Jobandeep Sandhu, an international student from Punjab, India who worked as a truck driver while going to school, was arrested and could soon be deported for “working too hard,” his lawyers claim.
“I was totally broken,” Sandhu said, describing the moment of his arrest.
On Dec. 13, 2017, while driving a commercial vehicle between Montreal and Toronto, Sandhu, 22, was pulled over by an Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) officer at the side of Highway 401 for a “routine traffic stop,” a report said.
A few moments later — and with little explanation, he claimed — Sandhu was arrested, handcuffed and placed in the back seat of an OPP squad car.
A police background check showed Sandhu had no criminal history at the time of his arrest.
What he had done, however — and what a review of his driver’s logbook revealed that day — was exceed the maximum number of hours an international student in Canada is allowed to work each week.
But working full time was the only way he could afford to stay in school, Sandhu said.
“I never lied,” he said. “I didn’t kill anybody. I didn’t rob.”
“My only crime is that I was working,” he said.
Sandhu ‘had to work’ full time
Under current rules, international students in Canada can work up to 20 hours a week “off campus” without a separate work visa. During scheduled breaks, including summers, foreign students are allowed to work full time.
But the cost of living plus the high cost of tuition — roughly $27,000 in international student fees — meant Sandhu had to work more in order to remain in school, he said.
His parents, who covered his first semester’s tuition, had exhausted their savings and were facing pressure to pay back loans from private money lenders in India, Sandhu said.
“I needed the money,” he said. “To pay the fees, to pay the tuition, to pay the expenses.”
When Sandhu first arrived in Canada, he did not work, he said. He then got a job part time, working only occasionally.
But when he switched colleges and his schedule changed, he started working full time as a truck driver — roughly 35 to 40 hours a week, he said.
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With the money he earned, Sandhu said he paid tuition and expenses and helped support his brother, who had also come to Canada as an international student.
“My parents were like, ‘OK, you guys are going abroad and you guys have to be on your own,’” he said.
Study must be primary focus
In a written statement, a spokesperson for the government said Sandhu’s study permit authorized him to work 20 hours a week while going to school.
The spokesperson also referenced a report from the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) created on the day of Sandhu’s arrest that said he was “inadmissible” to Canada for breaking the terms of his study permit, noting that this decision was upheld by Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board in a March 2018 hearing.
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The government also said the primary activity of study permit holders in Canada must be to study.
“Limiting off-campus work to 20 hours per week while class is in session reflects that (policy) while continuing to offer the opportunity to gain valuable workplace experience in Canada and earn some money,” said Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) spokesperson Béatrice Fénelon.
Hand-delivered to CBSA
While it’s not unusual for police to report suspected immigration breaches to the CBSA, Sandhu’s lawyers say the officer who arrested him went well beyond what they typically see from law enforcement.
“I’ve never seen a case where an OPP officer takes it upon themselves to do their own immigration investigation into whether someone is working the allotted hours under a student permit,” Adrienne Smith, one of Sandhu’s lawyers, said.
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At the time of his arrest, Sandhu was 10 days away from finishing a diploma at Canadore College in Mississauga, Ont., to become a mechanical engineering technician.
During the ride, which lasted roughly 45 minutes, Sandhu said, he remained handcuffed.
“I was scared,” Sandhu said. “He was saying I was going to be sent back home as soon as tomorrow.”
The OPP did not answer questions about Sandhu’s claims.
However, in a written statement, OPP spokesperson Bill Dickson said it’s normal for officers to work with other law enforcement agencies on investigations.
“We routinely consult with the Canada Border Services Agency when an incident involves aspects that fall under its mandate,” Dickson said.
Gradual changes to rules
Prior to 2006, foreign students in Canada were allowed to work on campus only.
Then, after successful pilot projects in three provinces, the government of former prime minister Stephen Harper launched the Off-Campus Work Permit Program. The program let international students apply for permits to work up to 20 hours a week after completing six months of eligible studies.
In 2014, Harper relaxed the rules further, waiving the requirement for a separate work permit and allowing students to work as soon as they arrived in Canada.
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Under the current Liberal government, rules around work for international students have undergone only minor changes.
And according to Fénelon, anyone who wants to work full time in Canada should apply for the appropriate work visa — not a study permit.
But with tuition costs rising and the number of foreign students growing — from roughly 170,000 a decade ago to more than half a million in 2019 — advocates, including Smith, say it’s time the government considers changing these rules yet again.
“We have to question why that rule is even there in the first place,” Smith said.
“It’s kind of this arbitrary requirement that an international student has to work less than 20 hours a week,” she said. “The reality of students today is that many students are working more than that.”
Smith also said that in its push to attract more international students, Canada could benefit by distinguishing itself from countries such as the U.S. and U.K., which have similar restrictions on work for foreign students.
Even more changes needed
Adam Brown, chair of the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations, agrees with Smith.
He said limited access to work is a barrier to attracting international students.
He also thinks the government should allow part-time international students to work and that all foreign students should have access to co-op programs as a condition of their study permits.
“Obviously, that 20 hours a week of work off campus during the school year is often not sufficient,” Brown said. “Especially when international students pay, on average, almost four times more tuition than domestic students.”
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According to an analysis by the federal government, international students contribute $15.5 billion annually to the Canadian economy. These students also support roughly 170,000 jobs.
But as costs increase and education shifts to a more practical learning environment, Brown said the government’s policies on work for international students have not kept pace.
Like Smith, he thinks Canada should find ways to stand out from other countries that are also looking to increase their share of the lucrative international student market.
“It’s a little frustrating that we haven’t seen as much movement as we’d like to see from the federal government,” he said.
“(But) we’re going to continue pushing on these issues because it’s just the right thing to do.”
Sandhu’s request to stay
While Sandhu said he regrets what he did, he insists working full time was the only way he could stay in school.
“I don’t think it’s a big crime,” he said. “From the beginning, I admitted that I was working full time.”
Sandhu pointed to the fact that he has finished school and that he has a full-time job in an industry currently experiencing employment shortages in Ontario as reasons why he should be allowed to stay.
Sandhu has applied to IRCC for a temporary resident permit. If accepted, he will be allowed to stay. If not, he said CBSA told him he must go back to India no later than May 31.