Thank you so much.
Good morning, Chair, Vice-Chairs, and members of the committee on citizenship and immigration. I consider it a great honour to be here with you today to speak on such a very important matter.
I would like to begin today by sharing a question that is on the minds of many Canadian families who are wishing absent family members were here in Canada as we speak. How long is too long? How long must Canadian families wait before they can be reunited with loved ones abroad? When can we begin breaking down immigration barriers in our system in order to bring Canadian families together? If this were your family, how long would be too long?
As a law student in immigration and refugee law at Parkdale Community Legal Services, also known as PCLS, I have seen that many families have already waited far too long. PCLS has worked for nearly 40 years in the low-income community of Parkdale in Toronto, providing legal services and carrying out community-driven law reform, education, and outreach. Historically, many residents of Parkdale are new immigrants and refugees, making immigration and refugee law a major area of work. Our goal is to ensure the voices of new immigrants and refugees are heard and that the issues affecting this vulnerable sector of our community are understood.
I would like to focus on just two--there are many--of the barriers to family reunification: first, the high rejection rates and long processing times for family class sponsorship applications at Canadian visa offices abroad and, second, the long delays and lack of appeal for refugees and persons in need of protection who apply to reunite with their family members in Canada.
These two barriers to family reunification speak to the pressing need to ensure our system lives up to Canada’s international legal obligations and embodies the broader objectives of the IRPA. As a state party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Canada has undertaken to progressively realize the widest possible protection and assistance to the family. Canada is also a signatory to the 1967 United Nations Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, which states that state parties should ensure that the unity of the refugee’s family is maintained.
At PCLS we have grave concerns about the exceedingly long delays--sometimes up to nine or ten years--facing families waiting to be reunited in Canada. It is time for us to generate the political will necessary to meet our international obligations and make this important goal a reality.
How long is too long for families to be reunited? When one in five cases of spousal sponsorship takes more than 20 months to process at the Accra visa office in Ghana, or more than 25 months to process at the Nairobi office in Kenya, we at PCLS believe that many family members have waited far too long already.
When the family member abroad is a parent or grandparent, those numbers grow. One in five families at the Accra office is asked to wait more than a staggering 52 months. With only four sub-Saharan visa offices processing permanent resident applications, it is little wonder that Canadians with African family members are forced to wait so long.
However, not only is the wait exceedingly long, but the rate of rejection is also alarmingly high. Of the four sub-Saharan visa offices, two--Accra and Nairobi--have spousal sponsorship rejection rates among the top five, at 46% and 27% respectively. In contrast, I'll ask you to think about the rate of rejection at São Paulo, which is just 4%. What accounts for this elevenfold discrepancy? Is the reunification of some families, based on country of origin, not as urgent for the Canadian government?
The Canadian Council for Refugees has recently released a report decrying the inequitable delays at the Nairobi office. Beyond the delays, we at PCLS have also become increasing concerned with the reasons given for some of these spousal sponsorship refusals. I'm going to tell you a story about one of our clients. I'm going to call her Ms. X.
Ms. X is a Tibetan woman whose family fled from Tibet. She is residing in India as a stateless person. She came to Canada through the live-in caregiver program. After fulfilling all of the extremely onerous requirements of that class, she became a permanent resident and is now a proud Canadian citizen.
She applied to sponsor her husband earlier this year. They celebrated their wedding in India, with family members providing pictures of their ceremony, which show both bride and groom receiving beautiful kata scarves from family members, symbolic of blessings wished for the future. However, during their interview with the New Delhi visa office, Ms. X's husband was questioned by the officer about why his wife had waited until “such a late age of 36 to get married”. The officer further states:
You and your sponsor are incompatible in terms of age. Whereas an age difference of 5 - 7 years in favour of the male is considered an acceptable norm in your community, your sponsor (female) is 9 years older than you.
Is this reliance on compatibility appropriate to determine the bona fides of a relationship? We at PCLS feel that it's rife for a misapplication by visa officers especially where essentialized cultural norms such as these are used to establish that a spousal sponsorship is not genuine. Who determines the cultural values of a diverse community? Where else in Canadian society would we accept the determination that a relationship must be fraudulent because a wife is older than her husband? Luckily, Ms. X has access to the immigration appeal division, where the visa officer's decision may be overturned.
In a 2002 report, Leslie Macleod determined that approximately 40% of spousal sponsorship ADR mediations resulted in the appeal being allowed. This does not cover the appeals that were successful at the immigration appeal division. This means that of the thousands of spousal sponsorship applications that were denied, many based on the bona fides of the relationship, nearly 40% of these should have been resolved at the visa office abroad.
The cost of these unnecessary appeals is financially burdensome to the Canadian taxpayer, but the hardship felt by Canadian families amounts to a human tragedy. Where else would we tolerate waiting such a long time for decisions to be rendered that are incorrect 40% of the time? Increasing the accountability of visa officers abroad for overturned decisions would save Canadian taxpayers money and bring families together sooner.
Therefore, our two recommendations to the standing committee are: first, rectify the uneven processing times and rejection rates for family-class sponsorships at visa offices by investing resources where required and ensuring consistency among these offices; secondly, ensure visa office accountability for overturned decisions by making sure that no other family must face the hardship of delayed reunification because of inappropriate and discriminatory compatibility criteria.
While Canadians seeking to sponsor family members from abroad do have a right to an appeal, this is simply not true for refugees and persons in need of protection. After seeking refuge in Canada and often fleeing very precarious situations, successful refugee claimants and persons in need of protection cannot appeal to the immigration appeal division if their application to be reunited with a family member is denied.
The only way to challenge a visa officer's decision is to apply for leave to the Federal Court. However, the Federal Court rejects nearly 80% of these applications. This time-consuming process is costly and emotionally exhausting for refugee families. Even where leave is granted and where the court finds that the visa officer made an error of law, the matter will simply be returned to the visa office.
I would like to thank you very much for giving me this opportunity. I would like to hope that when you are confronted with the question on so many Canadian's minds--how long is too long?--you will stand with us in saying that Canadian families have simply waited far too long already.