As the days and hours melted away, it was looking like all hope was lost: Tuesday, June 13, was going to be Lovepreet Singh’s last day in Canada before being deported.
“[My family] sacrificed their whole life savings to sponsor my education here… and I’m facing deportation,” Singh told CBC News last week. “My dream is shattered,” he added.
Now, thanks to a formidable protest mounted by international students and former students facing similar circumstances, Singh will be allowed to stay, at least temporarily.
Singh, whose father is a farmer in Punjab, India, entered Canada several years ago on a student visa with an admissions letter verifying his enrollment at Lambton College’s Mississauga campus—a letter that he did not know had been doctored. An immigration consultant in Punjab, whom Singh had hired to facilitate the immigration process, had changed the letter so that it could be used to support his application.
According to the Toronto Star, once Singh was already in Canada, the consultant back in India told him that there was a problem with his registration and that he should not attempt to take his seat at Lambton College. Singh did go to the school, however, in the hopes that he could speak with the administration and clear up what he thought was a mix-up.
He was informed that the college didn’t have any record of him or the tuition payment he had sent. “They said to me, ‘Your agent didn’t pay the fees. Your agent just gave you a fake offer letter. You’ve been scammed,’” Singh told the Star.
When he was called back to a different campus of the school, Singh was met by Canadian Border Security Agency (CBSA) personnel. What initially seemed like a bureaucratic mix-up was quickly turning into a Kafkaesque nightmare. In 2018, he was formally notified that he would be deported from Canada.
Singh is one of as many as 700 immigrants who face similar circumstances after an immigration consultant submitted doctored offer letters from Canadian universities to secure their initial visas, all of which were granted in the last five years. (The number varies depending on whom you talk to, but in a motion filed with the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration [CIMM], Jenny Kwan, a member of Parliament for the New Democratic Party and the federal critic for Housing, Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship, cites “the targeted exploitation scheme faced by 700 Punjabi international students in which they were unknowingly defrauded by a ‘ghost’ immigration consultant who used inauthentic admission letters for their student visa application.”)
Now, 18 of these students are fighting back in full force, forming a defense group they call Stand for Students. What started out two weeks ago as a handful of current and former students camping out in front of a CBSA office in Mississauga, Ontario, near Toronto, has turned into a major protest that has made headlines across Canada and India, and has even reached the Canadian Parliament. In a short amount of time, these protestors have already achieved at least two crucial victories: the temporary suspension of Singh’s and another former student’s deportations.
“We just want justice, that’s it. We spent five years here,” restaurant manager Ramanjot Brar, one of the 18 members of Stand for Students, told TRNN. “We’re doing [this] protest until we get… justice.”
The protest, or morcha, led by Stand for Students has not been easy on the participants, who have had to take time off work to keep the protest going. “It’s very hard for us to survive like this,” siad Brar. “It’s very hard to live in Canada without working—we are living in the tent.”
Community support from institutions like local gurdwaras and community-based organizations, however, has been a lifeline for protestors, providing them with food, for example, throughout the course of their direct action.
From about 6PM to 12AM each night, members of Stand for Students are joined by supporters from the community in a public meeting at the encampment. According to auto mechanic Bikramjit Singh (no relation to Lovepreet), a member of Naujawan Support Network, which is also supporting the protests, each night there are speeches and an open mic, with 150 to 200 attending.
Prior to and during the morcha, Stand for Students has also led demonstrations in front of government offices and in community spaces.
“Our family is very big,” Bikramjit told TRNN, referring to the support the students have received from people and organizations in the Toronto area, which has one of the largest concentrations of Punjabi immigrants in all of Canada.
Brar is a part of that family. She secured a student visa, through Indian immigration consultant Brijesh Mishra, to begin studies at a Canadian university in September 2018. But two days after she arrived, she said, she received a call from the agency and was told that all the seats were full at the school she had traveled across the world to attend. Mishra suggested another institution she could attend instead, Brar said.
Brar ultimately decided to go to a different school and, after completing her studies, successfully applied for a work permit. But when she applied for permanent residency, she was called in for an immigration hearing. CBSA officials asked her only one question, and it was about the offer letter she originally used to enter Canada. Now, she too is in danger of being deported from the country.
“I’m one of the victims,” she told TRNN.
Over a third of workers in Canada’s hospitality and food services sector are immigrants—the same goes for workers in the transportation and warehousing sector, as well as professional, technical, and scientific services. Despite the fact that the country relies so heavily on immigrants to contribute to the Canadian economy, the situation current and former international students like Brar are experiencing has exposed significant problems within Canadian immigration policy.
“Ultimately, there is a failure of [the ruling] Liberal government—they are running this program with… closed eyes,” Prakash Singh, who is also affiliated with the protests, told TRNN.
Prakash noted that the government failed to verify the veracity of the students’ offer letters during the visa application process, at the airport in India, upon entry into Canada, and upon application for work permits. “The government is failing [multiple times],” he said, arguing that “[it] looks like this is a planned scam.”
The NDP has called for the government to halt the deportations of the current and former Punjabi students caught up in the “the targeted exploitation scheme.” The Conservative Party, another opposition party, put forward a motion in Parliament’s immigration committee to suspend Lovepreet Singh’s impending deportation, which was adjourned with a 6 to 5 vote. (This motion was put forward before the government announced the suspension of Singh’s deportation).
But the immigrant protesters are not interested in Band-Aid solutions and hollow rhetoric. “All political parties [have] said, ‘We’re supporting you,’” Brar told TRNN on Thursday, June 8. She added, “We want action, not just statements.”
It was only on Friday that they learned that Lovepreet Singh and another student would have their deportations stayed.
“But [the protest] will continue because it is just a temporary solution not a victory for us,” said Prakash Singh, signing off on Whatsapp with clasped hands and two raised fists.