IRCC’s ‘arbitrary’ automatic extensions on information requests created ‘unfair playing field,’ say immigration agents

Understand the policy rationale given the volume of requests and limited capacity, but underlines the need in IRCC modernization to reduce the need for ATIP requests on the status of individual files:

Some immigration agents filing numerous access to information requests on behalf of their clients are feeling burned by a recently phased-out Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada practice that they say was “arbitrary” and akin to institutional targeting, harming their companies’ reputations and the confidence clients placed in them.

Five unnamed people were highlighted in a recent special report by Information Commissioner Caroline Maynard, who were identified by the department to be subject to automatic delays in requests they made through Canada’s access to information laws. The report, tabled in Parliament on May 25, found the IRCC was out of step with access to information rules. While the Office of the Information Commissioner’s (OIC) probe was triggered by an influx of requests to the department between 2017 to 2020, it learned that five individuals—consultants, agents, or lawyers specializing in immigration—were identified as frequent requesters by the department, which then “automatically” decided an extension was needed on their files.

Under the act, federal institutions have to respond to access requests within 30 calendar days or otherwise request an extension of 60 or 90 days as required. Rules dictate the head of an institution should help facilitate complete, timely, and accurate responses to requesters “without regard to the identity of a person making the request.” In place since 2019, the IRCC policy was scrapped in March 2021, shortly after the commissioner ruled it against the act and recommended it be ended.

The Hill Times spoke with several people who participated in Ms. Maynard’s investigation and said they faced challenges in getting information from the department over those years, some of whom said they filed thousands of requests for information from the IRCC.

Ms. Maynard’s office fields complaints from organizations, businesses, reporters, Parliamentarians, and individuals who encounter difficulties in their access to government records under the Access to Information Act. Complaints are typically related to delays or outright refusals from some institutions.

The Hill Times obtained documents that show IRCC identified the five people in a Sept. 19, 2019, email between IRCC and departmental ATIP workers and, the following day, officials suggested that “by looking at the numbers the first three” should be subject to a 90-day extension while the last two should receive a 60-day extension. The names were redacted, but The Hill Times has seen two names mentioned separately in two sets of documents.

Manmeet Rai, founder of getgcms.com, a website that helps clients request their immigration case files from the department, was listed in one of these emails as among the five. His requests appeared to be flagged to automatically have a 90-day extension added to them, effective Sept. 23, 2019, according to an internal email.

Mr. Rai said he received a “blanket” extension on all requests filed under his name since September 2019, and that development led him to be “concerned about what is going on inside the government.” He learned his name appeared on that IRCC list when he filed an access-to-information request on his own name.

Mr. Rai declined to delve into specific business information, like how many requests he filed each year, but said he submitted more than 7,000 requests in 2019 alone.

He said IRCC’s policy, also revealed in Ms. Maynard’s investigation, was “arbitrary.” Its application, he said, was “a targeted exercise toward a specific group of people who were filing requests to help immigrant applicants who were not otherwise entitled to obtain their information” under the act. His requests were “clumped together” when they should have been treated as independent files.

“Everyone wants the information as soon as possible, because if the information is available to them, they can take some corrective action if their application is in progress,” said Mr. Rai. “But if they are to wait for 120 days from the date they filed the request, that is just absolutely dreadful for anyone.” (As of publication, the department had not yet responded to requests for comment from The Hill Times.)

While Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino (Eglinton-Lawrence, Ont.) accepted and agreed with Ms. Maynard’s findings, he noted in his response to the report, that “bulk requesters take a significant amount of IRCC resources due to their sheer volume.” In 2019-20, an average of 6,157 pages of records per business day had to be pulled for the top five requesters, the minister said, amounting to more than 30,000 pages per week.

“These top five requestors alone made over 10,000 requests last year. Paired with the extraordinary growth in requests … it became apparent that IRCC needed to take steps to support broader access rights in an equitable manner.” He said “nevertheless,” the department would no longer be relying on its policy.

