A pair of Toronto newlyweds is sounding the alarm after they claim a private career college led them to believe one of them could apply to stay and work in Canada after graduation — only to be told at the border that she was facing removal.
"'Either we send you home now or I give you two to three days to go home, pack up your stuff and then you go back,'" Yescenya Bigford says the border guard told her when she went to apply for a post-graduate work permit a few weeks ago.
A post-graduate work permit allows graduates of Canadian post-secondary institutions to gain work experience that can help them to qualify for permanent residency. But as Yescenya learned, not all post-secondary institutions are eligible for the program.
Yescenya, 29 and her now husband, Jordan Bigford, 25, have been together for two years — she an American citizen, he a Canadian. In February 2016, the pair decided that they wanted a life together and decided to look for a way for Yescenya to get the experience necessary to start a career in Canada.
They say they chose Anderson College of Health, Business and Technology for two reasons: Yescenya had prior experience in the medical lab technology field, and she says the school had her believing she could apply for a post-graduate work permit when she completed her studies.
Only, Anderson College graduates aren't eligible for the permits.That's something the couple says they only learned two weeks ago from a CBSA officer, who gave Yescenya two impossible options: leave immediately or within the week.
CBC Toronto has learned that some private career colleges in Ontario have been misleading international graduates hoping to stay and work in Canada. Private, non-degree granting schools do not qualify for the federal government's post-graduate work permit program but in practice, some graduates of these schools have erroneously received the permit.
Anderson College is one of the schools whose graduates have been erroneously approved — apparently unnoticed.
'I couldn't even speak'
"At this point, I'm hysterical in tears, I couldn't even speak," Yescenya says, describing the moment she learned her school wasn't eligible.
"I was just so frustrated and I was crying. Jordan, my husband, was trying to calm me down and tell the border people we're married."
The couple says the border official sympathized with their situation, allowing Yescenya to stay on a year-long visitor's visa.
But what troubled them more was when they say the guard told them they weren't the first people he had to deliver bad news to, and that the agency is cracking down on colleges that suggest graduates may be eligible for the permits when they are not.
In an email to CBC Toronto, the CBSA would not confirm or deny whether specific people or entities are under investigation.
'Not a promise'
Anderson College director Heather Yang says allegations that the school led the couple or any other students to believe they may be eligible for a work permit after graduation are flatly untrue.
"Our protocol is very, very clear," she told CBC Toronto.
"We refer them to the [Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada] website, we suggest they talk to regulated immigration consultants … Anything related to immigration matters, study permits or anything, they need to go to them. The school cannot be involved."
As for Yescenya's claim that a recruiter suggested she could apply for the permit, Yang said the individual was a trusted member of the staff and dismissed the allegation in a letter from the college's legal counsel, Sheldon Inkol, as an accusation "made by a disgruntled student."
But on its website, things were less clear — at least until late last week.
"International students are automatically eligible to work while studying, and can possibly work after graduation with a permit," the site said before the statement was removed on Thursday.
In a letter sent through its lawyer, Anderson College admits that this statement did appear on the website until last week, calling it an "oversight" and "not a deliberate attempt to deceive anyone."
"This was old information that reflected the reality that some graduates were able to obtain permits. Unfortunately, the website was not promptly updated when the information changed," Inkol said.
Speaking to CBC Toronto last week, Yang said it's up to students if they want to apply for permits and the college will provide the diploma, transcripts and anything else required for the application.
"Anyone can go ahead and apply for a post-graduate work permit... but providing that information is not a promise to say you will get it," she said.
"The student can always apply. It's up to the IRCC to determine if they are going to get it."
Some graduates received permits 'in error'
That's exactly what the Bigfords did.
As Yescenya's program was ending in May, the couple reached out to the college for the necessary documents.
"We need to take this to the border as soon as possible to get her a post-graduate visa work permit," Jordan wrote in an email to the college's campus director.
In her reply, the campus director congratulates Yescenya on completing her program and asks what order they'd like the documents in, saying she'll try to have everything ready as quickly as possible.
Career college organization claims lack of clarity
The Ontario Superintendent of Private Career Colleges previously found some instances where colleges have mistakenly believed their graduates were eligible for the permits because some received them in error, said spokesperson Tanya Blazina.
"It is our understanding that this 'error' was going on for five years," Inkol wrote in a letter to CBC Toronto, referring to the government's approval of permits for some private career college grads.
In the past, Blazina said, when the superintendent has found colleges were mistaken, it has worked with the school and the student to come up with an "amenable solution that included full refund options for affected students."
A refund is something the Bigfords say they've been seeking, to no avail.
Blazina says the superintendent's office isn't aware of any complaints against Anderson College, but says it is now investigating the school and "any claims that they are making that may be erroneous."
The National Association of Career Colleges (NACC) says the problem comes down to a lack of clarity on the part of the federal government.
Unlike the list of "designated learning institutions" that clearly states the schools for which students can obtain study permits, the government does not maintain a list of schools at which grads are eligible for post-graduate work permits.
The IRCC website does state that the program is open only to graduates of public post-secondary institutions, degree programs at private institutions, private post-secondary schools that operate under the same rules as public ones and certain Quebec institutions.
'The last thing you'd expect'
"That language and the fact that international students registered in regulated career colleges have obtained the permit is confusing," says NACC chief executive officer Serge Buy, adding his organization recommends all its members clearly state that international students are not eligible for the post-graduate work permit program.
The IRCC says it reviews its website often and updates are made "as necessary," adding that the onus is on applicants to ensure they are eligible for the programs they're interested in.
Yescenya argues students like her relied on the school to be clear on its website and in communications about the fact that graduates don't qualify for the program.
"You can't give someone a possibility if legally you're not entitled to," she says. "If they were honest with me from the beginning I would have never ever chosen the school because that's not what I'm looking for.
"They're using that as a sales pitch to us but you never think about it that way."