Good morning, everyone. This is meeting number 81 of the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration. It's June 6, 2013. We are studying temporary resident visas for visitors.
We have two witnesses before us today. First is the Metro Toronto Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic. The director, who is appearing before us this morning, is Avvy Go. The second witness is the Chinese Canadian National Council. There are two representatives. One is the executive director, Mr. Victor Wong. Good morning to you, sir. The other is the national director, Alice Choy. Good morning to you.
You each will have up to 10 minutes to make a presentation to the committee. Then members of the committee, I expect, will have questions for you.
Ms. Go, you may proceed first. Thank you, and welcome to the committee.
Thank you, and good morning.
My name is Avvy Go, and I am the clinic director of the Metro Toronto Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic.
We are a community-based organization, non-profit, that provides free legal services to low-income families in the Toronto area, particularly those from the Chinese and Southeast Asian communities.
Last October we celebrated our 25th anniversary. Over that period we have served tens of thousands of clients, many of whom came to us for immigration issues. About one-third of our caseload is in the immigration area.
I would very much like to thank the committee for giving me and the organization the opportunity to talk about the temporary resident permits for visitors—or visitor visas for short—in my presentation.
In my submission, I'll try to address the three questions that were posed by the committee, namely: the integrity of the system; the costs and practical implications of introducing an appeal mechanism; and finally, comparing Canada's visitor visa program with programs in certain peer countries.
I'll start with the integrity of the system. According to Citizenship and Immigration Canada, each year roughly 35 million people visit Canada. While the Canadian government currently does not have a system to keep track of visitors' exits, common sense would suggest that the vast majority of the 35 million visitors leave Canada at the end of their visit. Allowing visitors to come to Canada is absolutely essential to Canada's economic interest. This is made evident, for instance, by the efforts of our Prime Minister to lobby China to grant Canada approved destination status—a destination that makes it easier for Chinese nationals to visit Canada.
The visitor visa program is also crucial to the social and cultural development of our country, yet despite the government's effort to promote tourism and trade, many of our clients are unable to obtain visitor visas for their family members from overseas, even though for many the granting of a visitor visa is the only mechanism whereby they are able to see their family members. This is because many of our clients are either unable to return to their country of origin because of their refugee status or they are ineligible to sponsor family members to Canada as they do not meet the stringent sponsorship requirements.
Indeed, as more and more restrictions are being placed on family class sponsorship, fewer and fewer Canadians can bring their families to Canada. The LICO requirement, for instance, bars many low-income immigrants and refugees from sponsoring their families. The recently proposed regulatory amendments to the family class sponsorship, if passed, will make it even more difficult, if not impossible, for Canadians to be reunited with their families in Canada.
Under these circumstances, the visitor visa program may represent the only hope for some Canadians to see their families. Already people from the global south, including those from China, face greater hurdles in visiting Canada because of the visa requirement. If the door is closed even further, some Canadians may become permanently separated from their loved ones.
While we acknowledge that it is important to protect the integrity of the visitor visa program, the committee should also be cognizant of other objectives that are also being served and not let the interests of security overshadow other equally legitimate interests.
At the same time, I would respectfully submit that a system that is truly built on integrity must be one that promotes consistency and transparency in decision-making. A system has no integrity if the decision-makers involved are allowed to make subjective and arbitrary decisions in the absence of any accountability and oversight.
As it now stands, visa officers have wide discretion to decide whether to grant someone a visitor visa. Based on our experiences, visa officers often do not exercise their discretion in any consistent manner, and at times their decisions may be reflective of the officer's personal bias and prejudice.
For instance, despite legislative provisions and jurisprudence from the Federal Court stating otherwise, many visa officers still refuse to grant visitor visas on the basis of dual intention. This is so particularly if the applicant has a family member in Canada. So indeed, from what we can see, applicants who have family in Canada are less likely to get a visitor visa for their family members than those who don't.
The committee is rightly concerned about visitors who overstay their visa or use some other irregular means to come to Canada. In our respectful submission, however, tightening up the rules for visitor visas and for family class sponsorship will not necessarily add to the integrity of the system, and may in fact create the opposite effect.
If the government continues to put up roadblocks and hurdles to bar families from being united, people will still try to find some other ways of getting their families here. If, on the other hand, Canadians can be assured that they have a fair and reasonable chance to apply under the family sponsorship clause, they will then be less likely to use the visitor visa process as a back door to facilitate family reunification.
In short, the integrity of the visitor visa system must be balanced with the other core objectives of Canada's immigration policy, including the objective of family unification. Integrity can be best achieved if we have a system that is open and fair and that at the same time fosters objective and consistent decision-making.
I shall turn now to the second question, and that is the introduction of an appeal mechanism. Let me begin by asking each and every member of this committee to think how many times, as members of Parliament, you have received requests from your constituents asking for help to bring their family members to Canada as visitors to attend such events as funerals and weddings. How often do you wonder why the visa officer has refused a visa application in the first place?
When a visitor visa is refused, those applicants who have the wherewithal can hire lawyers and seek judicial review of the negative decision by the Federal Court. For the vast majority of the applicants, however, the court process is simply too costly and too complicated, and it takes too much time to complete.
That's why we would very much welcome an appeal process for a visitor visa that is easy to access and does not carry a high processing fee. While it may be cost-prohibitive to grant the right to appeal to all applicants, it would not be unreasonable, in my view, to grant the right to appeal to those applicants who are coming here to visit family members. To be meaningful, however, the appeal must be determined by an independent body, such as the Immigration and Refugee board or something like it, and it must be heard in a timely fashion.
Finally, on the last question, as I'm not an expert on the systems in other countries, I did a search recently on the U.K., U.S.A., Australian, and New Zealand systems. They are all over the place, although some countries have a review system for refused visitor visa applications. In any event, I would submit that we should only borrow from these other countries if their policies are consistent with Canadian principles and values concerning immigration policy, including the principle of family reunification.
