Sergio R Karas is certified as a specialist in Canadian citizenship and immigration law by the Law Society of Ontario. He is past chair of the Ontario Bar Association Citizenship and Immigration Section, past chair of the International Bar Association Immigration and Nationality Committee, past chair of the Canada Committee, and current co-chair of the International Ethics Committee of the American Bar Association, Section of International Law.
What inspired you to specialise in immigration law?
I myself emigrated to Canada from Argentina, and after going through the immigration process, finishing law school, working with immigration lawyers and being an associate at major law firms, I decided to open my own practice focusing on immigration law. I banked on my experience as an immigrant, and as a lawyer and my ability to speak six different languages as the tools that would allow me to succeed in the field.
I am also a problem-solver who likes to find solutions to complex issues, and I find it rewarding to solve immigration problems that weigh heavily on individuals. Unfortunately, immigrants can fall prey to unscrupulous characters, and I like providing them with good, accurate and realistic legal advice to allow them to make the best decisions possible, as well as to assist employees to move for business purposes in a cost-efficient and effective manner.
How has the corporate immigration market evolved since you began practising in the field?
We have seen tremendous changes in the market since I started practice in 1990. The changes primarily have to do with the type and the volume of applications. The latter has increased due to the rapid rise in corporate transactions and international mobility since the 1990s. Furthermore, those who transferred to Canada previously did so on a more-or-less permanent basis, but now we see most permit holders in the corporate world living in Canada for short periods as they are assigned to specific projects. Alternatively, they do not live in Canada but need to travel back and forth frequently – this can apply to anyone from technical personnel all the way up to CEOs.
The speed with which applications are handled has changed too. It is now much faster, particularly for lawyers, which is very significant as they need to provide prompt and efficient services for clients who have project deadlines to be met.
However, we are now in a bit of a twilight zone in 2020, and it remains to be seen how international mobility will be handled. Moving individuals is a costly process, and corporate employees do not like to be restricted in their movements. Given current travel restrictions, the level of complexity for applications has increased processing costs as we need to spend more time advising clients, preparing documents, and ensuring that they meet all regulatory standards, and the government has slowed the process – so it is now part of lawyers’ role to manage client expectations and frustrations.
What measures have the authorities in Canada introduced to tackle the covid-19 crisis? Have they adapted their approach to immigration?
On 13 March 2020, the government of Canada issued two Orders in Council. The purpose of those Orders has been, and continues to be, to significantly curtail the number of people entering Canada from around the world. These Orders have been extended several times and at the time of writing are still in force: it is unclear at this point how long they will be extended. They restrict discretionary travel, and only allow international travel by those authorised by the Orders and by persons specifically exempted by the health authorities. Even for those exempt from the travel ban, upon arrival in Canada they must self-isolate for a period of 14 days under the Quarantine Act. There are exceptions, for example, for those in essential business and critical infrastructure services (truckers, food processing, utilities, those whose quarantine is waived in the national interest, and individuals deemed to pose minimal risk to the health and safety of Canadians). That requires thorough preparation and in-depth knowledge of the regulatory environment.
Having said that, there are a few ways to enter the country and good corporate immigration lawyers can help clear the way for clients to travel to Canada. In some instances, international travellers can secure a letter of introduction that will allow them to board a plane to Canada.
However, the current immigration situation is untenable and cannot go on for much longer. I am of the view that this self-isolation is increasingly unenforceable as there are too many people entering the country to keep track of. We are also past the point where these blunt tools are useful.
What do you predict will be the long-term impacts of the pandemic on corporate immigration in Canada?
I am concerned that the current restrictions, especially those in place at the US-Canada border, will have a very long-lasting and significant negative impact on the economy and supply chains, not to mention human interaction. I think there are industries that will now have a very tough time recovering. Hotels now have very low occupancy rates as there is no tourism, which is causing the hospitality sector to suffer tremendously. While measures need to be in place to protect health and safety, I think there is a significant amount of overkill now. If the government plans to hold off on easing restrictions until there is a vaccine, or to drive the case numbers to near zero, it is going to be a very rough ride for many businesses, as that will probably take time. The damage to the economy could be permanent.
From a corporate immigration point of view, the long-term impact of the restrictions will depend on how quickly the economy recovers. If that happens quickly, corporate immigration will thrive once again. If it does not, and unemployment levels remain high for an extended period, corporate immigration will suffer greatly as it will be difficult to justify bringing in foreign workers. The quicker we re-open the economy, the better it will be for everyone.
What reforms would you say are needed to incentivise workers with in-demand skills to come from abroad to Canada?
Covid-19 has exposed several shortcomings in the Canadian immigration system. It has also exposed mismatches between what the economy requires, and the types of immigrants Canada is receiving. Prior to covid-19, immigration to Canada was kept at a very high level (360,000 immigrants the previous year). For context, that is equivalent to admitting almost one-sixth of Toronto or one quarter of Montreal’s population annually. Most of the immigrants to Canada flock to the main cities, and do not spread around the country as they do in the US. This exacerbates housing shortages, traffic congestion, environmental impact, and overtaxes utilities.