Mr. Rai, who took part in the OIC’s investigation, commended the office for being “co-operative and upfront.” That the policy no longer exists is a testament to it living up to its task as a watchdog, he said, but he still feels the policy damaged his business. Mr. Rai noted over the last several years, there have been a swath of websites offering similar services that have popped up, but which promised deadlines he could not meet given the automatic extension applied to his information requests.

“You don’t have to be licensed to do that, you just have to be in Canada,” he said, noting that may have been why the department saw an “influx of so many requests” in recent years.

According to the OIC’s report, IRCC received a total of 116,928 access requests in 2019-20, a figure 42 per cent greater than the year before. All other government institutions combined received a fraction of that figure, equalling 39,294 requests during the same fiscal year. Out of this figure, 98 per cent were related to immigration case files, coming from foreign nationals or immigration lawyers hoping to get more details on their clients’ files.

Typically, Mr. Rai said his organization serves two types of clients: people filing permanent residency applications, and those looking for temporary residence, like students or visitors.

“The outcome was that instead of the people who were already doing it, there were new websites which came out and said, ‘See, we are doing it better than others because these guys are being targeted and they get an extension, whereas we can provide you the same information within 30 days,’ ” he said.

IRCC should be ‘transparent’ with rejected applicants

IRCC should be more “transparent” with rejected applicants, who are often keen to know why (and file access-to-information requests) so they could course correct moving forward, added Mr. Rai.

“If IRCC is more transparent in giving out information to each individual … people would be happy and would get some solace out of it that something is happening, rather than just keeping quiet after the application is filed,” he said.

It’s a reality the OIC appeared to be aware of. In its report, the office noted the department’s MyAccount portal “provides little information on the status of the processing of an application,” with template letters used to let applicants know if they have been accepted or rejected. IRCC is now looking to do a “comprehensive review of various refusal letters,” with a new temporary resident refusal letter that could be used for the 2021-22 year, according to its response to Ms. Maynard’s report.

But according to the OIC’s report, the department still does not plan to offer excerpts of notes made by the immigration officers assigned to a person’s file, which is a “frequent” request in complaints it receives.

Prateek Sharma, founder of gcmsbuddy.com, also took part in the OIC’s investigation and said he suspected he’s one of the top five identified by IRCC for automatic extensions. Since starting the website in 2017, he said he has filed between 7,000 and 8,000 complaints against IRCC with the OIC.

The bulk of his clients hired him in 2018, and shortly after, the “majority” of his company’s requests started getting 90-day extensions. He agreed with Mr. Rai that the time period coincided with a steady rise in websites claiming they had faster turnaround times.

“Word spreads easily among a small community. There are forums and WhatsApp groups around, and people started complaining that this website is getting all the extensions and another website has just started that’s not getting [them],” he said. “It contributed to an unfair playing field for us, because it was not my fault. People wanted to know about their status, and it was not like I was requesting the same information for the same person again and again.”

Ms. Maynard noted in a May 25 interview that requesters were filing multiple requests for multiple clients; Mr. Sharma said as a result, he felt services like his were singled out and he took a reputational hit. (Citing privacy concerns and the nature of its investigations, the OIC declined to name the five identified requesters and how many each filed.)

“[Clients] are worried about their future because they have a lot of things to plan; moving to Canada and starting a new life,” he noted.

“If some business is doing good, you’re kind of targeting them. The more requests we are sending, that means we are a popular website and we are offering a good service.” According to Mr. Sharma, there were about three or four major websites offering a similar service before 2019, a figure he predicted has since grown to 10 or more. “That prompted people to start new websites and now they are on par with us. All our hard work and everything—our reputation was ruined because of this.” While “thankful” the policy is now phased out, he wasn’t sure “if there’s a way to measure those losses.”

Because of the repeated extensions, Mr. Sharma said his group was subject to “angry customers” who noted other websites were offering a quicker turnaround. “It was a hard time, because the number of emails we used to get asking for status updates increased a lot,” he said.

Think about applicants, not just workers, urges agent 

The Hill Times spoke to another requester who took part in the OIC’s investigation, an associate with gcmsnotes.com who also rancaipsnotes.com. They asked not to be identified by name, but their name was listed in a Sept. 20, 2019, document obtained by The Hill Times. The email named the associate as somebody whose files would be subject to a 60-day extension, effective Sept. 23, 2019, per an internal IRCC email.