In conclusion, I would respectfully submit that if Canada wants to continue to project an image as an open and welcoming country, then our visitor visa policy should also be open and fair to all people, so that regardless of their background, country of origin, or income level they will have an equal chance of coming to visit Canada.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I'll be sharing my time with my colleague, Ms. Alice Choy, who is our national director.
Good morning, everyone, honourable members. I'm Victor Wong. I'm the executive director of the Chinese Canadian National Council. With me is Ms. Alice Choy, our national director. She is also the president of the Association for Business and Community Development, based in Montreal. She was a member of the Canadian delegation that visited China with the on his first bilateral visit in 2009. That's where the ADS agreement was signed.
Founded in 1980, CCNC is a national non-profit organization with 27 chapters across Canada, and we are a community leader for Chinese Canadians in promoting a more just, respectful, and inclusive society. The Chinese Canadian community has a unique immigration history. It's one of restriction, exclusion, and quotas, and from this experience we can offer the following observations with regard to the visitor visas study that you're conducting.
Canada offers visa-free travel for visitors from certain countries already. Taiwan passport holders and Hong Kong residents are examples, but visitors from China are required to apply for a temporary resident visa, and vice versa. The fact is that emerging countries tend to be on Canada's visa list, which tends to racialize some of the public discourse around this issue.
We don't hear about visitor overstays from Americans, or the British, for example, but if there is some controversial story about visitor visas, it's about someone who has overstayed their visa. The visa requirement allows Canada to manage the flow of visitors, but it also comes at a cost to Canadian families and Canadian businesses.
I'll just touch briefly on a few things that we've come across. With regard to tourist visas, according to the UN World Tourism Organization, 83 million Chinese tourists spent a record $102 billion in international tourism in 2012. Their preferred countries included places in their region—Hong Kong and Macau, Singapore, Thailand, Japan, and Australia—but about 7 million Chinese tourists travelled longer destinations, mainly to the U.S., France, the U.K., and other European countries.
Canada has worked hard to attract more of these tourists. As I mentioned earlier, we signed the ADS, and about 300,000 Chinese tourists visited Canada in 2012, but I think we're falling behind. We will have to be much more competitive, in my view, and the visa process is one important piece.
As for visas for family and friends, China remains a top source country for immigration to Canada. About 300,000 Chinese have arrived in the last decade. Like the previous generations of naturalized Canadians, these newcomers will want to have their friends and relatives living overseas to visit for their shared holidays, for weddings, births, or sometimes there's an illness in the family, or perhaps a funeral. Too often, as mentioned by my colleague, Ms. Go, visa applications are rejected and visitors need to make a new application, or they require intervention from honourable members, or even from the minister's office.
I just want to touch briefly on the super visa for parents and grandparents. When it was introduced, CCNC supported it as a stopgap measure in response to the backlog of applications. The rejection rate, though, is high, and the program should have, but doesn't, a proper mechanism to land those who wish to stay here on a permanent basis.
What you're going to see in about ten years is perhaps hundreds of non-status grannies seeking status. What are you going to do at that time?
As for business visitors, individuals are visiting for various business and investment reasons. They want to do their research. Some of them also want to research choices for immigration and for international education opportunities for their family members.
Chinese tend to form delegations for study and travel, but it's a very cumbersome process when it comes to the visa, because they have to prepare the visas in batches and they have to put together invitation letters. Some honourable members here may have been approached to offer invitation letters to some of these delegations. The rejection rate is high. And as for an appeal mechanism, a speedy appeal mechanism might work, but it's better to just get the decision right in the first place. We recognize that there are trafficking issues, but it appears also to be much easier to secure visas to visit other developed countries, like Singapore or Australia, Japan, the U.S.A. If there is an issue with trafficking, perhaps we could look at conducting in-person interviews, where warranted. That might be one way to discourage trafficking.
The bottom line is, we're not competitive; we're losing opportunities for Canadian families and businesses. We would like to see a holistic approach here.
I want to end my comments now—I'm going to turn it over to Ms. Choy—by posing a question to MPs in this review. My question is, do Canadians want to see more Chinese visitors? From my vantage point, I'm just seeing mixed signals with regard to that question.
I'm going to turn it over to Ms. Choy, who has some information from her interviews with some of the folks in Hong Kong, China, and Canada.
Thank you, everyone. Good morning.
My name is Alice Choy. I'm also the president of the Association for Business and Community Development in Montreal. We have never gotten funding from the government, even though we work very hard on the different issues, especially helping new immigrants. I've been serving the community for 20 years.
I heard from many people. I just came back from Hong Kong and China last month. I talked to different travel agents when I was in Hong Kong and China, and also when I came back to Canada. We found out there is a problem; Canada's tourism business is not that attractive to the mainland China tourist, and it is highly competitive with the U.S. This is very important to bring revenue to Canada. The reason is a high rejection rate of the visa. Of course, there are many different individual cases for rejection. The main reason is that they find they have an intention to stay in Canada. Those are very big voices, those people who talked to me and made the complaint.
These are very individual cases, and they complain, “How can you judge me and say I have an intention to come to Canada and not leave?” They say they make good money, they have properties, they are professional. Canada, after the eight years, is just one stop, one country they want to visit.
Actually, the Canadian tourist board works very hard and invests lots of money to provide tourism in Canada. While I'm always travelling between Hong Kong and China, most of the time I talk to people and I'm promoting Canada's business in different fields, such as education, tourism, and business. The people I talk to want to come to Canada to take a look, and they form delegations, but unfortunately many of them are rejected.
Recently I talked to some travel agents in Canada, and they said there is also a high rejection rate. Let's say last month they had a delegation for 30 people, but only five got the visa.
Thank you, Mr. Chair, and my thanks to the witnesses for appearing today.