There are two other problems that have been made evident by the virus. Firstly, we have discovered through the pandemic that we do not have sufficient numbers of health professionals, nurses and doctors in the immigrant population. We also discovered that we do not have enough people who can take care of the elderly. So even though Canada admits thousands immigrants annually, most are not in the healthcare field. Therefore, we need to shift priorities and address the shortcomings by recruiting qualified health professionals from around the world. We also need to change the admission process to the healthcare professions to allow for more coordination with the US, UK, Australia and other developed nations so that Canada can benefit from the international mobility of health professionals from recognised universities who have experience and are willing to relocate to Canada.
The second problem uncovered by the pandemic is that Canada has an excess of foreign students. Current figures indicate 700,000 foreign students in the country, a very large number relative to our population. Part of the problem is that foreign students are seen as profit centres for universities as they pay triple the tuition of residents. The pandemic has shifted to online learning, which has negated many of the reasons why Canada grants so many study permits to foreign students: if you are studying online from abroad, how is this contributing to Canada and qualifying you for residence? Students come with the hope that they can become residents, which is not always the case. Students from developing countries take easy courses in colleges, then graduate and use the studies to achieve permanent residence. However, the numbers have become so large that many will be disappointed. Canada simply does not have the capacity to absorb so many foreign students into the economy. I therefore predict a reduction in the number of foreign students in Canada. The economy needs people involved in health, sciences, engineering, technology, so Canada should establish a system whereby students in STEM fields will have priority when applying for residency. Canada will also face high unemployment for the foreseeable future, and we do not want to see people compete against permanent residents in the labour market, while still addressing shortages in STEM fields. This mismatch should be corrected.
Another major fault exposed by the pandemic has to do with the processing of applications. Currently, due to restrictions, international applicants must apply online and are then processed at a snail’s pace. This impacts corporations that need to transfer professionals quickly, and long timelines are unacceptable.
The global pandemic has also shone a spotlight on the archaic technology used by the Canadian government for processing applications. With government offices largely shut down and public sector unions opposing a return to office work, applications are handled even more slowly. A bloated bureaucracy is using outdated technology and needs to improve its productivity. The government must shift its focus to technological upgrades as the key to address some of these issues, and must demand higher productivity from its immigration department staff.
What can be done to mitigate the impacts of the current high levels of unemployment?
This is more of an economic question, but I would say that one way in which Canada can use the immigration system to reduce high unemployment would be to implement a very robust and comprehensive entrepreneur immigration system – not a passive investment scheme but a risk-taker one. We had an entrepreneur category in the past that was badly abused and didn’t create jobs, but a more stringent system could work. We need to transform Canada from a nation of public employees to a nation of entrepreneurs and job creators.
Some programmes such as the start- up category do exist, but in my opinion, this is not good enough, as most of these businesses fail, and the immigrants keep their status regardless of success. The programme is very small.
We can also reduce taxes, as Canada is a very high-tax jurisdiction under the current Liberal government, which has de-incentivised risk taking in the market. The cost of doing business in Canada is too high, while the regulatory framework is too burdensome and needs to be simplified by cutting red tape.
This will make Canada a more attractive jurisdiction for business and incentivise corporate immigration into the country, therefore generating more jobs and economic activity.
In your opinion, where does the future of the practice area lie?
The future is somewhat cloudy at the moment, but not dark, because the pandemic has changed habits, but a vaccine may allow us to get back on track. For instance, more people are working from home or remotely, which has a very high impact on corporate immigration. The ability to work remotely reduces the need to move employees between jurisdictions in many industries. The pandemic has accelerated the trend of technological innovation by five or 10 years, which will have a negative impact on business immigration. There are areas where immigration will remain important: we still need physical services like doctors and nurses, and manufacturing plants need people on site. The great change will be in industries that function well remotely, like financial services and technology. This assumes that there will be significant social change, so the need for large-scale immigration will have to be revisited. Business imperatives will drive this change.
Looking back over your career, what is the most interesting case you have been a part of and why?
I was fortunate to have been involved in several incredibly interesting cases. One of the most interesting involved assisting five political prisoners from Cuba to attain residency, a case in which Pope John Paul II was involved. As a result of the Pope’s intervention with the Cuban Communist dictatorship, the immigrants in question, who were being held as political prisoners, were promised residency in Canada by the then prime minister but did not receive it upon arrival. I intervened on their behalf, filed applications and contacted the media, and secured their permanent residence in short order.
The second case I am proud of was early in my practice and saw me become the first lawyer in Canada to be successful in obtaining refugee status for a Russian citizen, based on anti-Semitism in the former Soviet Union. She had been harassed by nationalist elements, fired from her job, and ostracised.
