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U of T offers personalized letter of support for entry as international students face uncertainty at the border

March 18 study permit restriction lifted for students from US 
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Centre for International Experience. STEVEN LEE/THE VARSITY
Centre for International Experience. STEVEN LEE/THE VARSITY

As international students planning to cross the Canadian border face travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the university has indicated that it will provide a personalized letter request from a student’s registrar that can act as “support for entry” into the country.

However, the letter cannot guarantee entry, and the final decision lies with the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA).

Exemptions for international students 

These plans came after Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) announced that there would be exemptions from travel restrictions for international students. The exemptions apply to those students who have valid study permits or who were approved for a permit on or before March 18, when the travel restrictions took effect, and if their travel is deemed non-discretionary.

According to IRCC, this could include factors such as whether a student is already established in Canada and returning to their current residence, whether they’ll be returning to classes after their mandatory 14-day quarantine period is over, and whether they are unable to study online from their home country. The university’s website suggests that students bring proof of being established in Canada, such as a lease or a piece of mail from a Canadian address. 

“We are excited to welcome international students back this fall and are making plans to provide them with a high-quality academic experience,” a U of T spokesperson told The Varsity

International students with study permits dated after March 18 will not be allowed to enter Canada until the travel restrictions are lifted, according to the IRCC website. However, the government recently announced that new international students from the US will be exempt from the March 18 cutoff for their study permits. Instead, US students will only have to present approval of their study permit. 

In an email to The Varsity, an IRCC spokesperson acknowledged the “tremendous economic, cultural and social benefits” that international students bring to Canada.

“Despite travel restrictions [that] are necessary to protect the health and safety of Canadians, the government has found ways to help international students continue or begin their studies at Canadian colleges and universities,” added the spokesperson.

On July 14, the government announced an extension for international students and other temporary residents whose status expired after January 30, 2020, and who remained in Canada to apply for renewal. They will now have until December 31, as opposed to the typical 90-day window.

IRCC is also providing more flexibility for study permit applications by not refusing applications lacking necessary documents and implementing a temporary two-stage process for students who cannot submit all of the needed documentation right away to complete the application.

The university has created a website with links to resources and frequently asked questions that will be updated as more information comes out.

Uncertainty at the border 

However, international students are still having difficulty navigating the guidelines. One student, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, wrote that “the university has responded well but extremely late” to the changing travel restrictions. 

When the student tried to book an appointment with immigration advising at the Centre of International Experience, however, they were not available and the centre’s immigration services did not respond to their emails. 

Even though the student said that the university and government have provided clear suggestions for what is needed to cross the border, they were told by the CBSA over the phone that there was still a chance they could be turned away by the border agent. 

“It’s a little scary knowing that the fate of where you’re going to spend the next few months studying will be decided by a single person at an immigration desk,” the student added, and mentioned that past negative experiences with border agents may contribute to international students’ stress. However, they also noted that the personalized letter their registrar provided was detailed and reassuring, and that communication from U of T has improved over time. 

Due to the non-discretionary travel requirement, other students have had to change their travel plans last minute as some course sections were recently switched from in-person to online. 

Another student, who also wished to remain anonymous, had to cancel his plans to travel to Canada since he no longer has any in-person courses, and expressed frustration with the late changes. 

— With files from Mikaela Toone and Hannah Carty