I wish to address the issue of program integrity. We heard from our own officials that Canada has one of the highest acceptance rates. For example, in the super visa area we have almost 80% acceptance. Also, based on my own business experience of about 25 years between businesses here and in China, I generally have not had a problem with people I need to bring into Canada. So I differ with you on your assessment of Canada being a hard place to get into, because there are equal difficulties going into other countries—the United States, Australia, and European countries.
Given that we are discussing program integrity, I wish to hear from you on what other methods you suggest to safeguard our Canadian visitor immigration system—other than the standard application, the invitation letter, documentation of the ability or intent to do business here, and property ownership. When you think about 35 million visitors coming into Canada, that is doubling our population in a year. Even if less than 1% of those chose not to leave the country, it would be a tremendous problem for us. So I would like to hear from you on what other measures you suggest to maintain and protect our borders and the integrity of the program system.
To address your question about the super visa, in my experience many of the people simply do not apply because they don't think they're going to be eligible. Apart from needing to meet the income requirement, you also need to have a lot of cash in order to apply. I think a lot of people simply cannot be bothered. You have a very self-selective process, whereby you tend to get a higher acceptance rate.
On the integrity issue, apart from having to assess the integrity, it is one of the many objectives in promoting visitors, promoting trade, promoting business, and allowing families to visit each other, so let's keep those in mind. But even just focused on the integrity issue...I talked about the consistency in decision-making, which is an important aspect. Victor suggested an interview process, which is also a good mechanism. But how do you change the mindset of some of the visa officers? That is an ongoing challenge, and it's not just about visitor visas in general. Some visa officers have this view that people from certain countries would come and not leave. I'm sure many of you have the experience of dealing with families—I have a number of those cases myself. Someone is ill or has passed away and a relative needs to bring a family member here to attend a funeral or whatnot. The family member has their own family overseas, has a job overseas, has a house overseas, and is still being seen as someone who's not going to leave. I'm not sure what other documents you can require from that person to change the officer's mind. So I think it's really about changing the mindset of the officer, and if we can't change the mindest, then we'd better have a different system in place.
I agree with my colleague. You mentioned 35 million tourists, but many of them do not require a visa. Of the 35 million, perhaps 11 million are Americans, and I don't know how many really require a visa.
With regard to the super visa, there is 80% acceptance, but that means 20% rejection, which seems very high to me for families trying to get their parents and grandparents here on a temporary basis. It seems like a high figure. Perhaps I could suggest to your department to look at the numbers of reapplication when people are rejected. If they reapply, what is the acceptance rate there? Perhaps that could inform the department of where some improvements could be made to make the system more efficient.
I suggested an interview process, and that's what they do in the States. They do a lot of in-person interviews. It's costly, but perhaps you could pilot it just for those cases where you are rejecting applicants. Before you reject them you would have an in-person interview, and perhaps that might help to get some approvals for people right off the bat whom you would otherwise be inclined to reject.
I want to re-emphasize that if you're going to do an appeal, it has to be speedy. If somebody's applying to come over for a wedding, or because some family member is ill, they need the approval right away. We can't have a long process for appeals.
I want to thank our witnesses for taking the time to come and talk to us about this important subject. I don't think there is an MP who hasn't heard those heart-rending stories in their offices. I haven't met one yet. For me, I usually say that in my riding my MP's office often feels like the local hospital's emergency room, where we're doing triage most of the time. Really, that's the image.
I come from the riding of Newton—North Delta, which has the largest Sikh population. You might also know that Chandigarh, the outpost in the Punjab, also has an almost 50% rejection rate, so you can imagine the kind of traffic we see.
In hearing your stories around family reunification and families just wanting to see each other for short periods of time, it always hits me as bizarre that my family members who live in England can just get on a plane and be here, while people who have family members who are living in India, China, or the Philippines have to go through such major hurdles.
Right now, people are looking for a way to address this. You've mentioned one of those ways, and that's the appeal service, but I think you've also mentioned the devastation that occurs in families. We're getting rejections for funerals, for visiting dying parents, or siblings, or even friends in some cases, and for weddings, births...you name it. As you know, in our extended families, this is so very important for emotional health, and for physical health as well. I think we're all attuned to that.
There's a question I'm often asked by the intended sponsors, because of course we get the sob stories from all the people who get rejected. There's a continuous line. What they often ask about is what they can do to get their sister, their brother, or whoever over here. It always breaks your heart, because they then make comments like “This doesn't feel like my home.” They say, “When I can't invite my sister to an important event that's happening in my life, Canada, where I've lived for 25 years, no longer feels like my home.” It sometimes actually brings me close to tears when I hear these stories.
This brings me to my very first question. Do you think there is value in having the visa officer look not only at the application of the person who is coming? I'm specifically talking about those with families.
Alice, I was really, really struck.... I think it was you, Victor, who said that sometimes having family here is a detriment or a barrier to getting a visa. You see, I've read those reasons—“too much family”—and I think that is such a bizarre thing to write.
So when we're looking at this, if the visa officer also looks at the sponsor's profile, their financial status, their encounters with the legal system, and their employment history, to establish that person's credibility, the credibility of the person who is sponsoring them, what are your thoughts on that idea? Also, how could we ensure that a person leaves?
I'll leave it to you, Avvy, and then I'll go over to Alice.
Sometimes an even sadder situation is when the family is trying to come here to see the family member for the last time, and after they get the visa they end up going to the funeral.
I guess to answer the first question first—what we can do—I think as you mentioned, rather than looking at the individual applicant, at the sponsor, maybe look at all of those things in the context of the principles we're talking about. One of the core principles under section 3 is family reunification. I think that principle should apply to the application of visitor visas as well.
I would still go back to how you change the mindset of visa officers. How do you train them better to acknowledge that you can have a dual intention, because that is allowed? You can have the intention of wanting to come to Canada permanently and still want to come and visit in the meantime.
