Good morning, Mr. Chairman and members of the committee. Thank you for the invitation to appear before you today.
My name is Les Linklater. I am the Assistant Deputy Minister for Strategic and Program Policy at Citizenship and Immigration Canada. Joining me today is Claudette Deschênes, Assistant Deputy Minister for Operations at CIC.
You have undertaken a study regarding application backlogs and the wait times applicants face. We are pleased to be here today to speak to you about these issues.
As you know, Canada's immigration program is guided by a balanced plan, tabled in Parliament each fall, which establishes the total number of permanent resident admissions Canada expects to welcome in the upcoming calendar year. The levels plan also sets out the planned ranges for admissions in each category of permanent resident. In other words, the levels plan limits how many people we can welcome to Canada each year.
Most years we receive many more applications than can be processed. But again, it's the levels plan that establishes how many people can come in, not processing capacity. This results in the accumulation of backlogs in some categories, which in turn has led to long wait times for some applicants, particularly in the family class.
Canada's family class is one of the most generous definitions of family in the world for immigrant-receiving countries. The fact that we even allow parents and grandparents to be sponsored is proof of this, and sets us apart from virtually every other country in the world. Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom all have more restrictive policies in place than Canada for parents, and grandparents are only allowed to immigrate under exceptional circumstances.
In Australia, where no provisions exist for grandparents, applicants can pay for faster processing. Those who don't pay can expect to wait approximately ten years. Even for those who do pay, inventories are growing and wait times are getting longer.
In the U.K., only fully dependent parents over the age of 65 can be sponsored, and only about 1,000 are admitted each year. New Zealand allows grandparents to be sponsored, but only if the sponsor's parents are deceased. Wait times there range between 24 and 30 months.
In the United States, only citizens can sponsor, but the minimum income to do so is 125% of the poverty line. Grandparents cannot be sponsored.
Canada, by contrast, admits between 15,000 and 18,000 parents and grandparents every year—more than Australia, New Zealand and the UK combined.
Ours is a generous system, but this generosity comes at a cost, because in the parents and grandparents category there are currently about 165,000 people with applications in process. In fact, we have enough parent and grandparent applicants for seven years, and this problem is getting worse.
Altogether, as of June 30 there were slightly fewer than one million people awaiting a decision across all categories, and more continue to join the queue daily. Significant resources are required to manage the backlog, and implementing reasonable service standards is difficult, as long wait times in many categories continue to grow.
In light of this imbalance between the number of applications we receive and the number of people we can accept, CIC has begun to take steps to limit the intake of applications. You will recall that until 2008 there was no mechanism in place to manage the inflow of applications. Everyone who applied joined the queue, and the Government of Canada had an obligation to provide a decision, yes or no, to each one of those applicants on whether to issue a permanent resident visa.
Budget 2008 changed that. It introduced amendments to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act that became law in April 2008. Those amendments provided the minister with the authority to issue ministerial Instructions that allow the minister to limit intake to align with CIC's capacity to process applications in a reasonable timeframe.
Simply put, new applications that do not meet the criteria of the instructions do not have to be processed to a decision and fees are refunded to applicants.
It should be noted that the legislation specifies that the instructions cannot be applied to the refugees category or to humanitarian and compassionate requests made from within Canada.
Thus far, this authority has been used three times, and only in the economic class. The first set of ministerial instructions was issued in November 2008 under the action plan for faster immigration. These instructions applied only to federal skilled workers who had to have experience in one of 38 in-demand occupations to be eligible to apply, have an arranged employment offer, or had been legally resident in Canada for at least a year as a temporary foreign worker or international student.
The second set of instructions was issued in June 2010. It refined the occupation list and introduced a limit of 20,000 on the number of new applications without employment offers that will be considered in the federal skilled worker category each year. That was followed this past June by a lower limit of 10,000 in the third set of instructions, which also limited intake of applications to the federal immigrant investor program and introduced a temporary moratorium on federal entrepreneur program applications.
Combined, they have allowed the department to focus on the applications already in process, and we have indeed made significant progress towards our action plan for faster immigration goals.
At the end of the second quarter of 2011, the backlog of federal skilled worker applicants who applied before February 2008 stood at slightly fewer than 314,000 people. This is a reduction of more than 50% from the peak of almost 641,000 in February 2008.
It's true that because of the unexpected high volume of new federal skilled worker applications we received under the first set of ministerial instructions before intake limits introduced numerical caps, CIC still has a sizable inventory in that group of some 140,000 individuals. Combined with the pre-2008 backlog, this will take some time to eliminate. But the good news is that people who apply now are being processed within six to twelve months.
So, since 2008, there is a mechanism that allows us to control the number of new applications. As that is reduced, backlogs and wait times improve because normal processing gradually reduces the total number in the queue. This works whether admissions stay the same or increase. If admissions increase, it happens faster.
It will still take some time to process the remaining applications. How long exactly will depend on a number of factors, such as: the number that are processed through referrals to provinces and territories, and the number of immigrants we admit every year according to the annual immigration levels plan.
I would point out that the federal government works closely with the provinces and territories to develop the levels plan. Many factors are taken into consideration, including the impact on health care costs and the capacity to help newcomers settle and integrate into their communities.
Looking to the future, Mr. Chair, our experience shows that the number of new applicants coming into the system every year needs to be more actively managed. Simply hiring more officers won't solve the problem, because in the absence of controls, applications accumulate, wait times lengthen, and service standards deteriorate.
The key lesson learned is that effective management of the number of new applications we receive is critical to reducing backlogs and improving wait times.
In closing, Mr. Chair, let me say that CIC strives to process applications in a timely manner. We would like to make our way through the backlog as quickly as possible, and we are concerned about the time that people are spending waiting.
Ultimately, it is in everyone's best interest to get people out of the lineup and into the labour market, reunited with their families, or enjoying the protections and freedoms that Canada offers as quickly as possible.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman. We are now ready to take any questions that you may have.