MONTREAL -- The Quebec government is being called cruel and insensitive for changes it made to a popular fast-track immigration program for new graduates.

Hundreds of international students in the province recently learned they might be forced to leave because of retroactive changes made to the Quebec experience program, which used to be open to all college and university graduates.

Quebec Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette recently announced the program, called the Program de l'Experience Quebecois (PEQ), will only be open to graduates who are seeking work in industries the government says are facing labour shortages.

Opposition politicians and international students held a news conference today, calling on the government to change course and keep the program intact.

The students say the government's actions are inhumane and a betrayal to those who travelled to Quebec, paid school fees and started lives in the province with the expectation they would have access to the program.

Jolin-Barrette says the Quebec experience program must be open to people who can fill the needs of the province's economy. The CAQ released a new list of programs that immigrants could study in order to qualify for the PEQ.

Quebec Solidaire MNA Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois said the list is arbitrary and eliminates key disciplines.

"We're being told of an urgent need in the Quebec economy, but we're also being told this list will be reviewed each year," he said. "All the diplomas in Social sciences, arts, culture have been evacuated from the program. That's an ideological choice that's a business-like way to see immigration; it's a very narrow-minded way to see immigration to Quebec society."

The new policies will prevent students like Jin Xing from receiving a fast-track to Quebec citizenship. Xing has lived in Quebec for three years. She and her husband bought a house in Chateauguay and are learning French.

"It's very hard," she said. "My husband also has to work very hard because the French classes are very expensive."

She said many Chinese people don't have the chance to stay in Quebec because the new policies are too restrictive.

The CAQ's immigration changes have tormented her; she's unsure of her family's future.

"I think some of the students who are here like me already have a family," she said. "We left so many things in our original country. It is not simple for us. ... We have a big dream out here. We love this country, and we are working so hard."

Arbi Chouikh lives with a disability. He said he came to Quebec, from Tunisia, because he thought the society would be inclusive, and he would be able to find work in his field -- business administration. He completed a master's degree in Quebec and was working on a Ph.D., expecting, when he was done, to be included in society, he told reporters at the National Assembly on Tuesday.

"But, after the modifications of the PEQ program, I have found another time myself with other barriers in terms of laws and in terms of society," he said. 

With files from The Canadian Press