I think in terms of how to make sure people leave...I'm not sure I have a response, but I know a committee is looking at studying a way of tracking exit. Maybe we should start tracking that first before we decide whether there's a need for that, because this is all a cost. Having an appeal is a cost. Having an MP dealing with these visa requests is a cost too.
Ms. Go, you were expressing yourself and giving a sense of the frustration, where you recognize the deficiencies there. We really try to push the envelope as to what we can do as advocates, whether as members of Parliament or as community leaders, to try to assist someone to come to Canada for a darned good reason. You get frustrated, and it seems as if there's nothing that can be done, that family is not going to be united. My gut feeling is that all members of Parliament want to see some answers to the problem.
One of the things that I see is a problem is that we don't track. Mr. Wong, I think you said it was 300,000 people from China. We have no idea whether it is one hundred or one who stay behind.
There is an issue that I would ask the three of you to provide very brief comment on.
We're just talking about the Chinese community for now, even though the same principle applies for all communities. When you think in terms of the community and the individuals who are arriving in Canada, to what degree do you think there are people who are here without legitimate status, who are actually going to be receiving any form of government assistance? That seems to me to be.... Why don't we open the door? Why don't we just issue more visas, especially if it's a family member and so forth? The argument against it is that of fear. I think if we try to attempt to deal with the fear factor, in other words, that fear is greatly exaggerated, I think then we can start to see more visas being issued.
Can you just provide comment on that issue?
Of course, this is all anecdotal evidence based on my own experience, because we do not know exactly how many people live in Canada without status to begin with. About ten years ago, I heard the estimate of 200,000 in Toronto and one million across Canada, but I have no idea whether that's legitimate or not. If there are 200,000 in Toronto, then one million in Canada sounds high. I think the majority will live in cities like Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal.
We do assist people without status living in Toronto. Some of them come to us because they want to get status. In general, if you do not have status it is harder for you to get government assistance to begin with, because of all the different rules. For sure, most of them will not have any health care from the government whatsoever, unless they have a refugee claim. Even that door has now been closed, as you know.
Many would not be seeking government assistance because they fear being found out by the government that they have no status. I would venture to guess that a very small percentage of this number of non-status people are here and seeking government assistance. Still, it's important. If that is the issue, why we are making it so hard for people to come, then maybe having a way to study that issue is important.
That figure can be obtained. If you want to find out if they're on assistance, then seeking cooperation from social assistance administrators will help, because they will have information about the status of their clients. There may be other ways of getting the information as well.
Through you, to our witnesses, I'll give you a few stats, first of all, before I start asking questions.
Between 2000 and 2013, the overall temporary resident visa approval rate across the board was about 83% or thereabouts—it's pretty high. In 2012, Canada issued a record 235,000 visitor visas in China, a 158,000 increase over 2004. In 2012, 25,245 study permits were issued, an increase of 235% since 2004. Of course, China was the number one source for immigration in 2012, with 32,990 permanent residents admitted.
We have other methods to get into Canada, especially for Chinese students when they graduate here, through Canadian experience class. You all acknowledge that, right? We also have a very robust parents and grandparents program, which is at about an 86% approval rate around the world right now, correct?
Ms. Go, I am having a little bit of difficulty. In your early comments, you suggested that visa officers abroad show a personal bias or prejudice. These stats don't support that.
Mr. Wong, you had mused that perhaps Canadians don't want to see any more Chinese in this country, or more Chinese—words to that effect, correct?
Right now in Canada, there are over 1.5 million people of Chinese heritage. That's one of the biggest communities in this country, so I would say that doesn't support your claims.
I wanted to address that. I worked for a long time in the Canadian Forces. While in that job, I did a lot of multi-ethnic outreach as part of the Canadian Armed Forces, and of course I worked for Jason Kenney for two years, doing a lot of multi-ethnic outreach in the GTA. As you know, Minister Kenney reaches out quite broadly and does tremendous work with all communities across Canada.
Let's just get down to some questions.
Ms. Go, I'll start with you. The other day, CIC officials informed our committee that a number of years ago, far more interviews were conducted. However, they didn't find them to be an overly useful process in the vast majority of cases. I'd like to know from you, first, do you think there should be more face-to-face interviews conducted? And second, in your opinion, how does this affect efficiency and the integrity of the immigration system?
Mr. Wong, I'll ask you to answer the same questions.
Yes. As I mentioned earlier, with regard to face-to-face interviews, perhaps one pilot you could consider is face-to-face interviews for people you're about to reject.
For me, the issue is a speedy appeal. A lot of people are applying on a very time-sensitive basis. For example, there's a wedding here. Somebody's given birth here. Somebody's ill here. They can't wait for a more formal appeal mechanism, so perhaps a face-to-face interview, if you're about to reject them, gets referred to another officer for that. Then you could determine where there could be some efficiencies in the approach on a go-forward basis.
With regard to the stats, I really appreciate those. I would ask, what are the stats for approvals of people who were rejected the first time and who applied a second time? When you look at that, then perhaps you could see where there could be some efficiencies in the approach.
Let's say it's 50% approval on your second time around, when you apply. Well, then it seems very wasteful to have rejected them in the first place.
Oftentimes it's been because somebody has made the error in the first place, on their own. So you can't blame the visa officer for not being able to not process an incomplete application. You can't put that at their feet. That's not fair.
In terms of just addressing my colleague, this country doesn't do anything out of fear. It does things out of security, and out of concern for Canadians who live in this country, and making sure that the wrong people don't get into this country. We've had lots of examples of foreign criminals coming in here and creating havoc with crimes, murders, and worse. In fact, we just got rid of a guy, after 25 years of appeals, who was a terrorist.
That's one of the reasons why Canadian visa officers abroad are well trained and highly culturally sensitive to where they are. These guys have been all around the world.
Am I out of time?
I would like to thank our witnesses for joining us this morning.
