Express entry economic immigration timelines a ‘joke,’ say lawyers as processing times increase

Further to the IRCC departmental results report and its failure to meet its service standards (see :

Canada’s “express entry” approach to key economic immigration programs isn’t working, immigration lawyers say, following a recent report showing that none of them are meeting the six-month service standard.

That failed grade was among 17 missed performance targets the Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) reported for the 2019-20 fiscal year, or 31 per cent of the 54 total targets. It said none of the government’s business lines for permanent residents adhere to service standards during a time period that had yet to feel the pandemic’s full impact. 

Launched in 2015, the express entry process is described by Canada as its “flagship” system for various federal skilled worker programs, and a portion of the provincial nominee program, as a pathway to permanent residence for skilled workers in Canada and overseas. IRCC has said it plans to increase permanent-resident admissions, setting a target of 341,000 for 2020 and 350,000 for 2021, with most of the uptick expected from economic immigration streams.

Evelyn Ackah, founder of Ackah Business Immigration Law in Calgary, laughed when she repeated the program’s name.

“Express entry, that’s a joke. When they first launched that program a few years ago, it was incredible. It was three months, four months,” she said, but now she warns clients it can take more than a year.

She said it’s disappointing the government hasn’t been able to keep up with the high volume of applications. To her, it’s a clear resourcing and staffing problem that doesn’t line up with Canada’s stated goals to increase immigration levels. 

“It’s not working as an express process, absolutely not. It’s the same as the old process, as far as I’m concerned, and it’s lost its credibility with people,” she said. “The trend is getting slower and slower.”

Over the last three years, and before COVID-19 interruptions, processing times have increased, and in some cases, doubled the time it takes to deal with 80 per cent of applicants. The federal skills trade stream jumped from six months in 2017 to one year for the majority of applicants, while the federal-skilled worker and provincial-nominee programs increased from six to nine months in that same time frame. The Canadian Experience Class increased from four to seven months. Across all programs, only 60 per cent of the applications met the standard by the end of 2019.

According to the department’s latest plan, its overall spending is set to increase from $1.92-billion in 2017-18 to the peak last fiscal year at $3.46-billion, before going back down this fiscal year to $2.84-billion, $2.6-billion in 2021-22, and $2.56-billion in 2022-23.

The stretching timelines reflect an increase in applications to express entry, with the 332,331 submissions in 2019 amounting to a 20 per cent jump from the number of applications in 2018. Among the 2019 profiles submitted in 2019, 72 per cent were eligible for at least one of the business programs, according to the program’s year-end report.

Still, the government promises to those searching for information online about the express entry system that it “will result in fast processing times of six months or less.

“I can’t even bring up that number [to clients],” said B.C.-based  immigration lawyer Will Tao of Heron Law, saying more transparency is needed. 

It’s “misleading” and can “give the wrong impression” to applicants, he said, especially now with the pandemic posing even more of a challenge to processing times.

“I think they pretty much internally abandoned it, so from my perspective, if you’ve done that, then you probably should … let clients know,” he said, calling for better transparency so that people can get more certainty about their situations. 

Even though it’s supposed to be an automated system, based on points, both lawyers said the process gets bogged down during the authentication stage, as officials check over and verify the many documents submitted. Eligible candidates in the pool are given a score based on their skills and experience, with top-ranking candidates invited to submit an application for permanent residence. As of June 2017, IRCC added extra points to candidates with strong French-speaking skills.

Both Mr. Tao and Ms. Ackah acknowledged it can be a complicated process, but Ms. Ackah said that’s all the more reason to match up resourcing.

In IRCC’s report on performance targets, the department said “substantial efforts” have been made to reduce applications that took longer than six months to process in the express entry system.

“While service standards are being met for a higher number of applications compared to previous years, this was offset by an increase in applications and the processing of older applications,” the report said.

The department noted early results show “progression towards higher admission targets” and efforts to increase the intake are having an impact on service standards, in this case, the promise to have the majority completed within six months. The department doesn’t control intake for provincial nominee program’s paper applications and Quebec-selected skilled workers.

By email, IRCC spokesperson Lauren Sankey said the government remains committed to reducing application processing times and improving the department’s service delivery. 

IRCC misses a third of 2019-20 targets

In 2019-20, the department met 37 of 54 performance targets, and missed 17, or 31 per cent. The express-entry delay was the worst among several performance targets the department didn’t reach. Canada’s backlogged asylum system again failed to make the cut, with the department reporting only 32 per cent of asylum claims were referred to the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada within service standards, compared to target of 97 per cent.

A couple of targets found language-development delays for people settling in Canada. In one case, only 37 per cent of IRCC’s settlement clients reported improved official language skills compared to the target of 60 per cent, while 19 per cent of people reported receiving language-training services compared to target of 25 per cent.

Ms. Sankey said every newcomer’s experience is unique, including their participation in settlement services, which is managed by IRCC and delivered by more than 500 service provider organizations across the country, outside of Quebec. Federally funded language training is “a key component” said Ms. Sankey, who noted there’s been a proportionate increase in newcomers with limited knowledge of English or French over the past few years.

In 2019-20, IRCC also reported 2.82 per cent of permanent residents outside Quebec identified as French speaking, compared to the target of 4.4 per cent. Ms. Sankey said under the Francophone Immigration Strategy, IRCC is “pursuing year-round targeted promotion and recruitment” to attract more qualified French-speaking candidates, and noted under the express entry program, the government increased invitations to French-tested candidates from 4.5 per cent in 2018 to 5.6 per cent in 2019.

These results suggest issues with respect to service standards, language training, and refugee claims, said Andrew Griffith, a fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute who was once a director general at the department’s Citizenship and Multiculturalism Branch.

While many reflect perennial problems and backlogs, given these markers IRCC seems to be “systematically” missing the standards it sets to monitor how well it’s delivering its services, he said.

“So if they’re consistently their targets it says there’s either a management problem, an operational problem, a resource problem, or some combination of those,” he said. 

Even so, he noted a contrasting target the department met: a 91 per cent satisfaction rate from visitor, international students, and temporary worker applicants who reported they were satisfied overall with the services they received. While he doesn’t advocate for lowering targets, Mr. Griffith questioned why the government reports on aspirational or unrealistic goals. 

“Personally, I favour realistic standards for public departmental reports, with aspirational more appropriate for internal use,” he said. 

IRCC’s targets are based on factors like historic trends, program objectives, resourcing levels, client service goals, and evolving influences such as the impact of increasing temporary resident and permanent resident immigration levels, said Ms. Sankey.

“Targets are reviewed regularly, and in some cases, the department establishes ambitious targets that serve to stretch program vision and encourage innovation. In other cases, they are based on baselines and historic trends where achievement is more certain,” said Ms. Sankey, noting following a 2020 departmental review how IRCC tracks performance will change.

Distilling service performance down into two tracks—one for permanent residents (PR) and one for temporary residents (TR)—is not a true representation of the department’s performance, she said, given the disparate programs under the two umbrellas. Instead, IRCC will report on the service standard for each individual program, which Mr. Griffith called a “significant change” given the “overly simple” approach before.

“This change will capture more accurate service standard performance for the many lines of business which make up the temporary and permanent resident programs,” Ms. Sankey said. 


About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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