Mr. Speaker, today I would like to go back to the subject I talked about during members' statements on Monday. This time I will have 10 minutes to speak rather than just 60 seconds, so I can add some context to my remarks.
My statement on Monday was mainly about the delays in immigration processing, which were already way too long before the pandemic. Those delays are even more problematic now, since they are having even more dramatic consequences for families that are separated from their loved ones and deprived of their support because of the time it takes to process their applications.
To begin I would like to talk a bit about my professional experience because then the link will become clear. Before being elected to this place, I had a short but very rewarding career as a young lawyer. During that time, I worked on international child abduction cases.
International child abduction happens when two parents have different nationalities and one of them decides to take the child out of the country, or refuse to return, without the other parent's consent.
Over the years, my mentor, who worked on this type of file for a long time, noticed that there was an increase in the number of cases of parental abduction. That is not because people are abducting their children more often but simply because, over the past 30 or 40 years, we have had the capacity for international mobility, which has resulted in more binational couples, more families where the parents are not of the same nationality. That is a growing phenomenon.
If we do not do something about the delays in sponsorship processing times soon, the problem could get worse in the coming years, because Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada will likely only get more and more sponsorship requests. We therefore need to nip this problem in the bud.
Over the course of my career, I also had the pleasure of working with immigration lawyers. Some of them decided to quit private practice for the greener pastures of legal aid. I want to give a shout-out to any of them who may be watching at home. When they made that decision, they were unable to keep all their files and I took over many of them, including sponsorship files. I was therefore able to see first-hand how the interminable delays and existing procedures were undermining the quick review of sponsorship files. Here are a few telling examples.
When I filled out sponsorship applications, I would take all the forms, put an ID sticker on each one, stack them in the right order, seal the file and send it to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. In many cases, the file was sent back with a note about a missing form. The returned file would be completely disorganized and would often include the supposedly missing form. If that happens when just one official has handled the file, I shudder to think what it would look like after passing through the hands of several officials.
I also frequently noticed a problem with the checklist of items required to evaluate a file. I would complete this list before sending the file. The official would check it, item by item, and return the whole file when he or she found that an item was missing. I would add the missing document and return the file. The official would continue to check the items on the list and send the file back again if another form was missing. I would then send the missing document.
In the meantime, a form might no longer be up to date and I would be asked to fill it out again. I had some clients in France who could easily sign documents. However, it was a little more complicated for my clients in Iran to sign the required documents. Another one of my clients was a member of the military in a jungle in Central America and his only means of communication was a satellite phone. Having him sign a document was a nightmare.
All of this happens just because the officials do not take the time to check the whole list before sending back the file. I have already pointed out these problems in committee.
It seems to me that the officials should open the files as soon as they get them. In fact, this is creating the false impression that the files are being processed more quickly than they really are. Sometimes it takes a year before the file is actually opened. Often the 12-month deadline is not actually met, but it is calculated from the moment the file is opened. In reality, the families are waiting much longer for their file to be processed.
There are also problems related to the fact that these are paper files. I occasionally received a file that was not addressed to me and had to do with a client I did not know at all. I have also found documents belonging to someone else in one of my files.
I have also heard some horror stories about paper case files. When a foreign visa processing office closed down for a move, someone discovered a whole bunch of files that had fallen behind a filing cabinet. They had been there for 10 years.
There is a real problem associated with paper files, and it is all the more pressing because of the COVID-19 crisis. Officials have not been able to telework because they are still working with paper files. As a result, applications have been languishing for months, adding to the existing delays.
That is one thing we absolutely must review quickly. It was already a problem before the crisis started, and it is even worse now. We need to push hard to get those files digitized.
Something else the crisis has taught us is that a lot of things can be done remotely. As we have seen, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada has started holding virtual citizenship ceremonies for new citizens.
An interview is often required at the end of the sponsorship process, to authenticate the relationship between the sponsor and the person being sponsored. Why could that not also be done via video conference? This is a legitimate question. That would address another problem that existed long before the crisis. I want to talk about a situation we are now seeing in Cuba. The office in Havana closed its doors and is no longer conducting interviews in person. Individuals are required to travel to Mexico or Trinidad and Tobago for their landing interview, the final step in the sponsorship process.
This seems like a good time to say that it would fix the problem if the government started processing permanent resident cases through video conference. This has been done for citizenship cases and citizenship ceremonies. As a lawyer specializing in international family law, I knew about Zoom long before the crisis started. Since abduction cases are often handled very quickly, with hearings scheduled close together, our clients were not always able to appear at their hearings. We used Zoom in those cases. If Quebec's civil courts were able to do it, there is no reason why Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada cannot.
No offence to my colleagues, but I must say that my current role as immigration critic is probably the best portfolio, because it involves so much compassion. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most heart-wrenching portfolios. Since Monday, I have been getting a lot of comments on my Facebook page. People have been reminding us how hard it is to live without their families, how hard it is for young children to live without one of their parents at a formative time in their lives, how hard it is to be separated from loved ones during a pandemic. It was true before the crisis, and it is even more true now.
We need to work together to address the issue of processing delays. I doubt that the parties are going to make this issue political or that every party is going to fight tooth and nail to defend a different position. I do not imagine that any of my colleagues would say that processing delays should be even longer.
We need to bite the bullet and decide together to make this a priority. We need to put more personnel, and therefore more money, toward dealing with immigration files.
That is one thing I would like to see in the next budget, since we have not actually seen the March budget yet. I would like to see more money to clear up the massive backlog, which just keeps getting worse, and bring in a computer system that would fix a lot of problems.
Despite all that, I have not even touched on the issue of foreign workers, which has been a problem during the crisis. I have not even touched on how refugee cases are being handled, which has also been a problem during the crisis. I have not even touched on the issue of international students' applications.
Today I am making a heartfelt plea for everyone to work together to improve the whole immigration process, so that people will not have to make heartbreaking choices if ever there is another crisis. I am making this plea so that nobody ever has to choose between two equally distressing cases because we do not have enough resources to handle them properly.
I urge all my colleagues to work together to improve our immigration system.