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Canada's largest public sector strike leaves thousands in immigration limbo

FILE PHOTO: Approximately 155,000 public sector union workers continue to strike in Ottawa

By Anna Mehler Paperny

TORONTO (Reuters) - As Canada's largest strike by federal workers approaches its third week, thousands of people are in immigration limbo amid canceled hearings and stalled applications, which could make it harder for the country to compete for global talent as employers face a tight labour market.

About 155,000 federal public servants have been on strike since April 19. While wages are a primary sticking point, the union also wants remote work included in its collective agreement.

The strike has affected everyone from refugee claimants whose hearings are canceled to sponsored relatives stuck in limbo, from migrant workers to foreign students, lawyers told Reuters.

Canada has raised its immigration target to record-setting levels and hopes to bring in 500,000 new permanent residents a year by 2025 to help ease labour shortages in industries from construction to healthcare. Canada's lower birth rate makes immigration a key driver of economic growth.

Some would-be newcomers are left waiting abroad; others are left wondering whether their permit will expire. Some employers are without needed staff. People waiting on passports cannot travel.

Immigration lawyer Ksenia Tchern's office is getting calls from worried clients, she said.

"'We haven’t heard anything back. What can we do?' We're telling them just to have some patience."

The delay caused by the strike comes as Canada's immigration system is playing catch-up from pandemic delays.

"A lot of clients are frustrated at the fact that it seems like we finally saw the light at the end of the tunnel. ... We're seeing a lot of clients being put into limbo again," Tchern said.

Canada recently held draws for thousands of permanent residents it may not have the capacity to process, Tchern said.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister (IRCC) Sean Fraser said last week that because of the strike, tens of thousands of files have not been processed that otherwise would have been.

"The longer any work stoppage goes on, the more severe the impacts are going to be. We’re going to continue to work to identify priority areas where people’s lives may be in danger to ensure we can still maintain those essential functions," he told reporters.

Once the magnitude of the backlog is known, Fraser added, "we may have to look at what policy decisions we should make to play catch-up."

Immigration department spokespeople, whose work has been affected by the strike, could not provide details on the strike's impacts on immigration services.

A big part of lawyer Lev Abramovich's job is asking courts to compel a decision on delayed immigration files. Now his clients are seeing further disruption.

"It adds a lot of anxiety. It adds a lot of stress. It adds a lot of turmoil," he said.

An immigration system perceived to be dysfunctional could complicate efforts to woo talented immigrants, said immigration lawyer Guidy Mamann.

"It just gives our immigration system a black eye. And if you're competing for the best and the brightest, those who are in most demand, you want to stay at the top of their list of options."

(Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny in Toronto; additional reporting by Ismail Shakil in Ottawa; editing by Jonathan Oatis)