Sunday, April 3, 2011

Immigration limits force aching questions

MONTREAL - Tatyana Skorobogatko could well be the poster child for Canadian immigration.
Having landed in Montreal from Ukraine at 13, she is now an engineer for whom French and English have become more natural than her native Russian, sirloin steak or tacos more likely to appear on her dinner table than borscht or perogies.
But like many immigrants who have created new stories and good lives for themselves here, she now wants to share the wealth and remember the old stories – and for that she needs her babushka.
Tatyana, 27, applied to sponsor her grandmother for permanent residence in 2009, but with the federal government’s drastically reduced targets for bringing in this class of immigrants – from 16,000 in 2010 to 11,200 in 2011 – and more than 147,000 others already on the wait-list around the world, she could easily wait another six years, until her grandmother turns 95.
“I’m afraid she will die before she ever gets in, before she ever sees my daughter,” says Tatyana, whose baby girl is now five months old. “It’s just inhumane to make someone wait like this. If you accept immigrants to come over, you have to allow them to see their families – if not don’t let them come in.”
The federal government says it is decreasing the number of parents and grandparents admitted as permanent residents in order to increase the number of spouses, children and skilled workers – who pay taxes.
Last year saw a record number of so-called “economic immigrants” – 186,881 compared to 138,251 in 2006, when the Harper government took power – while family-class immigrants, spouses and parents included, were down 15 per cent to 60, 207, from 70,517 in 2006.
But critics say the new targets are symptomatic of the Harper government’s overemphasis on immigrants as economic units, to the detriment of new Canadian families and ultimately the country’s ability to attract “the best and the brightest” if it means leaving their families at home.
Leading up to a federal election the Harper government is preaching family values, they say, but not necessarily the value of family.
So how much is a grandmother worth?
When the 2011 internal visa targets for parents and grandparents were revealed in February through an access to information request, federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney told the House of Commons it was a choice that had to be made.
“There are trade-offs, and this government is focused on the priorities of Canadians which are economic growth and prosperity,” he said during Question Period. “We need more newcomers working and paying taxes and contributing to our health-care system. That is the focus of our immigration system.”
To be sure, any cost-benefit analysis of grandparents would have to include the increased demands they put on a health-care system that is already gasping for air.
According to a report released in October by the Canadian Institute for Health Information, Canadians over the age of 65 account for less than 14 per cent of the Canadian population, but consume nearly 44 per cent of all health-care dollars spent by provincial and territorial governments.
Brought down to the level of the individual, in 2008, the latest available year for data broken down by age group, provincial and territorial governments spent an average of $10,742 per Canadian age 65 and older, compared to $2,097 on those between age one and 64. Those 80 years and older, like Tatyana’s grandmother, required the most spending, at $18,160 each – more than three times what was spent on seniors younger than age 70 ($5, 828.)
The government can’t ignore this reality, especially as the proportion of seniors in the Canadian population is expected to reach 20 per cent by 2026.
And as Kelli Fraser, a spokesperson for Citizenship and Immigration Canada points out, even with the reduced visa targets, the government “will maintain what is probably the most generous family reunification program for parents and grandparents in the world.”
Indeed, Canada ranks third in the world after Sweden and Portugal on the 2010 Migrant Integration Policy Index released in February. A benchmark European study, the MIPEX measures a range of indicators, from paths to citizenship to public education.
And when it comes to family reunification policies in particular, Canada ranks second after Portugal.
Jack Jedwab, the executive director of the Association for Canadian Studies, who was presenting the MIPEX findings in Vancouver last week, said the reduced visa targets would not likely affect Canada’s rank, because it is based on policies, not numbers.
Sweden, for example, lets in fewer immigrants per capita than Canada, but its policies are less restrictive.
The reduced visa targets do run counter to important Canadian values, however, says Jedwab, whose think tank conducts annual surveys on Canadian identity issues. And the targets seem to ignore the important benefits, economic and non-economic, that come from reuniting families.
Survey upon survey suggests that Canadians stand out for the importance they attribute to family and for having a larger, more generous definition of family; that they value the contribution of immigration to the country; that immigrants value family; and that they don’t like the idea of cutting off children from parents and grandparents, Jedwab says.
Economically speaking, the costs and benefits associated with bringing in more parents and grandparents are not always clear, Jedwab adds.
Most would not pay income taxes, but nor are they entitled to old age security for 10 years after they enter the country. And they are nevertheless consumers – the transfer of funds outside the country to relatives unable to immigrate may be substantial.
“But there are also indirect benefits associated with having a strong family unit here that are difficult to value in economic terms … but may have an important impact nevertheless, especially if we want to continue to be a kindler, gentler nation.”
For Tatyana, having her grandmother here would mean free childcare in a province where subsidized daycare is a huge advantage over other provinces, but is still difficult to come by.
And it would mean a link to her culture, language, and history, all but lost to her now.
She arrived in Canada as a teenager during what is known in Ukraine as the “Dark ’90s” – a time when the end of Soviet-era price controls and the fire-sale privatization of the nation’s assets led to a decline in living standards akin to the Great Depression 60 years earlier.
At the time Quebec was the cheapest destination in Canada – requiring only $10,000 to immigrate – so her parents sold their apartment for $7,000 and added it to their $3,000 in savings. It helped that both she and her parents spoke French as a second language, as many Russian-speakers do.