First of all, I would like to point out that our officers are certainly not to blame. Let me just remind you that they are simply applying a policy. This must be said, because they cannot be the only ones to come in for criticism.
Officials from Citizenship and Immigration Canada appeared before this committee to talk about temporary resident visa applications and told us that 18% of applications are rejected by Canadian authorities. They also said that, if the claim is rejected, the person has to fill out a new application, which involves additional procedures.
In your view, are there any possible solutions to limit those additional procedures in the processing of applications?
I appreciate the comments of Mr. Opitz with regard to security. We have already mentioned that there are issues with regard to trafficking.
Let's look at it from a business case perspective. If you're rejecting around 20% of your applicants, and if we use this 300,000 figure—just a rough back-of-the-envelope case—it would be around 60,000 rejections. Let's say they don't come here. Based on Canadian tourism, each Chinese tourist spends around $2,000, so we're leaving about $100 million on the table. That's what I'm getting at from a business perspective. That is the opportunity cost for the security we want to have or the status quo.
I think we need to look at a more holistic approach in terms of what exactly we want here. I want to be very clear, the appears to want more Chinese visitors. He has gone to China a couple of times. I think all MPs support this, but do Canadians support this?
We have to be out there a little bit more with regard to this issue. There are too many stories around. There is, in my view, an anti-Chinese sentiment that has entered some of the public discourse on a whole range of other issues with regard to Chinese investment, etc. It spills over to issues like visitors. Do you want to see more Chinese visitors here?
What we have to do is influence—the administration has to catch up with what MPs and the are saying, that you want to see more visitors here.
Thank you very much for having me.
Just as an introduction, my name is Elizabeth Long. I'm an immigration lawyer and am in my ninth year of practice, exclusively in immigration law and mostly with regard to paper applications, such as temporary resident visas. Over my years of practice I have processed hundreds of temporary resident visas for visitors, students, and workers from around the world.
One of the main issues I want to talk about today is the criteria used by visa officers. lt is extremely unclear, first of all, in the criteria what exactly they should be looking at. As a result, the way they apply the criteria and what they use to determine whether or not a person should be issued a temporary resident visa is often wrong.
For example, officers often look at whether or not someone has strong ties in Canada as a reason for rejection. There are people who have family members in Canada: for example, a widow who has a child in Canada and who will often not be able to get a visa because she has family in Canada whom she wants to visit; or people who are being sponsored but who can't come to Canada because their husbands or wives are in Canada.
You also have “temporary intent” being applied instead of dual intent, which is what the act actually states. Temporary intent occurs when an officer asks: are you going to want to stay in Canada permanently, or temporarily?
That is the wrong criterion. Subsection 22(2) of the act—and I apologize for reading it, but I feel this is important—reads:
An intention by a foreign national to become a permanent resident does not preclude them from becoming a temporary resident if the officer is satisfied that they will leave Canada by the end of the period authorized for their stay.
What that means is that the officer is not supposed to look at whether or not a person has temporary or permanent resident intent, but at whether or not they are likely to follow the laws of Canada and leave when they're supposed to. If the officers apply temporary intent, that often leads to a very wrong decision.
For example, students are encouraged to come to Canada and to settle. That's why we have the CEC program and that's why we have the post-grad work permit program: to encourage them to stay. But officers at the visa post, for example, look at whether the students have temporary or permanent intent.
Oftentimes, for example, students' families are not allowed to come to Canada to join them while they are studying because the officers want to leave some ties to the home country. I have seen examples of students having to leave their studies and go back home because their families can't join them and they can't leave their husbands and their children back home.
Oftentimes, there are couples who sometimes even have Canadian children who can't join their fathers, because their mothers can't join their husbands while they're waiting for the sponsorships to be issued and can't get the temporary resident visas to come to Canada.
Oftentimes there are workers who are coming to Canada to earn a better living, but they are rejected because they don't have enough assets back home.
What this results in is a system in disrepute. When people feel they are being unfairly judged and given unfair decisions, they come to your office and ask you to do something. Oftentimes your hands are tied and the court's hands are tied because the level of discretion that is given to officers is so high. How do you argue with officers that they are wrong, if they have so much power to determine what they want to do?
The consequences of this situation are severe. Families are unduly separated; there is economic harm when businesses aren't able to hire workers they need; universities are losing valuable students who are bright and will provide a contribution to Canada; and, as we heard from our previous speakers, tourism is also being affected.
The solution, I would suggest to you, is first that we need to have much clearer criteria for officers to follow. There should be a way, as Member Sims previously stated, for us to look at our Canadian citizens. If we want family members to join us, we might not know what the people are like overseas, but we know who the Canadians are. If we can see who your constituents are and judge by their integrity, then perhaps that's a way to determine whether or not this person is likely to obey the laws when they come to Canada.
I truly believe in an appeal system, because what you see in systems where there are abilities to appeal is that there is guidance afterwards to the officers of what is reasonable and what is unreasonable, and right now there is no such guidance.
In conclusion, this is a system that is just crying out for guidance, and I truly hope that today, when we're studying this, you will be able to provide us with some guidance.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair and honourable members. It's a great honour and a pleasure to be here.
I am a lawyer in Toronto. I am certified by the Law Society of Upper Canada as a specialist in the practice of immigration law. I have practised it exclusively for the past 27 years. I'm a partner in a firm that practises exclusively in the area and deals with a great number of temporary entrants, many of whom are workers and some of whom are visitors for other reasons, including permanent residents.
There are three practical aspects about the TRV visitor visa process that I want to talk to you about. I want to pick up, to some extent, where Elizabeth left off on the quality and transparency of initial TRV decisions; I want to talk briefly about the merits of an appeal process; and finally, I want to talk about the need to provide a reliable vehicle for emergency visitor visa processing, or triage, as I call it.
I know this committee has heard about the subjective grounds that are applied to visitor visa applications, and it is understandably subjective. There are many components that go into that process. It is a form of profiling. It is a form of country profiling and of individual profiling. I don't think we can get away from that.