I also represented a Nigerian Christian whose privacy was violated by the government of Canada and details of his identity were disclosed to the Nigerian authorities, which put his life in danger if he returned. My intervention secured refugee status for him.
But probably my proudest moments were a series of cases over the span of seven years, representing Holocaust Survivors claiming assets from Swiss banks that had been deposited by family members prior to the Second World War. The banks were hiding behind Swiss secrecy laws to deny them access to their families’ accounts. I am very proud of this work and was fortunate to be featured in two books and multiple cover stories in the international press covering my clients and their battle to recover family assets. I was very happy to be able to attain restitution for the families involved, and to obtain a small measure of justice for Survivors of Nazi persecution.
Finally, I was also part of the effort to force the Canadian government to impose visa requirements on Saudi Arabian citizens coming into Canada in the wake of 9/11, which involved working closely with US authorities.
“For many years, Sergio has played an active and prominent role in the global immigration fraternity"
"Sergio has substantial knowledge and experience”
"He is an excellent and extremely experienced lawyer"
Sergio R Karas, BA, JD is a Canadian barrister and solicitor and a Certified Specialist in Canadian Citizenship and Immigration Law by the Law Society of Ontario. Mr Karas represents individuals and multinational corporations to achieve their immigration objectives and implement successful relocation strategies.
Mr Karas is an honors graduate in Political Science from York University and obtained his Law degree from Osgoode Hall Law School. He speaks fluent English, French and Spanish and has a working knowledge of Italian, Portuguese and German. He is Past Chair of the Ontario Bar Association (OBA) Citizenship and Immigration Section, Past Chair of the International Bar Association (IBA) Immigration and Nationality Committee, and Past Chair of the American Bar Association (ABA) Canada Committee, and current co-Chair of the International Ethics Committee, Section of International Law. He has been invited on numerous occasions to address other lawyers and human resources managers at major international professional gatherings. He is listed in Who's Who Legal in corporate immigration law and Best Lawyers as a leading immigration legal practitioner. He is also the recipient of Martindale Hubbell Client Champion Platinum Award for several consecutive years.
Mr Karas contributes to the press providing current information about Canada’s immigration law and policies. His articles are published in national and international journals. He is a regular guest on local, national and international radio and television programmes. Mr Karas is the editor of the Global Business Immigration Handbook published by Thomson Reuters and contributing writer on immigration issues to Canadian HR Reporter and Canadian Employment Law Today.
Mr Karas has been instrumental in effecting changes to Canadian immigration visa policies through his involvement in US-Canada relations and border security issues. He also served as a member of the board of directors of JIAS (Jewish Immigrant Aid Services) in Toronto for 10 years.
Mr Karas’ law firm, Karas Immigration Law Professional Corporation, headquartered in Toronto, Canada, is dedicated to the successful settlement of qualified immigrants including professionals, self-employed, entrepreneurs, and investors, and to assisting corporations to implement successful migration strategies for managerial, executive and technical personnel.
Sergio R. Karas, B.A., J.D. is a Canadian Barrister and Solicitor and a Certified Specialist in Canadian Citizenship and Immigration Law by the Law Society of Ontario. Mr. Karas represents individuals and multinational corporations to achieve their immigration objectives and implement successful relocation strategies.
Mr. Karas is an honors graduate in Political Science from York University and obtained his Law degree from Osgoode Hall Law School. He speaks fluent English, French and Spanish and has a working knowledge of Italian, Portuguese and German. He is Past Chair of the Ontario Bar Association (OBA) Citizenship and Immigration Section, Past Chair of the International Bar Association (IBA) Immigration and Nationality Committee, and Past Chair of the American Bar Association (ABA) Canada Committee, Section of International Law. He has been invited on numerous occasions to address other lawyers and human resources managers at major international professional gatherings. He is listed in Who is Who in Corporate Immigration Law and Best Lawyers as a leading immigration legal practitioner. He is also the recipient of Martindale Hubbell Client Champion Platinum Award for several consecutive years.
Mr. Karas contributes to the press providing current information about Canada's immigration law and policies. His articles are published in national and international journals. He is a regular guest on local, national and international radio and television programs. Mr. Karas is the Editor of the Global Business Immigration Handbook published by Thomson Reuters and contributing writer on immigration issues to Canadian HR Reporter and Canadian Employment Law Today.
Mr. Karas has been instrumental in effecting changes to Canadian immigration visa policies through his involvement in US-Canada relations and border security issues. He also served as a member of the Board of Directors of JIAS (Jewish Immigrant Aid Services) in Toronto for ten years.
Mr. Karas' law firm, Karas Immigration Law Professional Corporation, headquartered in Toronto, Canada, is dedicated to the successful settlement of qualified immigrants including professionals, self-employed, entrepreneurs, and investors, and to assisting corporations to implement successful migration strategies for managerial, executive and technical personnel.