Leila’s Story – Presentation to Brampton International Student Summit

I was grateful to have been invited to speak today on the issues and challenges being faced by international students as Brampton seeks to develop city policy around international students.

I have posted an unedited copy of my speaking notes (I had to modify due to time constraints) where I presented Leila’s story and provided three takeaways. I was asked to share this so it could possible be circulated to some policymakers. I’m increasing using the CRT tool of counter-narratives in my presentations and I find it often different than impact from Powerpoint slides. My co-presenters did a fantastic job with their presentations so I think it all balanced well.

TW: A lot of international students might be re-traumatized by some of the content shared in my presentation.

Talk Title: Harmful Realities + The Need for Organized Advocacy

I want to begin by affirming my presence today on lands that are not mine. Where I am speaking presently, they were stolen from and extracted from the Musqueam, Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh and Qayqayt nations through the implementation of arbitrary laws, through state-sponsored violence, and through white supremacy, targeted often at the most vulnerable things in a human life – that being one’s children.

Through the process, education was used as both the vehicle and justifier, becoming the ultimate perpetrator of harm by way of residential schools. I don’t think we can speak about international education without contextualizing the continued weaponization and use of education as a tool of extraction and continued colonization.

In my brief time today I will speak to three topics.

First, I will tell the story of Leila (an international student) reflective of the type of client I see at my door on a regular, if not daily, basis to demonstrate the harm bad policy can have.

Second, emerging from Leila’s story, I will briefly opine on how our collective blindness to the role of the international student education recruitment and consulting industries is a threat to life and well-being, both for students here and families globally-based. 

Third, I would like to share a pitch towards a first step in remedying the problem (something I wish were available for Leila) to invite you to join me in the advocacy efforts around the calls for an independent ombudsperson with a mandate to investigate systemic issues and to direct the change institutions (such as government, public, and private) are themselves too often reluctant to engage on.

(2 min)

Leila’s Story

Leila is an international student from Indonesia. She is a star high school student and with her IB transfer credits starts her studies at an institution in Canada, much like the one we are gathered at today.

Unfortunately during this first year, her father passes away from sudden illness, and Leila, struggling to deal with this (and sleepless, time difference nights) has a mental health breakdown. The costs of the burial process back home, led to the family unable to make one major tuition transfer.

Furthermore, the school did not offer an undergraduate leave policy. Her undergraduate counsellor suggested dropping a few courses, which Leila was told she could make up in subsequent summers. Leila, at the time, never consulted the international student department – which consisted of one individual who occasionally took notes when they felt like it and had no document management system. The school purposely did not provide any policy information on their website and merely referred to IRCC’s website.

Leila, in order to make money to support herself during this time of part-time studies, took on part-time work at a coffee shop but was told by her manager to work overtime and cover on several occasions (which she learns far too late was not permitted).

Following this semester, she took some summer courses, excelled and eventually graduated as a top student and award winner. She was offered a job offer for a prestigious consulting company subject to her obtaining work authorization.

Leila, for all her academic brilliance, never filed her own immigration paperwork in the past. Her parents paid the agency hefty fees, but she never knew how much.

It was in the third-year of her studies that the school finally put up a fancy new website which has also clarified and interpreted a lot of IRCC’s own policies. One of the statements (which IRCC has written down on just one line) is that a student that has performed past unauthorized work should not start work until a post-graduate work permit is received. 

Leila now needs to apply for her post-graduate work permit. She meets multiple lawyers and consultants (exhausting her limited savings, remember she cannot work) after submitting her application by herself, and puts in case specific enquiry (Webform) using both new and old portal to update documents. 

However, because of Case Specific Enquiry webform delays and confusions, these documents don’t make it onto the desk of the immigration officer.

So, she is refused a PGWP because of this one part-time semester. It has been 90 days since she completed her program so her student status expires. In order to restore her status, per the policy interpretation of IRPR R. 182. 

The restoration policy requires her to restore to student first (the status she previously held) in order to then attach a post-graduate work permit application. The instructions online are confusing if not in parts entirely absent. Luckily a local MP’s office pulls a string and she gets her initial application successfully reconsidered.

Let us assume now that Leila gets a post-graduate work permit but it is only for a 2 year duration. The Officer decided to allot her less time than all her colleagues received. Still other colleagues were arbitrarily refused.

To make matters worse, Leila has recently learned that Indonesia is refusing to renew her passport in Canada because of an administrative issue with her birth certificate back home. She dreads the possibility of having to apply for a Temporary Resident Permit, not to mention the experiences of those holding TRPs trying to fit economic permanent residence pathways.

Leila is not competitive for permanent residence yet (scores have gone up) and desperately needs more points. Those around her are telling her to find a consultancy that can ‘take care of it and get her Labour Market Impact Assessment-based job offer and the additional 200 points. 