What we do have to get away from is an officer's belief that he or she must take the form that refuses an application and arbitrarily X a number of the boxes that indicate specific reasons for the refusal, reasons that may not—and likely are not—the actual reasons for the refusal. Worst of all—and this happens all the time—officers feel compelled to check the box saying that neither the applicant nor the host has shown sufficient financial means. Typically, a 50-year-old, well-established Canadian client will come to me and say, “My nephew was refused. We've provided all kinds of financial information, but I'm going to go to my accountant and my financial adviser and we're going to present all this information back to the visa office.” I say, “No, that's not the reason he was refused. Your nephew is 22 years old, he is unemployed, he is single, and he is from Iran. Nineteen out of 20 of those applications are going to be refused. Save yourself the trouble, save your MP the trouble, and save the visa office the trouble of the second application where you pursue an avenue that has nothing to do with it.” These types of arbitrary check-offs—and they're done all the time—lead to an enormous amount of work and are basically a waste of resources. Typically, the second application comes back with different boxes checked for the refusal.
Should there be an appeal process for TRV refusals? Yes, in my view there should be, but they should be in-house departmental administrative reviews, and they should be only for those TRV applications that are sponsored, or hosted, if you like, by relatives in Canada. When you reject a Canadian's relative, the Canadian often takes it incredibly personally. The person takes it as a rejection of his or her own status in Canada and assumes that it reflects a lack of trust or respect for his own standing in the country, or worse, it communicates that to the relative abroad.
I do not recommend an external quasi-judicial body for this purpose. I understand the Australians have taken that route. We have struggled for some years with IRB, IAD backlogs, which deal with important issues, and we've been trying to get that system to move with the responsibility it currently has. We can't burden that tribunal or a similar tribunal with these kinds of new responsibilities. What we can do is have an in-house review of family supported applications, accepting the usual profiles and accepting personal circumstances and reviewing them. It could be done within the visa office that refused the applicant, but frankly, in my experience, visa officers are never comfortable reviewing a decision made by an office mate or office colleague. It just doesn't work very well. Thus an inland unit—it could be based anywhere in Canada—would be preferable. The knowledge that a decision is reviewable, and I think Elizabeth pointed this out, will itself make for better and more transparent initial decisions.
Of course, there is already a level of appeal—so don't kid yourselves—and it is in this room. MPs are the de facto level of appeal, so it's not as though it's not happening.
One hopes this could take some of the burden of the backlog off your offices.
Today, processing times for TRVs have ballooned in a number of our offices around the world. A couple are actually getting better. India is pretty good. Others are not so good, and our visa offices in the U.S. are currently in a very bad way. They've been reduced to two from previously five or six offices, and they're struggling.
I could talk about that, but that is not my main concern. My main concern is that we have fewer visa offices. We have an online system, which overall makes sense, but what we are doing basically is eliminating almost all opportunities for the public to interact with those visa offices. We see this in the U.S. offices, and we've certainly seen it in the last few months, so beware if you haven't seen this or the results of this in your office yet. It makes things very difficult when it comes to emergency applications to come to Canada. If you look at the websites for the New York office and the Los Angeles office, you'll see they're open only a few hours a week, and they're open only to take in documents. You can't even pick up documents there. You cannot reach a person. Basically you are told to use a phone line, which doesn't get you anywhere. You have to use a call centre, which doesn't get you anywhere. People have family emergencies or athletes have sporting events in Canada that they need to come to the next day. Artists have events they have to perform at and they sometimes don't get more than a few days' notice. Business people have urgent meetings to get to. There are all kinds of reasons typically for these urgent situations, and there is simply no one to talk to. There must be a triage capability in each of these offices.
Let me just give you one example of what happened, what I saw, with respect to this lack of triage capability, and this is typical of what we'll see. A major Canadian bank sponsors a high-profile charity golf tournament in Canada featuring a renowned South African golfer who resides in the United States. A week before the engagement the golfer realizes he has an expired TRV. The golfer's agent can't get through to any live person at the Canadian consulate. A recording says it takes at least 30 days to issue and not to even call until the 30 days are up, because you won't get a reply. No other phone numbers are operative. No e-mails get through.
Within two days the golf club's MP has been called. The immigration minister's office has been called. The provincial trade office is involved. Another two MPs' offices are involved. The sports minister's office is involved. Finally, the ambassador to the U.S. has been alerted. All of these resources are in play because there is no human being in a position of any authority available to answer that first call, a call that would have certainly resulted in urgent processing, because when they are not insulated from the public, our visa offices are reasonable.
I'm Julie Taub. I'm an immigration and refugee lawyer in Ottawa and a former member of the Immigration and Refugee Board. I've been practising exclusively in the area of immigration since my appointment to the board, which would have been 1996. I'm a sole practitioner.
My presentation is from a very different angle, because I believe that whatever criteria are in place to issue temporary resident visas, be they for students or visitors or foreign workers, they should be exclusively for the best interests of Canada. These are not refugees we're dealing with.
And yes, I do believe that immigration officers, visa officers, should have the discretion, and they should be allowed to exercise discretion. Of course there's profiling. There's no choice but to have country profiling, because we cannot deny that there are dozens of, to give an example, terrorist-producing countries.
And yes, if you have a single male who's not married and who's young, it goes without saying that 19 out of 20 would be denied; I would have thought it would be 20 out of 20. It's based simply on experience.
But enough said about that. Currently, if I counted this right, there are about 154 countries where they require visitor visas. There are reasons for requiring visas for all of these countries. The Americans, for example, have more control on the exits of visitors.
Visitors come into this country, foreign workers come into this country, international students come into this country, and there's absolutely no monitoring. There is no follow-up. Nobody knows what really happens. Does the foreign worker go to the company where he's supposed to work? Does the international student stay in the school? Nobody knows, because there's no monitoring of compliance.
