With Canada’s highly anticipated special immigration program set to open Thursday, experts say they’re worried about the potential for chaos.

Immigration lawyers briefed about the new program and its portal say they’ve been told applicants must create their own accounts, complete the online application and upload all required documents on their own — without professional legal help.

“There are different forms they need to fill out about family information, travel history, all the (previous) addresses, work history and study periods. They require all the forms and documentations upfront, just shy of the medical and police clearances,” said Toronto lawyer Barbara Jo Caruso.

“Everything needs to be labelled, uploaded and properly attached. If they are not done properly, they will be deemed incomplete and refused.”

The applications are being taken on a first-come, first-served basis. Even if an application is incomplete or an applicant is ineligible, once it’s logged into the portal, it’s counted toward the 90,000 cap under this new program. The system will stop accepting applications once that cap is reached.

Lawyers and consultants asked during the briefing if the portal would reopen if many applicants turned out to be ineligible, but they said immigration officials didn’t have an answer.

The one-time-only immigration pathway, announced in April, aims to grant permanent residence to 90,000 applicants comprising recent international graduates and temporary foreign workers with experience in health-care and essential occupations.

These already-in-Canada candidates have been prioritized to help the country meet its 410,000 annual immigration targets amid uncertainty given the ongoing COVID-19 border restrictions.

The new pathway has already created a buzz — and frenzy — among candidates who have found themselves scrambling to register for one of the two government-designated language tests required to prove language proficiency in their application. (Details about the application process have yet to be published.)

Authorized lawyers and consultants have previously had their own portals with the immigration department that they use to complete and submit applications on behalf of clients.

However, the new stand-alone portal for the new pathway only allows applicants to log in through their personal email and there’s no interface to link their account to their counsel.

“If your whole future depends on this whole process, you want to be fair, you want to be understanding, you want people to have experience in working in the government portal to assist you,” Caruso said.

“It’s tedious work. Government technology is not user-friendly at the best of times, let alone when you are under pressure. There’s a cap and you want to make sure you’re the first one in.”

Among the 90,000 spots of the new program, 20,000 will be dedicated for temporary foreign workers in health care; 30,000 for those in other selected essential occupations; and the remaining 40,000 for international students who graduated from a Canadian institution.

Many of the essential workers will likely have to take time off from work and spend hours to figure out the new pathway application process.

“They are the essential workers. They are the people driving trucks. They’re the people on the front line in the health-care system,” said Toronto immigration lawyer Ravi Jain.

“Many people will apply even if they don’t have their language test results. They are just going to ignore the instructions and hit the submit button. Every time you hit ‘submit,’ you take a spot.”

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Last year, the federal government got rid of its first-come-first-serve system for Canadians to sponsor their parents and grandparents abroad as permanent residents after public outrage that the available spots were snapped up within minutes.

It prompted Ottawa to re-introduce a lottery system, in which interested sponsors are now required to first register to enter into the draw, then submit a full sponsorship application if they are selected after duplicate and incomplete forms are weeded out.

“The reality is there are always going to be people who are going to be harmed no matter what direction it goes. There’s a race to file. There are so many things that could go wrong. But then what are the alternatives?” said Mark Holthe, chair of the Canadian Bar Association immigration law section.

“There’s a lot of little nuances with the application that people won’t understand. I envision that we could have up to 20 per cent or even 30 per cent of spoiled applications that people are ineligible who are using up the capped spots.”

Holthe, who started an online course in April to help applicants manoeuvre the basics of the immigration portal, expects the application package for the new pathway to be comparable to the existing one for the immigration of skilled workers.

Anyone interested in applying should start compiling and scanning documentations such as copies of their passports, work permits, reference letters and employment records as these are likely what would be required in the application, he suggested.

There is still time for the immigration department to get the process “right,” says Kareem El-Assal, managing editor of immigration news site CIC News and policy director at CanadaVisa.com.

“Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada deserves credit for trying to accommodate more essential workers and graduates during this crisis,” he said. “But they need to be careful about dotting their i’s and crossing their t’s before they launch the (pathway) streams.”

Alexander Cohen, Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino’s press secretary, said his office is aware of the concerns raised regarding the access to the new portal.

“We remain in close contact with several key stakeholders and are looking into this,” Cohen told the Star.

Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung

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