Good afternoon, everyone. I call meeting number six of the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration to order.
Before we begin, I will clarify something with regard to the technical difficulties we had during Monday's meeting.
The clerk has invited the witnesses from the last meeting to submit supplementary remarks further to their testimony, and these submissions will be appended to the transcript of Monday's meeting. Additionally, the clerk has sent the blues of Monday's meeting to the witnesses and has invited them to propose amendments to their testimony to ensure that the evidence reflects what the witnesses said in their testimony.
With regard to health and safety at today's meeting, I remind all attendees in the room to physically distance themselves from others by at least two metres and wear a mask unless they remain more than two metres from anyone else.
This is a hybrid meeting, so some members are appearing in person from the parliamentary precinct and others are appearing remotely.
I remind all members to please speak at a pace slow enough for interpretation to keep up. The clerk will be tracking raised hands and will keep a speakers list if needed.
All questions shall be decided by a recorded vote except for those decided unanimously or on division.
The meeting is being webcast and is available on ParlVu.
With that, I welcome all the members of the committee. I also welcome our witnesses and thank them for appearing before the committee today as we study the impact of COVID-19 on the immigration system.
Today, appearing before the committee, we have a representative from the YMCA of Northeastern Ontario, Helen Francis, president and chief executive officer; Fadia Mahmoud from Centre social d'aide aux immigrants; and as individuals, Kelly Goldthorpe, senior associate at Green and Spiegel; Elizabeth Long, barrister and solicitor, partner, Long Mangalji, LLP; Alastair Clarke, lawyer at Clarke Immigration Law; and Mark Holthe, lawyer at Holthe Immigration Law.
I'm sorry, but because of the vote in the House we are starting late. Since we started at 4:11, we will end the panel at 5:11. All witnesses will have five minutes for their opening remarks.
Ms. Goldthorpe, I invite you to please start. You have five minutes for your opening remarks.
Thank you for inviting me to discuss these very timely immigration matters today.
In the early days of the pandemic, it was understandable to expect service disruption. Prioritizing critical infrastructure, essential services, and the containing of COVID-19 was rightly made a top priority. However, we're now eight months into the pandemic, and though there may be some light at the end of the tunnel, there's no clear indication that the pandemic is ending any time soon, and IRCC processing of applications is falling behind.
We've all had to learn to live with this virus in various ways, and the Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship is no different. The department's delays can no longer all be attributed to COVID-19.
In the context of family reunification, estimated processing time is about 12 months. This was the case pre-pandemic, and it's still communicated to be the processing time right now. One year is a long time for families to be separated.
The recent expansion of exemptions on COVID-19 travel bans in place presents some inequities too; namely, that extended families such as long-term romantic partners may be reunited in a matter of weeks, while married spouses and common-law partners overseas have to wait upwards of a year.
Timely reunification is becoming even more urgent for families adversely affected by changing conditions in countries such as Hong Kong and Lebanon.
We've all had to adapt and innovate, improve and take advantage of the new tools available to us to be more efficient while working remotely, and IRCC has to be creative and innovative in its processes and flexible in its approach to assessing and processing applications.
In Canada, ministerial instructions allow the department to make changes quickly. As a suggestion, therefore, we'd like to see the deferral of biometrics to the back end, when foreign nationals are entering Canada at an airport or land border, instead of up front, at the time of the application.
Right now, temporary resident applications are delayed at the biometric stage. Applicants in certain parts of the world are waiting weeks to get their biometrics scheduled. Their applications aren't even in the queue for processing until the biometrics are completed.
My suggestion is that the solution is to defer biometrics until their arrival in Canada. We know that border services officers at CBSA ports of entry are operating at much lower capacity than the pre-pandemic levels, in some cases at 5% or 10% of those in 2019.
The ports of entry have the equipment to do biometrics and the capacity to do so. Why, then, do we make applicants do biometrics up front and then wait several weeks for an appointment, when they can be doing them at the back end.
As well, do visa counterfoils have to be affixed to an original passport? For “visa required” applicants, the passport transmission process can take weeks. In contrast, an electronic travel authorization for visa-exempt nationals can be linked to a passport in mere minutes. Eliminating the visa counterfoil can save time and resources.
In Canada, there is currently no dedicated temporary resident program that allows overseas spouses and dependent children to be reunited in Canada while their applications are in process. In contrast, an “in Canada” sponsorship application can request an open work permit for the sponsored spouse while the application is in process. This is a great program, but it's limited to those who are currently in Canada or those who are able to obtain a visa and enter Canada before submitting the application.
For spouses who are in “visa required” countries, it's difficult to get authorization to enter Canada because of paragraph (b) of section 179 of IRPA whereby applicants must demonstrate an intent to leave Canada when their visa expires. This conflicts with the intention of applicants who have sponsorship applications in process and who intend to become permanent residents.
With respect to the parent and grandparent lottery system, we know there's a persistent high demand for the program in light of the limited number of available spots and the challenges of managing the intakes.
Since the program reopened in 2014, each iteration of the intake process has been frustrating. Currently, success in securing an invitation to apply in the lottery system is contingent on the luck of the draw. The lottery system does not adequately screen for eligible sponsors; it does not require supporting documentation to show that sponsors meet the eligibility requirements. More people can thus enter the lottery than are eligible, which then lowers the chances of selection for those who do meet the requirements.