Universities and colleges are not required to report if the student has shown up or if the student has dropped out. Employers have no obligation to report to Immigration on whether the workers have shown up, whether they have quit their job, or whether they have been fired. There is no monitoring.
In the United States, if you get a visitor visa, you also get an I-94, a white paper that you must submit upon exiting the country. The airline companies are supposed to pick that up. So there is some kind of control when you exit the country.
The visa-waiver countries and visa-exempt countries receive a white paper, which you typically hand in when you exit the United States. It's not a perfect system, because the onus is on the airline companies to request the I-94. If you don't submit it, then the foreign national may have serious consequences with the United States.
However, we're here to discuss our system. An easy solution would be to have a biometric smart card visa: swipe upon entry, swipe upon exit. Then you wouldn't have to worry about where these 41,000 people that the Auditor General mentioned have disappeared to in Canada. It's very easy: you monitor entry, you monitor exit. It could apply across the whole spectrum of temporary residents, from students to workers to visitors.
I mean, the Ottawa Athletic Club and all sports clubs have had smart cards for about four decades. It's not really a high-tech solution.
Frankly, it's easier to get into Canada than it is into the Ottawa Athletic Club. That's no joke. You need a smart card. You have a smart card membership.
As well, they should require that their passports be stamped upon entry into Canada and exit-stamped when they leave Canada. Then you don't have to worry about lack of compliance and violations of overstaying or not complying with immigration regulations. That's why the requirements for issuing visas are so stringent now, because there are so many violations.
I'm quite certain that Immigration has no idea of the statistics, of the number of violations for visitors who have overstayed, students and foreign workers, because they don't know when or if they leave. They know there is a problem.
Everybody who's travelling has to go through security. When you go through security, at the other end there should be a CBSA officer who swipes your visitor, foreign worker, or student visa when you're leaving. When you come back, it's the same thing. It would not be onerous for the temporary resident visa holder because they need a passport to travel, regardless. You cannot travel internationally without a passport. You could have a smart card visa biometric in your passport. You swipe when you leave, swipe when you enter. I am pretty certain that the restrictive criteria for issuing visas would be relaxed somewhat if Immigration had more control over what happens after you enter Canada.
Exit and entry stamps should also apply to permanent residents. We have this very expensive and ineffective Immigration Appeal Division, with an enormous backlog, to deal with cases of lack of compliance with PR obligations. That could be eliminated completely with a smart card permanent resident card—swipe when you leave, swipe when you enter.
I want to thank all of our witnesses for appearing before us today.
Quite often, perhaps, the easiest thing to say is that visa officers are to blame for a lot of things. The fact of the matter is that they are very highly trained, very qualified people working with significant workloads; they have an experience level that allows them to do their job properly. However, no system is a perfect system.
I want to highlight a couple of statistics for you before I get into my questions. You know that Canada is one of the most welcoming countries in the world. We certainly see that when we compare our system to other peer countries with which we have good working relationships. We welcome a growing number of visitors, foreign workers, international students. In fact, over the last several years, that number seems to be increasing. In 2012, we issued over a million visitor visas—that's a 40% increase over 2004—and a record 100,000 international student visas, which is a 60% increase over 2004. We believe that these individuals play an important role in fostering Canadian economic development through tourism, trade, commerce, educational, and research activities. The approval rate for visa applicants in 2012 was 82%. So far in 2013, it's 83%. That leaves 17% of the people who get rejected.
Looking at the appeal process, about 48% of those who appeal are successful in getting in. My experience in my office, and certainly for a lot of my colleagues who I speak to, is that quite often the applicants themselves have not properly filled in their applications; there is missing information. When they are told what the missing information is, they bring it in. The success rate is considerably higher.
Visa officers are the first line of interaction we have with somebody who wants to come into the country. Some might think they are the first line of defence, because they're really screening who comes into our country, who walks on our streets, who shops in our malls, and who's around our children, our schools, and our families.
This week we heard from CIC officials the numerous ways that people attempt to gain fraudulent entry into Canada. Some of the fraudulent activities officials named were purposely giving incorrect information—fraudulent bank statements, fraudulent educational statements. There are cases where you have someone coming in presenting themselves as someone else. We've seen people try to get in here five and six times under different names. As you are all aware, misinterpretation is a serious offence under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, IRPA, as we all call it.
What actions do you suggest can be taken up front to avoid these cumbersome cases from reaching an officer?
To follow up on that and open it up for all three of you to answer, have you seen any cases where individuals have attempted to circumvent the process of getting into Canada by cheating? What types of cases and documents have you seen firsthand? Of course, I realize you can't name your clients, but we're speaking in general terms.
Perhaps I can start with you, Ms. Taub.
Welcome back, by the way.
Just to follow up on what you said before I answer that, you mentioned one million visitors, over 100,000 students, and I believe I have the statistics...you're referring to 250,000 foreign workers.
Just a minute. I have it here somewhere.
There were 213,000 foreign workers who came in, and there's a total of 338,000 now. I'm sure all of you are aware, but I'm sure Canadians are not aware, that there is no compulsory criminal background screening for all these temporary residents. There are no compulsory criminal background checks and no compulsory health checks. We have close to 2 million people coming in annually, and we really don't know who they are.
It may be onerous to impose criminal background checks, but I think it's important. After all, this is our country. We don't know who's walking in our streets. They may comply with most of the criteria to be an international worker, a foreign student, or a visitor, but do we know if they're criminals? Do we know if they have terrorist associations? This is not checked. It should be.
To answer your questions, yes, I've had occasions at the beginning of my practice when different clients would come in and openly admit to me some of the unsavoury practices that they wanted to engage in because they knew there was solicitor-client privilege. When the word got out I would not help these people.... For example, permanent residents who had not complied with their residency obligations would get a friend who owned a Canadian company to write a letter that they had been working abroad for them. They would ask me if I could help with the letter and get the contract correct, even though in fact they had not been working abroad for this Canadian company. This is one of the exemptions. These are some of the practices that commonly go on, and it is not unusual. This is what I have seen.
