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Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) recently announced updates to the eligibility criteria for Spousal Open Work Permits (SOWP), sparking considerable concern and discussion among international students and their partners. These changes, effective as of March 19, 2024, are part of broader reforms to Canada’s immigration policies.

Previously, SOWPs were available to the spouses of foreign students enrolled in undergraduate and graduate programs. However, the revised regulations now restrict eligibility for SOWPs, allowing only partners of students enrolled in master’s or doctoral programs at accredited Canadian universities or polytechnics to qualify for the permit.

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This adjustment follows earlier changes made to Canada’s international student program, including a 35 percent reduction in student visa issuance. These modifications indicate a continuation of the country’s current stance on immigration, which some perceive as increasingly restrictive.

Although exceptions exist for spouses of undergraduate students enrolled in specific professional degree programs, the overall trend suggests a deliberate effort to discourage immigration. Partners of undergraduate students pursuing degrees in fields such as Medicine, Dentistry, Optometry, Veterinary Medicine, Pharmacy, Law, Nursing, Engineering, and Education remain eligible for SOWPs.

For individuals who applied for a SOWP before March 19, eligibility remains intact if their partner meets specific criteria, including holding a valid study permit and being enrolled full-time at qualifying institutions. Similarly, current SOWP holders seeking to extend their permits must meet these requirements.

Those who are no longer eligible for a SOWP have the option to apply for alternative work permits or visitor visas (TRV), although the latter prohibits employment. The SOWP, which permits holders to work for any employer in Canada, serves as a means to promote family reunification, aligning with IRCC’s mandate. Immigration Minister Marc Miller justified the restrictions in a recent comment to the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration, citing concerns over volume and integrity challenges, suggesting that the previous system may have been exploited.

The latest changes to SOWP eligibility criteria reflect the Canadian government’s ongoing efforts to address immigration dynamics while balancing economic and social considerations.

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