Improving the lottery system to ensure that only eligible sponsors can enter the lottery can make the system fairer. As well, allowing unsuccessful sponsors from previous years to re-enter with weighted probabilities could increase their likelihood of selection in subsequent years.
An alternative to the lottery may be potentially for pre-screened eligible sponsors to be put on a wait list for sponsorship, which then could provide predictable timelines and better-managed expectations.
I'm sorry for interrupting, Madam Goldthorpe, but your time is up. Maybe you can touch base on the other points as we go into the round of questioning.
We will now move to our next witness, Madam Elizabeth Long, barrister and solicitor, and partner with Long Mangalji LLP.
Madam Long, you have five minutes.
I will give a one-minute heads up. When we are at four minutes, I will let everyone know that one minute is left.
Madam Long, you have the floor.
Thank you for inviting me to testify.
Let me first speak to the issue of international students. This is an area that is currently filled with chaos and confusion, especially as it pertains to those students who have applied from abroad.
We often have the IRCC website saying two completely different things. For example, there is a question of whether someone could study online if they had already applied for their study permits but had not obtained an approval in principle. We had the instance where one IRCC website page was saying yes, and the other was saying no.
We also don't have clarity on what certain policies really mean. For example, what does “approval in principle” actually mean? Will their applications be approved pending medical and criminal checks, or are there going to be other checks that will follow?
There are also certain policies that are still being applied with pre-COVID conditions in mind. For example, the ministerial instructions for express entry still state that students need to study for eight months inside Canada and requires that the online component be less than 50% in order to obtain the points for studying in Canada. We know that this is not going to be the case for many students during these times.
We need clarity and reasonable outcomes to allow schools and students to properly plan their futures. We're currently in a tight race to attract these international students, and convoluted rules and contradicting information makes our system seem unfair and ultimately unattractive to potential students.
Secondly, I would like to address the parents and grandparents category. I would like to say that this category first of all serves not just a humanitarian purpose but also an important economic one.
COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of grandparents. We often need them to take care of children while the parents are at work. Oftentimes those who are most in need of parents to be here and take of the children because the family can't afford child care are not able to meet the LICO plus 30% financial eligibility line. That's why I think it's important for the sponsor's income to return back to the LICO line so that those who are most in need of parental help can have them here to care for their children.
On the other hand, I have also known of many instances where parents who are sponsored are not able to adjust to life in Canada, and they are not willing to live in Canada on a permanent basis. That's why, to address the numbers issue, I would recommend a priority processing for parents and grandparents who have lived in Canada for over one year and who we know are able and willing to reside in Canada on a permanent basis, and have them processed on a priority basis compared to others.
Finally, with regard to family reunification and spouses, right now we have such a stark difference between those with family in visa-requiring countries and those in non-visa-requiring countries.
For those in non-visa-requiring countries, even if they have someone who has lived with them for a brief period of time, they can have their boyfriends or girlfriends travel to Canada. They are able to get on the plane right away or get a letter of authorization within 14 days. Once they come into the country, they can get their open work permits if they have applied for spousal sponsorships online, and there is also priority processing for these applications.
Now, if you compare that to families who are in visa-requiring countries, the situation is completely different.
First of all, as my colleague has already said, the temporary resident visas for those who are married to Canadians or permanent residents are routinely denied because they are seen as having too many ties to Canada and not likely to leave Canada.
Even if they are able to obtain their visas, these visas right now are taking four to five months to process, and they require biometrics from centres that we know are often closed.
For the permanent residents, there's no end in sight for processing. They are not included in the expedited processing, and for most of our submitted applications we have not received a confirmation letter for anyone since March of this year. Furthermore, if the COPRs are not being issued, we don't know when they are going to be coming to Canada, and the realities of the situation are heartbreaking.
We have a client, for example, who is in a wheelchair in Canada. He has been trying to sponsor his wife for 19 months.
The YMCA is a charity that focuses on the growth of all, in spirit, mind and body. One key area we focus on is employment services and immigrant newcomer settlement services.
My comments here today are primarily made through the lens of settlement work and workforce development versus direct work within the immigration process.
Through our settlement service experience, clients are experiencing long delays, be they for student visas, permanent resident status or work permits. As a settlement service provider, we obviously advise clients to be prepared for the delays. However, they can inhibit our ability to provide or connect clients to community services such as medical care.
As some know, immigrants are not eligible for OHIP without permanent resident status, and there are limited to no alternative options throughout the community. It is not uncommon for our newcomer clients to travel to Toronto to receive medical care.
Securing employment may also be challenging for clients who experience delays in processing their work permits and for those who require changes to their work permits.
Delays and lack of direct support available in our region require that clients must travel to Toronto to access key immigration resources such as legal representation. This is not ideal at the best of times and certainly adds the risk of COVID-19 transmission between the regions.
In northern and rural Canada, we are reliant upon immigrants to address the current skills gap that exists across various parts of the country. However, this can be more detrimental to regions such as northeastern Ontario, where the gap is widening at an alarming rate.
