Canada's travel rules unfair to first-year foreign students, U.S. parents say

WASHINGTON — Parents of students in the United States who hoped to begin their university studies in Canada this fall are frantically trying to convince the federal government to relax rules that make it next to impossible for their kids to enter the country.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada has closed the door to students with study permits granted after March 18, the day Canada and the U.S. announced a ban on non-essential cross-border travel, while students with pre-existing valid permits will be allowed in.

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Some parents say that discriminates against first-year students, most of whom didn't have time to get their permits approved before the deadline after receiving an offer of acceptance from Canadian schools.

"The way things are right now, the only ones that are not able to come into Canada are the freshmen, and that makes no sense to anyone," said Anna Marti, a resident of New York whose daughter was expecting to launch her post-secondary career in September at McGill University in Montreal.

"They're the ones that are going to get their study permits after March 18."

The total number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. passed the 4 million mark Thursday, with nearly 144,000 deaths to date. Premature reopenings, an uneven and cavalier approach to physical distancing in parts of the country and a partisan divide over mask requirements have helped to fuel a surge in cases. Some experts are projecting a death toll in excess of 200,000 by November.

Canada, by comparison, has reported 112,000 total cases and 8,870 fatalities so far.

"There are no measures in place to provide for expedited processing of study permit applications," Canada's immigration department said in an update posted late last week.

"Foreign nationals who had a study permit application approved after March 18, 2020 ... may not be exempt from the travel restrictions (and) they should not make any plans to travel to Canada until the travel restrictions are lifted, as they will not be allowed to travel to or enter Canada."

Marti and others have signed an online petition urging Ottawa to reconsider the study-permit rule, arguing that it's unfair to only allow foreign students with older permits — many of whom spent the summer in the U.S., where the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic has been escalating in recent weeks — into the country.

The rule also unfairly punishes students in those parts of the country where the virus is less severe, such as Marti's home in the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, she said.

New York City was a major epicentre for the initial U.S. outbreak back in April, prompting an aggressive response led by Gov. Mario Cuomo that helped to beat back the virus. People in the state have taken the threat more seriously as a result, Marti said.

"We've all been through hell," she said.

"My daughter has not seen her friends in months. To quote Gov. Cuomo, she's New York smart — she's out there with her mask, always keeping social distance, and she's telling me all the time, 'I don't understand this. There's zero chance that we could be a risk.'"

Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino announced last week the government would prioritize study permits for students who have submitted a complete application online. Students will also be able to apply time spent studying online toward their eligibility for a work permit in Canada, provided at least 50 per cent of the program is completed in Canada.

The March 18 threshold for study permits has been in place since the border restrictions were originally imposed, said Kevin Lemkay, a spokesman for Mendicino. Since then, Ottawa has introduced "more flexibility" for students, Lemkay said, including priority processing and a two-stage process for students who are unable to obtain all the necessary documentation.

"Our government knows that international students bring tremendous economic, cultural and social benefits to Canada," he said.

"We understand that students and post-secondary institutions were eager for certainty, and these measures were taken with that in mind. We hope to have more to say soon."

The Change.org petition, which has more than 3,000 signatures, calls on the federal government to define all international students as essential travellers. It says students unable to enter Canada will lose access to vital educational resources, research facilities and income opportunities, and may not feel safe remaining in their home countries.

Some McGill employees who expect to be in proximity with students from the U.S. next month have raised concerns about why the school is permitting any international students on campus when the bulk of the course work can be handled online.

The university says the changes to course delivery are strictly temporary and that there will be an on-campus experience for students who are able to attend in person.

"Although the fall semester may look somewhat different than usual, the university is working with faculties to develop on-campus student life and learning activities, respecting careful safety protocols, for students who will be in Montreal in the fall term," spokeswoman Shirley Cardenas said in a statement.

Those activities will be "replicated" for students who remain outside of Canada, she added.

"All international students entering Canada are required to quarantine for 14 days and are subject to monitoring, verification and enforcement by public health authorities. Individual accommodations will be available for any student needing to self-isolate."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 23, 2020.

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