Major immigration backlog in Canada leaving thousands of trained health-care professionals on the sidelines

As hospitals across the country struggle under the weight of major staffing shortages, an immigration backlog described by lawyers as the worst they have ever seen is leaving qualified health professionals sitting on the sidelines.

In February 2021, Sharlene Ullani applied for a permanent resident card after years spent working in Canada as a caregiver for children. Eighteen months later, the internationally trained nurse with more than seven years experience hasn’t heard anything from Immigration Canada about her application status.

Online, the government estimates the processing time for new permanent residence cards is 2.6 months, or 81 days, as of Aug. 2.

“I’ve been sending emails two times a month and the answer is always the same: ‘You have to wait, thank you for your patience. We have this pandemic’,” she told CTV National News.

Ullani currently holds a temporary work permit, but it does not allow her to switch jobs — even from a caregiver for children to a caregiver for adults — without losing status. In the months since she filled an application for permanent residency, Ullani has written exams and completed the paperwork necessary to get her foreign credentials translated into a valid licence to work in Ontario as a registered practical nurse.

“It is heartbreaking to see nurses working so hard and we are here, willing to help,” she said. “We are willing to help, but we cannot do so because of our status.”

The Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario said there are roughly 26,000 nurses “ready and waiting” to work in Ontario, 14,000 of those are registered nurses. CEO Doris Grinspun says the great majority of those people are waiting for their international qualifications to get approved by the college, but thousands have already passed their exams and are waiting for their immigration status to change so they can work.

“The big impact of the backlog for patients is that they are either being short changed in the quality of care or they are not getting care all together,” she said. “If you look at home care, they are likely not getting care all together. If you look at ICU or ER that are closing down or shrinking, even in an emergency, it is desperation.”

Recently, Grinspun worked with the federal government to approve the immigration applications of 26 nurses. Given the health care staffing crisis across the country, Grinspun said the government should prioritize applications filed on behalf of applicants with backgrounds in health care, especially nurses.

“Having internationally trained nurses, RPN … able to join the workforce when they are ready to work in Ontario, and especially those who have already passed their exams and are just waiting on work permits by the feds, move them on. Move them on because nurses and patients need them desperately,” she said.

Speaking at a press conference in Ottawa on Thursday, NDP leader Jagmeet SIngh echoed Grinspun’s calls, saying he has called on Ottawa to implement a fast track immigration system for qualified health-care workers. Singh said he does not know why Ottawa has not yet followed through.

“There is no excuse for this,” Singh said. “I can’t understand why the government is not willing to do this… We need to respond in an urgent way because these are folks who can work here and want to work here.”

In June, the immigration department said more than 2.4 million applications were in the backlog, up from 2.1 million in June. CTV News reached out to the department multiple times for updated figures, but did not hear back at the time of publishing. The department said it usually takes five business days to process and gather statistical data.

Toronto immigration lawyer Chantal Desloges attributes the backlog to a “perfect storm” of factors related to the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when many embassies and consulates closed and immigration staff started working from home.

“When everyone else was doing business online, it wasn’t that easy for the government to pivot,” she said. Desloges added that when offices were closed, applications were still being submitted, but nobody was there to process them.

“All of these things happening at the same time just made a toxic soup of circumstances.”

To speed up the process, Desloges said immigration staff who can’t do 100 per cent of their job from home should be ordered back into the office. She also suggests the government could expedite the approval process by reducing the number and frequency of applicant interviews.

“It is really hard to predict how long it is going to take to sort this mess out, if ever,” she said.

On Tuesday, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) introduced new measures to speed up the processing of applications for foreign nationals with expired or expiring post-graduation work permits, and for temporary resident to permanent residence pathway applicants. Under the change, individuals in either of those cases will have their current work permits extended while their applications are being processed.

Director of Policy at CanadaVisa.com Kareem El-Assal applauded the change, but said it should have been implemented back in 2020.

“This is a solution that should have been adopted since the start of the pandemic and would have saved applicants a lot of heartache and would have actually saved the Canadian government a lot of time as well,” he said.

As delays drag on, applicants like post-doctoral researcher Julie Ottoy are left in limbo, unable to leave the country or attend international conferences for work.

“It is very frustrating,” she said. “It’s been close to five months now not hearing from IRCC and interestingly, last year I submitted this application around the same time and the exact same renewal was approved in two weeks.”

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