The current restrictions on immigration and the delays within the process may lead to long-term ramifications across the country, particularly in northern and rural regions known as “second migration centres”. Failure to address the current backlog will limit the rate of new immigrants arriving in Canada when restrictions begin to lift, potentially diminishing the rate of second migration in areas such as northeastern Ontario, the impact of which can not only hinder our country's ability to reopen for business as and when the pandemic allows, but also potentially negatively impact our long-term economic prosperity.
Our recommendations for areas of improvement for your consideration are as follows.
First, accelerate processing time for permanent residency and visas, as well as family reunification, to ensure individuals, including young people, and families are safe, secure and connected.
Second, consider the location of immigration lawyers outside of the typical large urban centres. Specifically, we would like to see one in Sudbury.
Third, provide satellite immigration services to serve northern and rural communities. Sudbury is a centralized location for northeastern Ontario and would greatly benefit from key satellite services.
Fourth, provide easier access to IRCC to enable service providers to connect clients to immigration consultants. A representative dedicated to regional areas would facilitate access to key immigration services.
Fifth, provide universal access to English as a second language for all newcomer clients. Current services are exclusive to IRCC's eligible clients—
Thank you, Madam Chair, and thanks to all the witnesses for coming to the committee today.
Family reunification and the impact of COVID-19 has been a very important issue, as we've heard. Earlier this year the government put the program for parents and grandparents sponsorship on pause. They committed to making a new announcement in the spring, but it was further delayed. There have been many criticisms in the past, and even with this new system we see many people who have a lot of issues with it again, as we've heard.
In the past, Canadians placed their hopes for bringing their loved ones to Canada more efficiently. Many were very disappointed with the overrun in minutes that happened with the first program, and now, with this new system, again there are many questions.
There is a saying about what insanity is. It's doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. In the last five years, that's what we've seen.
My questions are for Ms. Long and Ms. Goldthorpe. I would like to hear your thoughts on how you think the government has handled this program in the past, the impact of the pause that happened earlier this year and the decision to reimplement the lottery.
Please, go ahead Ms. Long and Ms. Goldthorpe.
With the delay in launching the lottery or parent/grandparent system this year, it was only earlier this month that people were going into the lottery. We haven't yet seen the results of people who have won basically their “golden ticket”.
We don't know what the process is. There's no transparency; there's no indication of how people are selected, of what they do with duplicates or of how eligible applicants are selected. There is just no transparency in the process.
That's what's frustrating for my clients. This is what I'm seeing and hearing from my clients concerning the frustration of the parent and grandparent lottery: that there's just no transparency.
The other thing we're seeing is that people are going into the lottery who are not necessarily qualified as sponsors, who may not have the required income levels, or who are going in twice and duplicating their chances. Because there's no transparency about the way the winners are selected, this is really frustrating the clients. To go through this over and over again is frustrating.
As to the long wait, the suggestion of having a weighted lottery system has been repeated over and over again. It's an easy fix whereby, if somebody has been in the lottery before and has been unsuccessful, they get two kicks at the can in this lottery. This is an option that I recommend that the committee look into urgently.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
I'd like to thank all the witnesses for their testimony, which will help us and inform our study on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
I would like to focus more on employment.
My first question will be for Helen Francis from the YMCA of Northeastern Ontario.
First off, I want to thank you for all the work you do in the area. When you look at highlighting the satellite and the remote and the challenges that we have, and the importance of wanting to bring immigration newcomers to northern Ontario.... I want to thank you for the services.
As we look at the partnership with the federal government, IRCC, and immigration settlement services, what recommendations can you provide to us to strengthen that role between yourselves and the federal government to ensure that we can bring in more newcomers?
Second, you mentioned the lack of provincial funding for international students to study. Can you just expand on that part too, please?
Thank you very much, Mr. Serré.
The [Technical difficulty—Editor] really circles back to the role of settlement services. Commonly we experience clients who will come to us and indicate that they can't get a hold of anybody at IRCC. The breakdown in the partnership there is that we, too, don't have direct contacts or a direct representative to work with at IRCC to really reach out to and understand where the breakdown in communication might be, so we end up really as helpless as the clients themselves. That's unfortunate, and it's possible that if we could strengthen the relationship there with our IRCC colleagues it would actually help everyone in this entire system.
When it comes to settlement services for international students, certainly for ourselves in association, the current funding models don't include funds for us to specifically support international students. Happily, we see that that a growing trend in our educational establishments is to attract and recruit those students, but they need a lot of support. In order for us, as a settlement provider, to be able to do it, we need those funding models to expand so that we can actually have the resources in place to provide the supports appropriately.
Right now, in order to attract international students, it's all about that path towards permanent residency. We are doing well in certain ways compared to other countries, but we could certainly do better.
First of all, right now, a lot of the rules for students coming into Canada, their ability to qualify for the post-grad work permits, and their ability to qualify under express entry are up in the air. It's very confusing to students, and whenever something is not clear, it makes students hesitate to actually apply.
The second thing is, with regard to permanent residency, right now we are putting students who have studied in Canada, who have worked in Canada, in the same pool as everybody else from around the world. For us, we should recognize that the international students who have studied in Canada, who have worked in Canada, are our key candidates for permanent residency, and we should really have a special category to allow them to immigrate instead of just putting them through express entry.