I have also dealt with cases where people who became Canadian citizens did so under another name. I'm thinking of two cases I had, which I could not continue because of this. The person came under a relative's passport, managed to get refugee status, managed to get permanent resident status, and even became a citizen—and then it was a revocation of citizenship. When I really got involved in the case and saw in fact that this was misrepresentation, I said I was no longer able to proceed to represent this client.
This has happened on two occasions.
Thank you all for being here today.
From your interventions, Ms. Long, you spoke mainly about the criteria that's utilized and how unclear it is with the visa officers.
Ms. Taub, you were very clear—need exit controls; use smart card visas.
Peter, I think you've already answered my first question, so I'm going to direct my first question to Elizabeth, if I may, and Peter, if you have something to add, please do so.
One of the main reasons for the study is because, as MPs, we work every day with Canadians who are trying to reunite with their families on a temporary basis and who have difficulty with TRVs. Members opposite have mentioned that fraud prevention is certainly of concern when TRVs are denied, yet according to CIC officials we heard from at the last meeting, 48% of applicants who reapply after a denial are actually approved. Meanwhile, the persons who are making the applications have gone through emotional and perhaps also financial and other stresses through the process of submitting a second application. This certainly speaks to the discretion you were mentioning, Ms. Long, that is awarded to the officers on the notion of intent with respect to the applicant.
I'm wondering if you can speak to the impact it has on families, on businesses, and if you have any recommendations to actually improve the application criteria.
I'd like to answer that question, and also the question raised by Member Menegakis.
For example, Member Menegakis, you said we have x number of students who are allowed to come in, which is fantastic, but how many of them are able to stay without their families? For example, I had a student whose husband was a highly successful businessman. They had travelled to the U.S. and had U.S. visas, Schengen visas, and they had travelled throughout the world. She was refused a visa to Canada because they wanted to keep some ties back in the country of origin. What that resulted in is this highly successful student having to return back to her country. The criteria that was applied by the officer was completely wrong, applying temporary intent instead of dual intent, whether or not that person is likely to obey the laws. All of the travel history has shown that they had not overstayed in another country, such as the U.S. or Europe.
You have other criteria where, for example, you're not allowing the families to join families. I had a case, for example, of a child, who is Canadian because his father is Canadian, who has cerebral palsy. The wife was not able to join the families as well, so the criteria results in serious consequences to the families.
Thank you, Mr. Chair. Welcome to our guests.
In your opening remarks, Ms. Long, you talked about the fact that MPs' hands are tied and our courts' hands are tied. You seem to imply there's a problem with the visa officer having the power to determine the outcome of an application. I'm sitting here thinking, you have to be kidding. Visa officers are highly trained, highly experienced, and many times they are actually submerged in the culture of that particular country. I was sitting here thinking that as a member of Parliament I would actually never want that responsibility, to make a decision or intervene on a decision that could have a negative outcome. Obviously I don't have the experience, and that's why we rely on our visa officers.
Ms. Taub, when you made your opening remarks and I was sitting here listening to you.... You were talking about the criteria that are being used for TRVs, whether they are student TRVs or others, and you indicated that regardless of what anyone thinks, it's exclusively in the best interests of Canada to have those criteria and to make sure that the visa officers, who are highly trained, have their own discretion and that they use it freely based on their experience. I'm hearing two different spectrums here, and I have to say that I agree with Ms. Taub in that case. I think most Canadians who are actually watching this committee would tend to agree. For example, I go to my doctor and he prescribes something to treat an illness. That's like saying he shouldn't be the one who actually does that prescription. I find that very alarming to hear, just as a side point.
There was another question I heard actually from my colleague across the way, Ms. Sitsabaiesan. She said that if a TRV is denied, they have the option to reapply, and in some cases it could be a financial burden. An application is $75 for a single application and a multi is $150, and they have 14 days to reapply. I'm just trying to figure out why that would be a financial burden to someone, considering they want to come to Canada. If they can't afford the reapplication fees, then there must certainly be a question about whether they can actually afford to come to Canada in the first place. I want to ask if you think that's a financial burden to actually have to reapply at those particular fee structures.
I'll direct that to Ms. Taub.
Thank you very much, Chair. I'm very glad to take the time. I thought my time was withering away. I'm actually very glad to be able to speak.
As we've heard before....
My notes are in French, so bear with me on the translation.
As was mentioned on a number of occasions, there is really no appeal mechanism for visitor visa applications, which can create a lot of problems.
My riding receives a lot of tourists. Actually, many people who welcome their families to the Outaouais and Ottawa regions also take advantage of the opportunity to tour and show rural Canada to those who visit them. That is really important to us. I am not saying that people have a right to visit those regions, but it is in the interest of my constituents that people come to visit Canada's regions and to see what our region has to offer.
I think the lack of an appeal mechanism is a problem. People may not understand why a visa application was rejected. Was it an administrative error or was there a perception of a dual intent?
In my view, that can lead to two possibilities. First, the person may decide to apply again, which would represent additional costs for the applicant and a heavier workload for officials. Second, the person may simply forget about the visa application, which is understandable since we are basically saying that we do not want them here and we don't want them to visit the region.
That means a loss of tourism revenue for Canada. As I mentioned, this is a very important industry, especially for my riding. The municipalities in my riding are close to Montreal and Ottawa and a lot of people who visit those cities also want to discover the countryside. They want to see the forest and see how the leaves turn colour in the fall. That is important, because that is what keeps the economy going in my region.
Do you think an appeal mechanism would help? Do you have a better process in mind so that we don't discourage people? We must not constantly ask people to redo their applications simply because of a few small errors.
Ms. Long, you may go first. We could then give the floor to all the witnesses around the table. That would be great.