The associate said from their clients’ perspective, it was “quite frustrating” not to know why their application may have been refused, especially if those applying are students. Because intake periods for colleges and universities can range from January, May, or September, the associate said many clients wanted to know how to tweak their applications so they could apply in time for the next period, while others may have punted their timelines to start classes to a later semester.

“People are falling behind in their careers, or in starting a career, because of this arbitrary decision on their file,” the associate said. “It had a pretty big impact. … For some of them, they had to make life-altering decisions about whether to postpone their intake. They were disappointed with that.”

The associate supported the OIC recommendation to beef up IRCC’s staff so there are more workers tasked with handling the volume of requests. Ms. Maynard earlier said there are some 200-plus analysts helping the IRCC, which ranks among the bigger units. Her office, which itself is subject to the act, has about three full-time workers.

Mr. Mendicino told her office he agreed with the recommendation, according to the report, though his written response fell short of committing to a number of workers or funding. The department is working to secure more resources “in conjunction with the departmental action plan, while implementing permanent technological solutions,” he wrote in his response to the OIC.

Asked for more information about the IRCC’s policy, IRCC spokesperson Peter Liang did not elaborate in a May 27 email. Thanking the OIC for its “thorough and thoughtful investigation,” Mr. Liang said the department has developed a management action plan in response to the report, though the link he referred to only mentioned that the policy no longer exists. The department did not respond in time for publication to follow up questions about Mr. Rai, the associate who said they were among the five targeted, or how the policy came to be.

“They are concerned about the well-being of the IRCC employees. … Who’s concerned about the well-being of the students and the families who are affected by this?” the associate asked.

Concerns about unlicensed immigration consultants have long persisted in the field, with legislation to set up a new College of Immigration and Citizenship Consultants passing in 2019.

In her report, Ms. Maynard noted the department flagged “dishonest actors who are taking advantage of vulnerable” people by, among other things, charging clients high fees for access requests, though regulation of the industry is an issue beyond the office’s “legal jurisdiction” and is not addressed in the report.

When one requester asked for departmental communication “directing ATIP staff to seek time extensions for ATIP requests” between September and December 2019—when the phased-out policy was in effect—they were told there were no records but “all instructions were given verbally,” according to documents obtained by The Hill Times.

The associate questioned whether verbal instructions were appropriate.

“If you’re a large organization handling over 100,000 requests a year, and you are going to get instructions verbally, how are you going to make sure your employees in the department are consistent in their actions? How are you going to hold your people accountable?” the associate wondered. “Somebody has to write them down to make sure they’re consistently applied across the board.”

IRCC defended its practice to Ms. Maynard’s office, her report noted, arguing the Treasury Board Secretariat’s (TBS) policy on access to information, “endorse[s]” the practice they employed. But in her ruling, Ms. Maynard said while the TBS offers “guidance” to institutions on what is considered a large volume of records, “it in no way suggests that a series of unrelated access to information requests can be lumped together.” According to that guidance, a large number of records is generally considered such if it requires more than 500 pages to be pulled and if their production interferes with the institution’s operations.

Citing privacy concerns and the nature of its investigations, OIC spokesperson James Ellard said in an email the office does not identify requesters by name, nor can it offer a breakdown of requests made by each individual. Asked if it was aware of any other government institutions that have identified top requesters in this way, he said the circumstances were “unique” to the department.

“This type of dramatic increase [in access requests] has not been observed elsewhere, nor is the commissioner aware of any other department adopting the practice of grouping requests by individual and automatically claiming time extensions to all requests made by these individuals,” he said, adding Ms. Maynard is “pleased” to see the practice is no longer in effect.

The Hill Times has asked the IRCC who was responsible for the practice’s creation, implementation, and authorization, along with its justification, but did not hear back by publication. The paper also presented some of the sentiments expressed by the requesters to the department for comment.

Source: IRCC’s ‘arbitrary’ automatic extensions on information requests created ‘unfair playing field,’ say immigration agents

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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