Thank you very much, Madam Chair.
Once again, I thank our witnesses, who have given us a lot of information that will be useful when we write the report and the recommendations.
I'd like to speak to Ms. Goldthorpe and Ms. Long about biometrics.
Several recommendations have been made about the biometrics being done in Canada. Just think, for example, about students arriving from countries where there is no service centre. They would find it useful to have them done here.
So that we can understand this and include it in the report, can you remind us what biometrics are, what they are used for, and why there are no risks or issues in having them done here, at the end of the process?
Biometrics is a requirement—a new requirement as of a couple of years ago. It was not always a requirement for the immigration or the temporary residence process.
Biometrics involves a photograph and the fingerprints of everybody who is entering Canada, with the exception of American citizens from the United States. Biometrics is a part of the process for permanent residence, as well as for work permits, study permits and visa applications.
At the start of the application process, applicants submit their application online; then they get an invitation to do biometrics, whereby they take the requisition letter to a centre to do their biometrics. The centre takes their photograph and then does their fingerprinting.
These are automatically linked to their application for a 10-year period. Applicants only have to do biometrics once every 10 years, and it's a way to verify identity.
It's possible to do biometrics at the airport, because visa-exempt citizens, such as people who are coming from Europe and Australia, for example—those who used to get their work permits issued upon arrival in Canada at the port of entry—would do their fingerprints and take their photograph upon their arrival in Canada.
They pay the $85 biometrics fee, then the border services officer takes their photograph and their fingerprints, and these are linked to their application and their profile for 10 years.
It's an important tool for IRCC to establish identity, and it's information that's shared between Canada and several other countries. It's information gathering and sharing, but it doesn't need to be done at the beginning of the application process, because it can be done—there's equipment, there's personnel, and there's capacity to do it—at the end of the process as well.
Right now, with COVID, doing it at the beginning of the process is delaying the application for everybody.
I imagine that Ms. Long's answer would be the same. It was worth explaining what biometrics are for, so that we can include it in the report.
I have another question about work permits. I'm still asking Ms. Goldthorpe and Ms. Long.
We got rid of the good old “flagpoling” to prevent people from going to the border to renew their work permits. The problem is that it can now take up to 180 days. People end up with implied status, which is not always recognized by the employer.
Should we make sure that the work permit issue, which is purely administrative, is dealt with quickly so that people are not stuck with implied status that can be problematic? This is particularly the case for guardian angels, who may not even be able to accumulate the number of hours needed to register for the program that has been announced.
Thank you very much, Madam Chair, and thanks to the witnesses.
I'd like to first touch on the issue around paragraph 179(b) for the folks who are trying to bring their loved ones here for a visit and who are often denied. The government of course cites dual intent, and we know that even with dual intent, their applications are often rejected.
To Ms. Goldthorpe and Ms. Long, given this situation, would you recommend that the government suspend the use of 179(b) especially during this COVID period? Further to that, really for those who have a sponsorship application in place for their loved ones, why not provide a special temporary visa, if you will, so that people can come to Canada, sort of like the parents and grandparents super visa, so that they can reunite with their loved ones while they wait for their application to be processed? I would just like to get your thoughts on that.
I have a question for you guys. I talk to businesses all the time, and they say that the processes are very complicated federally, provincially, and then municipally on things like that. They're calling for a bit of a strategy. I want to get your thoughts on trying to figure that out when people are looking for meaningful work.
When they're trying to figure that out, would it be helpful to have some type of national strategy playing into this? That's also part of the issue, I believe, when we start looking at bringing people to remote parts of Canada and being able to help companies where they're at. Do you have any thoughts on this? Does anyone want to tackle it at all?
I can give a live experience on that.
We recently had somebody apply who had an open work permit. We applied for a new work permit for that person, but that person can't switch to the new work permit because their previous work permit was an open work permit. For the closed employer work permit, they're still going to have to wait.
It helps only the people who meet the narrow criteria for that public policy change. While it is very helpful and we've been successful in getting the work permits changed to new employers, and employers do appreciate the ability to have workers come in quickly, what I've been seeing is that, for foreign work permit applications, the processing time for the UAE is 51 weeks.
A business is not going to wait 51 weeks to get a worker in from a foreign country. That 51 weeks is not necessarily the correct or the accurate processing time, but it's a deterrent for employers if they see processing times that are that long.
I have only one question, about reuniting parents and grandparents.
I invite Ms. Goldthorpe and Ms. Long to answer if they wish.
In another life, when I was a lawyer, I had the opportunity to fill out sponsorship applications for parents and grandparents myself. In some instances, just by evaluating the case, I already knew that my clients would not be financially eligible for the application and that they were, in a way, taking the place of people who might have been eligible but were not selected at random.
I would like to hear your views on the possibility of prescreening certain cases, as long as the issue of financial eligibility is maintained.
That would also save IRCC resources to help process the backlog as well.
I'm going to turn very quickly to the question of post-graduate international students. As we know, they have time-restricted post-graduate work permits, whereby they are required to complete 12 to 14 months of high-skill, high-wage jobs, but because they have been impacted by COVID their qualification for PR is now impeded. Some of their work permits are about to expire, and people are very anxious.
