The federal government is working to create a global network of visa processing offices, many of which are now privately run—a move that critics say raises concerns over information security, privacy and oversight.
The government is set to almost double the number of countries in which it outsources the operation of visa application centres, from 20 to 35. During Prime Minister Stephen Harper's visit to Latin America earlier this month, he announced the opening of one in Costa Rica, and three in Brazil.
These are in addition to six more scheduled to open this month and seven next month, all in South and Central America. They add to those already running everywhere from Mexico to Moldova, Kenya to Kazakhstan.
Citizenship and Immigration Canada says it wants to continue to expand its use of these centres globally, although a spokesperson says no final decisions have been made yet. Some centres could also collect and transmit biometric information, such as fingerprints, in the future.
Business sees efficiencies, convenience
Canadian missions abroad process applications for temporary visas to Canada. But since 2000, they have been striking agreements with third parties to outsource more and more of these activities.
Most service providers are businesses. They include a Canadian subsidiary of Computer Sciences Corporation, a Fortune 500 American information technology company that will run the new visa application centres in 15 Latin American countries, and the India-based VFS Global. Embassy tried to reach someone with VFS Global but did not receive a response. A CSC spokesperson referred comment to CIC.
The Canadian government also works with at least one non-profit group. The International Organization for Migration is an intergovernmental organization that runs application centres for Canada in Vietnam and Tajikistan.
On top of the Canadian government's processing fee, application centre operators charge a service fee to each applicant for accepting their application and supporting documents such as passports, making sure it's complete, tracking it, sending it to a Canadian embassy or consulate and returning documents after a government visa officer has decided whether to accept or deny the application.
CIC approves fees as part of a formal agreement it signs with each service provider. They differ depending on the country. The base fee is about $14 CAD in India and $36 in China.
Countries such as the United States, UK and Australia also outsource visa application processing.
Business groups and the tourism industry like it because it makes the process more efficient by ensuring there's less chance of being rejected for incomplete or incorrect forms, and more convenient because visa application centres may be easier to access than consulates and are typically open longer hours.
Stephen Cryne is president and CEO of the Canadian Employee Relocation Council, which helps its member firms address workforce mobility issues. It serves 400 companies with activities in Brazil. "Any way that we can make it easier for those companies to move their people between Canada and the US is welcome news," said Mr. Cryne. "It goes a long way to helping our economy."
He sees the Latin American visa centre boom as part of the Canadian government's larger trade agenda in the region.
David Goldstein, president and CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of Canada, said economically and demographically, Mexico and Brazil have the fastest-growing upper- and middle-class populations in the hemisphere—people who can now afford to travel the world. His lobby group would like the Canadian government to stop imposing visas on them altogether, but if they have to be there, he said, a faster visa process is "the semi-perfect solution."
While critics may complain about the inflated cost of getting a visa through a privately-run application centre, Mr. Goldstein said consulates are still open to take visa applications directly.
"In the grand scheme of things, if you're booking a trip from São Paulo to Toronto, you're going to spend thousands of dollars between airfares, hotels and restaurants. Another $20, $30, $40 for convenience is not a significant investment," he said.
Visa application centres improve the productivity and processing times of visa posts for temporary resident applications, said Phil Mooney, president and CEO of the Immigration Consultants of Canada Regulatory Council.
"In most of the cases where they've been introduced the wait times for temporary resident applications have decreased," he said.
Concerns over adequate safeguards
But Mr. Mooney also said some immigration consultants have raised concerns. For example, visa application centre officials are to ensure applicants' forms are filled out correctly, but not to offer advice. The federal government passed a law this year to strengthen penalties against people who charge money but aren't authorized to give immigration advice.
CIC spokesperson Nancy Caron said that under the terms of the agreement signed between CIC and each centre operator, the service is subject to inspection and audit. If an operator doesn't comply, CIC could cancel the agreement.
"The government should be more open in how they monitor these facilities and there should be reports that are readily available to individuals about that," said Mr. Mooney, adding that this would help maintain the integrity of the system.
He also raised concerns about sensitive personal information falling into wrong hands, for example if the business running a visa application centre must be licensed by the country in which it operates, and the state security service requires access to the company's files.
NDP immigration critic Don Davies said there are certain government functions that it must do itself, such as adjudicating income tax returns and visa processing. Every deviation from that direct relationship between the government and its client, he argued, raises the potential for risk in dealing with sensitive information such as bank records.
"If you're in India and you're handing this information to a third-party provider, what kind of guarantees do you have? That company could go out of business next week and flee the country," he said. "They could be selling that information to someone else. They could have a breach of security."
VFS Global, which runs Canadian visa application centres in eight countries including China and India, did come under pressure in 2007 when a security breach meant the personal data of people applying online through VFS for a visa to the UK were visible to others visiting the site. VFS has since said it has improved information security by following industry best practices.
Vancouver immigration lawyer Richard Kurland said he's concerned that contractors or subcontractors in other countries might flout legislated privacy safeguards that the private and public sectors in Canada must both follow.
Monitoring should be done by third parties, he also argued, not "the foxes guarding the foxes." And there should be accessible means of recourse for users if something goes wrong.
Anne-Marie Hayden, a spokesperson for the federal privacy commissioner's office, outlined similar concerns. She also said there are plans for some visa application centres to collect and transit biometric information, such as fingerprints, which is especially sensitive personal information. CIC should work to mitigate and manage such "privacy challenges and risks," she said.
She noted that CIC has sought and is seeking advice from her office as it establishes visa application centre management contracts. The office is currently reviewing a CIC privacy impact assessment for some of its visa application centres. And privacy and security requirements will be built into CIC's assessment of candidates in a coming request for proposal process related to the creation and management of a global visa application centre network.
Ms. Caron noted that safeguards on the protection of personal information are built into agreements with application centre operators. Background checks and screening are done on all centre staff, she said, and they must be given proper training as provided or authorized by CIC.
Mr. Davies suggested the government open small satellite offices to process applications rather than use outside providers.