 misses the mark in a number of areas, including measures for undocumented workers, French speakers, and refugees.

“After seeing the situation in Afghanistan and Ukraine, it’s appalling that the Liberal government’s response is to reduce refugee targets over the course of their plan,” Kwan’s office wrote in an email.

The Immigration Levels Plan 2023-2025 calls for a reduction in the number of refugees over the next three years, from 76,545 in 2023 to 62,500 in 2025.

Despite the decrease in refugee targets, the UNHCR representative in Canada, Rema Jamous Imseis commended the plan in a media release.

“The United Nations Refugee Agency welcomes Canada’s continued commitment to refugee resettlement as part of its overall immigration growth plan. Refugees need life-saving solutions like resettlement, and they also make important contributions to Canada’s economy and the fabric of our communities,” Jamous said in the release. “As the world faces an unprecedented displacement crisis, we applaud Canada’s leadership on refugee resettlement.”

On November 1, the Standing Committee on Immigration and Citizenship met as part of a study on the immigration backlog application processing times. They heard from a number of witnesses including members of community organizations for refugees and French speakers outside of Quebec.

The current immigration levels plan calls for at least 4.4 percent of new permanent residents outside Quebec to be Francophone, a target that has never been met.

Yves-Gérard Méhou-Loko, Vice-President and Alain Dupuis, Director General of the Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne du Canada were in attendance talking about the decline in the French language throughout the Canadian provinces.

Dupuis called the situation a “crisis” and said it needed to be treated as such. Francophones outside of Quebec are not always able to exercise their rights in French. He says the current target of 4.4 percent is no longer appropriate.

“What we need to see is a new target as of 2024 and it needs to be 12 percent,” Dupuis told the committee in French.

Canada’s immigration targets could change

Every year, the immigration minister is required to table a new multi-year immigration levels plan on or before November 1, unless there’s an election. The date of the next Canadian election is not set but it could happen anytime between now and October 20, 2025.

The immigration targets are based on consultations with provinces, territories, public opinion research, stakeholder consultations and other factors

In recent decades, immigration targets have trended upwards because immigration is treated like a strategy to grow the Canadian workforce. Immigration accounts for almost 100 percent of Canada’s labour force growth, and it is projected to account for 100 percent of the country’s population growth by 2032.

Canada relies on immigrants to help support its long-term prosperity goals. It is likely that any change in targets or government would still support high levels of immigration.

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