I wonder, Ms. Long, if you have any thoughts about what the government should do. Should it just automatically renew these individuals' work permits? These are talents already here in Canada.
Honourable committee members, I'd like to thank you for this invitation to provide testimony on the impact of COVID-19 on the immigration system.
I would like to acknowledge that I'm giving this testimony on Treaty 1 territory, the homeland of the Métis nation and the ancestral lands of indigenous peoples.
I'm appearing before you today as an immigration and refugee lawyer with more than 12 years of experience. I started my career at an immigration law boutique on Bay Street in Toronto. From there, I practised at a legal aid clinic assisting low-income residents, and for the past seven years, I have practised exclusively immigration and refugee law here in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the heart of the continent.
Today, I'll be making five brief points.
My first point is that IRCC needs to further digitize the system and expand online services. For example, spousal sponsorships and temporary resident permanent applications could be easily submitted online.
In 2018, the refugee protection division of the IRB introduced the epost system, which has been very successful. Epost makes it easy for counsel to see details of documents that have been uploaded. IRCC has started to use epost for refugee claimants inside of Canada, and this tool may be useful in other contexts. In short, a robust online system may provide solutions to dealing with long processing times and the current backlogs.
For my second point, I strongly support the possibility of an applicant posting monetary bonds for TRV applications in the context of a spousal sponsorship application. These applicants are sufficiently motivated to become permanent residents through the family class, and there would be low risk in the possibility of them overstaying their visa.
However, I do have reservations if a monetary bond were to become a requirement of all TRV applications. I would not want the TRV application to become out of reach for low-income applicants.
My third point relates to applicants in provincial nominee programs. Many of these individuals are able to apply for permanent resident status based on their education and work in Canada. Once these workers receive their nomination certificate, they can apply for a bridging work permit, but that is restricted to their employer.
This pandemic has resulted in many layoffs and it has caused severe hardship. In my view, these work permits should be less restrictive and could avoid many issues, including potential problems with flagpoling. For example, a NOC B worker could be allowed to accept a different NOC B position without having to obtain a new work permit. Similarly, I also urge more flexibility with post-graduation work permits. They should not be limited to one post-graduation work permit per lifetime.
My fourth point relates to refugee claimants. As you know, travel restrictions have essentially closed the border to claimants from the United States. Justice McDonald of the Federal Court of Canada recently held the safe third country agreement to be unconstitutional, and it's disheartening that this government has appealed that decision. Notwithstanding these extraordinary times, Canada has a strong humanitarian tradition that must be protected.
My last point relates to having a collaborative approach. Part of the reason I was interested in this area of law is that it is generally non-confrontational. To deal with minor issues, I can easily call a CMO at the IRB, a superintendent at the POE, an inland enforcement officer or a lawyer at the DOJ.
Dealing with the IRCC, in contrast, is a constant struggle. When an IRCC officer makes a clear mistake, there is no easy mechanism to get it fixed. In my view, the request for reconsideration system is broken and MPs are far too often put in the difficult position to act as intermediaries.
Bad decisions by visa officers are often easy to appeal to Federal Court—as I have experienced doing recently—but judicial reviews expend a huge amount of time and resources for both the applicants and the government.
The dual intent guidance issued last month is a step in the right direction; however, it does not go far enough in emphasizing flexible decision-making. An immigration ombudsperson may be a possible solution. In my view, there may also be a tech solution to facilitate better communication with visa officers to address minor issues.
In short, I would urge IRCC to adopt a more collaborative approach. I believe there is great merit in continued consultation with stakeholders.
Thank you for the opportunity to share my thoughts. I welcome any questions you have.
Honourable members, thank you for inviting me to speak to you today to share my thoughts on the impact of COVID-19 on Canada's immigration systems.
I'm currently serving as the national chair of the CBA, but while I'm here, I've been invited to speak in my personal capacity—so basically not the chair—and any comments I make are mine alone. I'm grateful for the opportunity to share them with you.
The pandemic has caused significant disruption within the delivery of immigration services, but it has also shined a light on areas that desperately need improving. One of those areas is the need to modernize the entire immigration processing network. The complete digitization of the immigration system must be paramount. The IRCC has made great strides with temporary residents and express entry; however, all paper-based applications must be transitioned online as soon as possible.
Some of the hardest hit cohorts over the course of this pandemic have been those in paper-based queues. This committee has heard considerable testimony regarding the hardship faced by families, spouses and partners, parents and grandparents, and even the most vulnerable cohort of all—the children. We have heard the stories of families trapped abroad with their internationally adopted children, unable to come to Canada because of visa office closures.
This pandemic and the necessity for social distancing is not going away any time soon. Because of the overreliance on overseas missions and their antiquated methods of processing visa applications, countless people have suffered. We must find a way to modernize the issuance of visas. I know that security concerns are paramount; however, why must a PR visa be imprinted in a passport in the first place? Why can't a letter with a scannable bar code not suffice? Why can't biometrics be completed at the port of entry when landing?
We place far too much emphasis on overseas missions to administer the immigration programs in relative isolation. We need all PR applications to be fully digitized so that they can be processed anywhere within the network—exactly what has been happening with express entry and the temporary resident applications for years.