She is introduced through her friend to a consultancy by a fellow PR friend. Leila is concerned about doing a ‘fake job’ but her friend tells her there are no issues. The job was real, with a real employer. She hastily signs a contract with a Canadian-based ‘international graduate recruitment’ consultancy who introduces her to an employer. 

She is told she will become an operations manager but realizes after a few days she is merely sitting at a desk and scanning and filing documents. The consultancy tells her after the end of her first month of work that she will need to pay back $500 to the employer as a “consultancy fee.”  She calls her friend to ask about this arrangement, and her friend states she did the exact same. 

Within half a year of doing this routine, one morning she turns on the news and sees the consultancy having been charged with criminal misrepresentation. Just a week later, she receives a voicemail from Canada Border Services Agency asking to speak about her work experience. 

She is terrified and does not know what to do. She fears being deported from Canada and is told by her lawyer, someone like myself, that misrepresentation is almost an inevitability and she has no recourse to any humanitarian and compassionate defense nor likely even an innocent misrepresentation legal defense to her potential inadmissibility, as a foreign national.

(6 minutes)

A Major Oversight 

To better breakdown Leila’s situation, I have created a framework called the Four UNs. 

Unproductive Policies 

Underappreciated Realities

Unintended Consequences

Unacknowledged Constraints

I label as unproductive policies the requirement to maintain full-time enrollment for PGWP eligibility and actively pursuing studies. It is very much a “few bad apples spoil the bunch” approach to international students based on largely suspect reports tying students at poor colleges to criminality.

We do not appreciate or choose to ignore the realities international students have – particularly with culture shock, mental health, and racism. In fact there are limited resources even available on campus directed at international students. We do not appreciate the efforts families abroad have had to go to in order to pay exorbitant tuition fees.

We do not see the unintended consequences of Leila’s snowballing impacts. A mental health leave that the Applicant should have been able to get an exemption for with proper medical records and without the school’s support turned into her now likely facing deportation proceedings and possibly even criminal charges. We’ve over relied on a Temporary Resident Permit band-aid that does not fit the kind of administrative errors that should be easier to fix. And we have ignored constraints such as our limited TR to PR pathways.

(2 minutes)

Lack of Regulation of Education Consultants/Recruiters

Leila’s story also speaks to the lack of regulation for education consultants and recruiters

A recent parliamentary study by the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration released in May, for which I was an expert witness, published in May, agreed with my recommendation that some form of regulation was necessary. 

At this time only one province has regulation for educational agents – which is largely limited to a requirement to publicly disclose. The money that international students have brought to institutes seems to have blurred visions and caused us to turn a blind eye to the harm that the movement of studies in exchange of money, without regulation, can create. 

We know that these agents are misleading and shepherding individuals into Canada often without giving them proper advice, letting them know their proper options and pathways, not being transparent about how they are paid, the illegality of assisting with immigration without a license while being indirectly compensated. Receiving 25%, 30%, sometimes 40% of first-year tuition when the student shows up to class – and often hitting hardest the family’s who have scrapped together the funds, leveraged the family farm, for this ‘chance’ at a new future. 

At best it’s a cash grab for services that should be better defined and limited, at worst it is exploitative to the youngest and most financially vulnerable around the world. I think it is high time students tell their institutions that this money should not be going to some business agent abroad or some company in Canada but back the institution to build slush funds, fund mental health, pay proper international student advisors and create third-party referral networks that can provide quality independent advice when needed.

Tech isn’t the full solution. Tech can and often will be a cover for money and data changing hands. Tech has the potential to make things more equal and accessible but in an unregulated space can also provide cover to continued extraction and exploitation, perhaps with less of your actual knowledge.

(2 minutes)

Need for an Independent Ombudsperson

This leads me to my third and final point and another recommendation by the CIMM’s May report to appoint an ombudsperson to look at issues at IRCC. 

If I were Leila, I would have loved to have the access to an independent ombudsperson. Perhaps they are putting out information or resources to supplement that of the institutions on topics such as the TRP or to remind IRCC of the gaps in policy information and websites. Perhaps they have a reporting line so students like Leila could call to express concern over something such as an institution not meeting standards on their level of service to students or on how to know if an employment arrangement was by the books and ask for a verification

Right now too much organizing in the international student advocacy space is happening in silos, in ethnocultural communities, regionally. I believe national student associations need to meet and make international student well-being a vocal point. If every three or four domestic students is being paid for by one international student, it makes sense to ensure that the one international student’s voice is being treated with at least some proportionally greater power than it currently is.

(2 minute)

Thanks again for the invite to share and to take the time to hear Leila’s story, and sit with that uncomfortable feeling of wondering when is it going to end. I hope we channel that into our propensity to move towards ending the disproportionate hardships international students are too-often asked to bear.

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