While 150,000-plus wait, few parents and grandparents are accepted

Published October 5, 2011

Opposition MPs are disturbed that Canada barely hit the low end of its target admission rate for grandparents and parents as permanent residents to Canada last year, while more than 150,000 lingered in line.

Two top bureaucrats from Citizenship and Immigration Canada took MPs on the immigration committee, who are mostly new to the committee, through a kind of Immigration 101 departmental briefing on Sept. 29.

They told MPs about the government's levels plan, a guide the immigration minister tables in Parliament each year on or before Nov. 1 that includes the number of foreign nationals projected to become permanent residents in the following year, and a range for each category of permanent resident.

Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux, his party's immigration critic, noted that the department's 2010 immigration levels plan had a target admission rate of between 15,000 and 18,000 in the parents and grandparents category. Canada accepted 15,324 applicants.

Meanwhile, by the end of 2010, 150,965 applications were waiting to be processed in that category. That backlog ballooned to 165,000 as of March 2011.

The government has set the bar lower for this year. The 2011 admission range is 13,000 to 17,500.

The grandparents and parents category is not the only one where the government missed its high target in 2010. According to CIC statistics released in September, the admission rates fell below the upper ends of the ranges set in the levels plan for almost all non-economic classes of immigrants to Canada. That includes other family-class immigrants such as spouses and children, as well as refugees.

But the government exceeded its maximum targets in almost all economic immigrant categories. In 2010, Canada accepted 280,681 immigrants in total, the highest level since 1957, exceeding its 265,000 maximum target. The extra admissions all came from the economic side.

The government's emphasis on admitting economic immigrants is no secret.

"Everything I've tried to do over the past three-and-a-half years has been focused on making immigration work better for the Canadian economy and making the Canadian economy work better for immigrants. So that's really the number one focus," Mr. Kenney told Embassy late last month.

'And, of course, they're dying'

Looking past the numbers, the backlog in the grandparents and parents category, in human terms, is distressing to some MPs.

The CIC website estimates that it's taking staff currently 48 months to assess sponsors in Canada and up to another 55 months to assess the person being sponsored.

"These are the kind of numbers that I think all of us MPs see in our office all the time when people come in and say it's taking eight, nine, 10, 13 years to sponsor parents," said NDP immigration critic Don Davies, in the committee meeting. "And, of course, they're dying."

In responding to Mr. Lamoureux's question why Canada fell short of its high target for the grandparents and parents category, Les Linklater, assistant deputy minister for strategic and program policy, explained that applicants sometimes contribute to delays between the first and second steps of the process.

"Once our processing centre in Mississauga actually releases a sponsorship to our overseas network, it can take any number of months for [applicants] to actually respond to our request to fill out our application forms completely, provide supporting documentation, do their medicals," he told the committee.

Dawn Edlund, associate assistant deputy minister for operations, added that because CIC staff end up spending a lot of time chasing after applicants to get the documents they need to make decisions, the department has moved to stop "babysitting files." The department encourages applicants to give the completed application up front, and if they don't do that, they must start again.

CIC is also updating the way it processes immigration applications by using technology, and moving files from place to place rather than people. That's helping to streamline the process, said the officials.

They are working toward a service standard in the spouse or common-law partner category to process 80 per cent of applications within 12 months. But that service standard doesn't apply to the parents and grandparents category.

Mr. Kenney has acknowledged the backlog and said during the last election campaign that a Conservative government would admit more parents and grandparents in 2011 than the 15,324 admitted in 2010. He is also about to start stakeholder consultations about developing an action plan for faster family reunification.

"I'm not going to include or exclude any remedies," he said.

But he added that last year, nearly 40,000 people applied in the parents and grandparents program. "We cannot realistically admit 40,000 parents and grandparents. That would end up displacing economic immigrants. And I think it's hard to justify a huge increase in admissions for people who will be dependents."

He said all of the economic research he's seen indicates that older immigrants "constitute a net fiscal burden on Canadian society."

But others including NDP immigration committee member Jinny Sims, question that.

"I've got many families living in my riding where one of the partners would love to be able to go out to work," she said in an interview with Embassy. "And if they knew that the parents, the grandparents, were there to look after the children, they would have that security and they would gladly go out to work. And that would add to our economy. And happy families are more productive in their workplace."

Queen's University law faculty associate dean Sharryn Aiken said the assumption that family-class immigrants don't benefit Canada economically is flawed because it uses a short-term time horizon. In the long term, she said, "They are contributing to the success of that family's settlement and integration, for the family that's here already."

Plus, the system is already set up to ensure parents and grandparents are not an economic burden on Canadian society. Sponsors and applicants have to have enough money in their bank accounts to support applicants, she said. And the government has the legal tools to go after defaulting sponsors if need be.

She said the government should do fact-based research to help it determine the correct immigration levels and mix.

To clear up the backlog the government must devote appropriate resources to ensure it can process the applications in the queue in a timely way, she said.

"Clearly, without intake control at the front end we will continue to have these types of challenges where processing times grow," Mr. Linklater told MPs. "I think that's one of the key lessons that ministerial instructions have showed us in the skilled worker category, in that by restricting intake we have been able to work through the backlog that much more quickly."

In 2008, Mr. Kenney issued instructions to visa officers to prioritize the intake of skilled workers from a select list of high-demand jobs, or people with job offers or are already living in Canada.

One of the questions the department floated to participants in summer consultations on the right immigration mix and levels for Canada was whether the immigration minister should use his authority to instruct visa officers to limit intake in other categories, such as parents and grandparents.

When asked whether Mr. Kenney should use ministerial instructions to limit the intake of the grandparents and parents category, Conservative MP and immigration committee member Chungsen Leung said, "I think it warrants serious consideration."

Ms. Sims disagreed. "I would be very disturbed if in Canada we started to use those kind of policies," she said. "Because what are we saying then? We're doing to pick and choose which families can live together? We're going to pick and choose whose parents get to come to join them, or whose grandparents? Which child gets to enjoy their grandparents?"

She says the solution is to use the fees the government collects from applicants to get rid of the backlog, and then look at more long-term solutions. That means hiring more staff, she said.

For his part, Mr. Kenney said he wouldn't want to prejudge the outcome of his upcoming backlog consultations.

Meanwhile, the immigration committee started an eight-hearing study on system backlogs this week.


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