I commend this committee for their desire to make things better for those who suffering. Although there have been many proposals put forward, I want to share with you my top three list of major concerns that I think should be addressed first. These are areas that need immediate attention. After all, that's the purpose of this committee in the first place: to identify immediate needs and find solutions. The systemic problems will have to get addressed when they get addressed, but my recommendation is not before these top three.
The first systemic problem is obviously family reunification. I echo what my colleagues have said. The application of paragraph 179(b) should be exempt for any family member seeking to be reunited with immediate family. Paragraph 3(1)(d) of the act itself specifically states that one of the objectives of IRPA is “to see that families are reunited in Canada”.
Spouses' TRV applications need to be facilitated, not, as we've heard in previous [Technical difficulty—Editor] treated as a “kiss of death” in many cases. Families trapped abroad with internationally adopted children should never be turned away by this country when a facilitation TRV or TRP is sought.
The solution for this would be to create another super visa program for those spouses, or create clear, unequivocal program delivery instructions confirming that paragraph 179(b) just doesn't apply and, instead, put an emphasis on the generous application by officers of subsection 22(2), the dual intent provision.
The second systemic problem is that there are the PR applicants trapped outside with expired COPRs. They have quit jobs, pulled kids out of school, liquidated assets and waited on travel letters that never came. This cohort must be landed in 2020. There is no excuse for this not happening. If they can travel, they should be facilitated. Just issue the travel letters to those who are ready and able and apply the necessary resources that are going to be needed to get this group through. They're a relatively small cohort, but no less worthy of facilitation.
The third systemic problem is the plight of our foreign workers on the front lines. There's got to be a pathway to PR for this extremely vulnerable population. They've been exploited long enough, and a program must be created that targets them. The provinces could step up, but this is really a federal responsibility. The express entry program could be adjusted to allow increased points for front-line work experience; however, because of the fixation that IRCC has with skilled work experience to the exclusion of low-skilled work, a new program would need to be created. This program would be similar to the guardian angel program. We could call it the “Canadian front-line experience class”, the CFEC.
We must look first to those already in Canada to reach the ambitious goals announced in the recent levels plan.
Thank you very much. I look forward to answering any questions you may have.
Thank you so much for giving the Centre social d'aide aux immigrants the opportunity to participate in the study being prepared by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration concerning the impact of COVID-19 on the immigration system.
I'm going to begin with the family reunification, international students and asylum seekers.
My first point is on application backlogs and processing times for different streams of family reunification and [Inaudible—Editor] timely reunification of loved ones as denial of temporary resident visas because of paragraph 179(b) of the immigration and refugee protection regulations and the ongoing closures of the visa application centres.
As a representative of a community centre, I will first to go directly to an example. Our client is a Canadian citizen named Madam Karima Ibrahim, who got married in 2012 to a Palestinian husband in Cairo. She thought that she could bring him to live with her but up until now, he has be unable to obtain even a TRV. Madam Karima submitted a spousal sponsorship application in 2012 and it was refused in the embassy in Cairo in 2012. She appealed the decision, but the appeal was refused—
I was just talking about Madam Karima, who was refused in the embassy in Cairo in 2012. She appealed the decision. The appeal was refused in 2014. Because of inadmissibility, she couldn't submit a new application for two years.
In 2017, her husband applied for a TRV. His request was refused under paragraph 179(b). He reapplied in 2019, and he was refused for the same reason.
In 2020, he applied for a TRV under the exceptions issued by the Canadian government concerning immediate family members. Madam Karima also applied for spousal sponsorship. The last message from the embassy was that there are long delays in the processing time.
It's important to mention the humanitarian and emotional situation of the family. Madam Karima doesn't have family members in Canada and lives on Canadian time. He spends hours with her on the phone every day. They are trying to live as a family, spending time together, sharing projects, and sharing emotions and their fears regarding COVID-19 and isolation.
For four months, Madam Karima hasn't gone outside her house. The only one who has broken her isolation is her husband, overseas on the phone. Also, it's important to mention that she lost her mother in the COVID period, and again, she was alone, just with the faraway husband.
I would also like to mention a very personal question that I asked her. I asked, “Are you able to continue like that?” She said, “I will never give him up because I love him.”
Madam Chair and the committee, whatever the fears and uncertainty of immigration officers are, I think 10 years of daily suffering is enough to convince immigration that the will of a Canadian citizen to live with her husband is more important now. It's more important to this lady, after she also lost the opportunity to be a mother while waiting for her husband to join her in her country....
If you would like to have more details about the situation of Madam Karima, she is angry also and is ready to provide everything. We recommend that special committees deal with such cases not just as normal cases.
Also, a very important point in your study are the international students. I will summarize the problem we deal with—
The few minutes I have will not do it justice. The reality is that they had a lot of problems with getting the adoption through, and they had accomplished everything they needed to do with the government in Nigeria. Because of Zoe's health conditions and the lack of proper medical facilities in Nigeria, they had to move out of the country before everything was finalized. They tried to get their applications through, as a couple of other couples had, but for whatever reason—and I think we've got a pretty good idea now—it was put on the back shelf, so they were stuck. Part one of the adoption, their part, was completed on October 20, 2019, and then after that there was nothing from IRCC.
