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.