But after her mother committed suicide in 2008, Tatyana needed her grandmother by her side, a need that became more urgent when she had a baby girl in November.
“My grandmother cries on the phone when she hears the baby,” Tatyana says, adding her grandmother was like a second mother to her until her departure. “She feels she’ll never see her and I can’t travel with a baby so young. There’s the plane ride, then seven hours from Kiev to Kharkiv.”
Unfortunately, her application to sponsor her grandmother, Yevdokiya (Eva) Chernova, now 89, is still years away.
All sponsors of family-class immigrants are processed at the Centralized Process Region in Mississauga, Ont. But while it takes only 37 days to assess an applicant wishing to sponsor a spouse or child, it takes 42 months to assess someone wanting to bring over a parent or grandparent, a delay that has more than doubled over the past decade. CIC is currently processing applications received in Sept. 2007.
Only once the sponsor has been approved, however, do they move on to Step 2 of the process, assessing the sponsoree. According to CIC, it will take 27 months to assess an applicant from Ukraine, the final test being the medical exam. (Applications for permanent residence will not be accepted if the person’s health would cause excessive demand on health or social services in Canada.) But at the Kiev office of CIC, where Chernova travelled overnight to make her application, visa targets for parents and grandparents have been slashed from 440 in 2010 to 25 in 2011.
Fraser said parents and grandparents waiting abroad can apply for visitor’s visas in the meantime.
Chernova’s application for a visitor’s visa has been denied, however, on the basis that she might choose to stay in Canada illegally after the visa expires to be with her family. There is no way to prove that, of course, or to disprove it, CIC told her.
Up in Park Extension, one of the most ethnically diverse neighbourhoods in the country, and a traditional landing pad for newcomers, Justin Trudeau is vigorously campaigning for a second term.
The “new-Canadian voter” centralized in urban Canada, is the group most affected by the immigrant parents issue, and it could have a big impact on the outcome of the election.
It’s no surprise that both Liberals and Conservatives are pledging their allegiance to this core block.
Federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, who parachuted into Vancouver on Thursday to watch the World Cup Cricket match with about 100 Indo-Canadians, has been unavailable to comment on the issue of visas.
But in Little India, Trudeau, as Liberal Immigration critic, says he hears the same complaints from his constituents all the time: People are discouraged and despondent about not being able to bring their parents or grandparents over, as permanent residents or visitors.
There are no official figures available for the number of parents or grandparents refused visitor’s visas. But Trudeau says that anecdotal evidence suggests the Conservative government has consistently reduced the number of multiple-entry visas given out abroad – or is for some reason targeting his riding.
These parents and grandparents are unlikely to either claim refugee status, or work under the table, and they will live with their children, not at Shady Acres down the street, he said.
The cuts to visas awarded at the New Delhi mission in particular, from 4,500 in 2010 to 2,500 in 2011, have hit hard in Little India, where many a campaign event is held.
“Right now the wait times are at eight or nine years (for New Delhi),” Trudeau says. “With these cuts you’re pushing delays to 12 to 15 years. Most of the people will end up seeing a coffin before they see their grandchildren, to be blunt.”
The Liberal government had increased the visa targets to 18,000 in 2005, and increased the budget for CIC to process them, and were making it easier to get multiple-entry visas for people waiting in line. But the Harper government has reversed that trend.
“The central question is what kind of Canada are we trying to build? Obviously one that is prosperous and creates jobs, but also one that is more compassionate and generous and more respectful of the things we value in life more than money – like health and family,” Trudeau said.
He suggested most sponsors would be open to paying into a private health-care fund for their parents or grandparents, to avoid the drain on the health-care system.
“How we treat our elders and our new Canadians is so important for the long-term growth of this country.”
Richard Kurland, an immigration lawyer who has been watching the backlog of applicants expand over the last decade, says both the Liberals and the Conservatives are to blame for the bottleneck.
“The (Liberals’) 18,000 was a drop in the bucket,” said Kurland, the editor of Lexbase which first published the 2011 visa targets. “The Liberals knew how many people were already waiting and the target, and at that rate, the inventory would continue to grow and processing times would continue to lengthen. And they lured more people into the system by reporting “historic” waiting times, instead of telling people up front how long it would take if they applied today for their visa. Why? They wanted to avoid political criticism for lengthening processing periods, because they did not want to say no to their core support groups.”
Back at home in the Mercier district of Montreal, Tatyana is spending what is left of her maternity leave trying to find a way to get her grandmother to Canada. A lawyer she consulted told her that for $2,000 he could probably do for her what he’s done for four other clients in the same situation – secure a visitor’s visa for her grandmother on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. Eva Chernova survived three years of a Nazi labour camp until she was liberated in 1945. She just can’t get a foot in the door in Canada.
But Tatyana doesn’t want to go that route. “I guess you can solve anything with money but that’s not fair either. Something is wrong with a system that if you bring in a lawyer you win, and if you don’t you don’t get anywhere.”
Her grandmother will continue to travel on the overnight train to Kiev to re-apply for a visitor’s visa. And Tatyana will keep trying to get an answer from CIC on when the sponsorship process will be finished, and on what she can do to prove her grandmother won’t stay illegally if given a visitor’s visa while she’s waiting.
A CIC customer service representative told her she couldn’t give her any information over the phone, and they don’t receive letters. Tatyana could write a letter to the government, she was told, but the government won’t necessarily open it.
csolyom@montrealgazette.com
2011 global immigration targets
 
 


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