They have been doing everything they can to try to come here. They ended up having to go to Barbados, because it was the only country that would take both a Nigerian citizen and a Canadian citizen and have adequate health care—actually, I should say, hospital availability of medical care. I say this because Zoe suffers from sickle cell anemia, and even when they were in Nigeria, she would have died if it weren't for the fact that Emilie was a nurse. That had led them, as well, to why they wanted to select a child with medical concerns. Derek just happened to have the right blood type. She had an infection and went septic. He was able to be there to give her blood, and then they both ended up with malaria in the process. That led them to realize that they needed to leave. Everything was completed with the Nigerian government, so it wasn't a problem. They went to Barbados, and they've been stuck there since December 2019, trying to access every avenue possible.
Finally, two days ago, their grant of citizenship—this isn't a sponsorship; this is a grant of citizenship—was approved. There really should have been no reason for IRCC to delay this other than allegations that maybe it happened too quickly.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
I'd like to thank the witnesses who are with us this evening.
First, I would like to make a brief comment about something we said at our last meeting. I would like to say that Minister Mendicino was quite right. The government's record does show that family reunification is a priority. Our government has increased the number of family reunifications every year since we took office. The 2019 Annual Report on Immigration indicates that we recorded the highest number of family reunifications, 91,311 cases, compared to 2014. To be specific, the total number of cases in the family class then was 66,661.
Having said that, I would like to ask the lawyers a question, including Mr. Holthe
Since the beginning of the pandemic, you have seen the department taking steps to adapt to the challenging environment of COVID-19, including more flexible processes, some innovations and some new policies. I'd like you to tell us which policies you feel have helped the immigration process and which ones should be retained.
I would also like you to go back to the digitization of the immigration system. Could you tell us how digitizing and modernizing the immigration system will benefit the immigration process?
Sure. I'll give it a crack.
Let me start with some of the points I made during my opening comments. The first issue I see is with workers who have post-graduation work permits, as mentioned in the previous session, because those are not able to extended and you can only apply for one of them per lifetime. That's been a huge issue. Hopefully, that can be amended. I had one client who did a bachelor's degree. She received a post-graduation work permit. She was not able to get a job, so she did a master's degree. At the end of her master's degree, she had a very short time left on her post-graduation work permit, but she could not apply for another one. It was a very difficult situation.
In terms of the other, I will say that the government has been very reactive in some of the measures to allow, for example, the reunification of fiancés and others in exclusive dating relationships. We have been able to take advantage of some of those programs. We have many clients who have appreciated those measures. I will say that I believe the government is doing many things to reunify families, but we need to do more.
In terms of the online systems, I'll defer to Mark. He's really the expert on this. I'll tell you just one story that involves Mississauga. I can't even imagine what their mailroom is like, but we've had sponsorship applications lost before. They were in fact lost for four to six months. They were eventually found, but at least that would not happen if we switched to a more online system.
I have a few questions for Mr. Clarke.
You have told us about the digitization of cases. However, I'd like you to talk about the fact that, in some cases, original signatures and documents are still required. It is sad to say, but IRCC often loses those documents.
Shouldn't we always ask for copies of the documents? At the end of the process, applicants could submit the originals to the officer. They could be compared, but only as needed.
I would opt more for the as-needed basis. I believe that if an officer refuses an application and if there are discrepancies with the signature, or there are discrepancies in—as part of the application—some other point, then the officer could make an easy request to have the original document submitted.
I remember when I was living in Japan. In Japan, they have hanko, which are stamps. You can go to a special store to get a stamp—I had two kanji characters on my stamp—and that is what they use for a signature. Signatures, in my view, are too heavily relied upon in 2020. We're already submitting copies of passports, copies of documents and copies of bank statements. Those signatures, as well.... Sure—as a lawyer—it's legally binding, and it's wonderful to have signatures. In my view, it needs to be a more comprehensive approach; it needs to be a more modern approach. Right now with digital signatures, copies and scans, you know, we try to run a digital office, and I know Mark has a much better digital office than we have. It's 2020. I think that we can do without original signatures.
That's a complicated question.
First of all, I completely agree with Justice McDonald's decision from the Federal Court of Canada. It's a very well-reasoned decision. You can read all of the evidence that was presented on behalf of many parties and intervenors. I strongly agree with her analysis in terms of the charter analysis.
In terms of the Geneva Convention itself, Canada has been a party. We were actually one of the last signatories to the Geneva Convention. We signed up quite late compared to other countries.
In my view, the Geneva Convention is still a good document. It still contains good doctrine. It's more the implementation of the Geneva Convention that's the issue, in particular with some of the sections in IRPA that call upon the government to review the safe third country agreements, which, in my view, the government has not been properly reviewing—the safe third country agreement with the United States—but the Geneva Convention's section 96 and section 97, in my view, are all sound documents.
I regularly appear before the RPD—
Thank you very much, Madam Chair, and thank you to the witnesses.
I'd like to first turn my attention to the issue around foreign workers, Mr. Holthe. In your opening statement, you talked about the situation with foreign workers.
What we know is that the government has brought in the guardian angels program, applying to health care workers only. For whatever reason, Lord knows why, agriculture workers, for example, have been excluded from it, and some of them have died putting food on our tables and supporting Canadians.
Do you think the Canadian government should in fact include all the migrant workers during this period to have status for all?
I don't like the foreign worker program. This is where my views diverge from my other role.
The reality is that I see exploitation all over the place, and they never come forward—never. Not only do they have no pathway to permanent residence, but they are stuck in these jobs where they are sending money home. We've all heard the stories. There have been so many meetings here before this committee itself in talking about this issue.
I think the government needs to do it more so than ever during this pandemic, when they're in the most vulnerable state of all, putting themselves out there while we sit comfortably in our homes. If you look at it, it's the marginalized element of society that is there. They're the ones on the front line. I think we have an obligation, a moral obligation, to do something about that.
Like you, I have a lot of difficulty with the temporary foreign worker program. The program was really meant to be for people who are truly temporary, such as visiting professors, for example, or people in the film industry, who have zero intention of staying in Canada. Somehow that has actually become a program to replace immigration processes whereby people can get landed status on arrival.
Once upon a time, Canada actually used to have an immigration program that included high skills, medium skills and low skills. That has now gone. It's all primarily high skills now. You talked about creating a new program called the Canadian front-line experience class. That would be for COVID, but beyond COVID, really, should we not bring back an immigration program that brings all the different skills to Canada, so that when workers come to Canada with the intention of staying, they actually have landed status on arrival?
We have a number of refugee claimants here, and they have submitted their claims. Right now the refugee claimants in Canada submit an email to IRCC. That email includes an acknowledgement letter. Then the file is moved over to epost. Through epost they are able to upload their documents to IRCC, and they wait for medicals. Once those medicals are done, they are able to have an eligibility interview.
Eligibility interviews are all done in person at this time. I see no reason why, but IRCC has not been flexible on that.
They started doing some eligibility interviews in some cities. I know they are not in Winnipeg, so I can't tell you about that, but in some other cities—I believe Vancouver, Calgary and possibly Toronto, I'm guessing—they were doing some eligibility interviews. In all of the smaller places like Winnipeg, we're not able to do that.
That means their claims are not moving forward, not being referred to the tribunal. That means the tribunal is not able to open a file for them, so they haven't even started with all the processing and delays at the tribunal level.
He is a Hong Kong student, a very educated young man. We applied, I believe in November of 2019, for an initial study permit. It was refused after two weeks. In my view, it was a slam-dunk case. I believe he was even educated in the United States. He was a very strong study permit applicant.
We JRD it to the Federal Court without even seeing the notes. We produced the applicant's record. I spoke with the lawyer at the Department of Justice. They agreed.
It was actually refused. The officer said that the study program would not be a reasonable expense to our client. The University of Manitoba is a great school. Mark is an alum. I don't see how a study program at the University of Manitoba is not a reasonable expense for a student from Hong Kong. However, for whatever reason, it was refused.
We won at the Department of Justice. They referred it back to the visa office, and it was refused again. Right now the client is extremely frustrated. They don't understand, and we're trying to fix this.
Thank you very much, Madam Chair.
Mr. Clark, you may have to send a bill to Mr. Holthe for all the good things you're saying about him and his firm. I'm sure they're appreciated.
This question is for both of you.
As a result of the pandemic, I understand that the IRB suspended refugee hearings, but it has since resumed them virtually. During the suspension, I gather that IRB members used their time to work on previously received cases and to try to work on system efficiencies so they could improve or optimize case intake and processing.
How do you see this affecting the refugee claims process? What issues have you noticed that can be improved upon, and how would you do that?
I'll ask Mr. Clarke and then Mr. Holthe, please.
That's entirely correct. The IRB, in particular the RPD, did suspend its hearings, I believe in March, and then we started the remote hearings pilot project I believe in July. We had hearings approximately weekly through August, September and October, and then we resumed in-person hearings in I think October. We have remote hearings scheduled again coming up....
In my view, the remote hearings pilot project was a very positive experience. The RPD members were extremely professional, and I believe the refugee claimants had a good opportunity to give their testimony and to have their evidence considered.
My next question is for Mr. Holthe, and I hope there will be time for Ms. Mahmoud also.
The government has indicated that family and spousal reunification is a priority for it. It recently made an announcement on spousal sponsorship, indicating that IRCC staff levels were being increased by 66%—that is to say, those who are working on spousal sponsorship—to make sure they're continuing to address the backlog. The government said that this increase will lead to 49,000 decisions by the end of the year, and it's looking to pilot remote interviews as well. Also, I'm aware that spousal applications are all being digitized.
First of all, do you see these developments as helpful in reducing the backlog? Secondly, will they aid in modernizing the system by decreasing the extent of inefficiencies? If not, what else is the right answer here?
Sorry, Mr. Dhaliwal, for the interruption. Your time is up.
With this, we come to the end of our round of questioning.
I want to take this opportunity to thank the three witnesses in the second panel for their important testimony and discussion as we continue our study on the impact of COVID-19 on immigration.
Before we adjourn, members, the clerk would like to speak for a second with regard to the witnesses to be scheduled for Monday's meeting.
Mr. Clerk, please let the members know about the scheduling of the witnesses.