Saunders: The pandemic exposed Canada’s inefficient immigration system. It needs to be scrapped and rebuilt

Good commentary:

For a surgeon who had been risking his life in pandemic-hit Canadian hospitals performing organ transplants, the April 14 invitation was a welcome gift. Despite his highly sought-after, life-saving skills and the risks he was taking to do his job, he’d so far had no pathway to becoming Canadian.

Then Marco Mendicino, the immigration minister at the time, announcedthat Canada would give permanent residency, and thus eventually citizenship, to 90,000 immigrants, refugees and foreign students currently living here on temporary visas and mostly doing in-person jobs deemed “essential.”

It was one part of a broad goal, announced earlier this year, to meet an ambitious target of 401,000 new Canadians in 2021, despite then-closed borders, mainly by drawing on the huge number of people already living and working here.

It sounds good – but the pandemic months have taught us that Canada does not have the immigration system to deliver it.

Almost immediately after that announcement, those invitations collided with a bureaucracy – including a Byzantine and outdated set of federal and provincial immigration rules – that all but prevented those worthy goals from becoming realities.

The transplant doctor soon noticed. He had been slowly accumulating points under Canada’s main immigration system, known as Express Entry, which grants points for things such as education and language fluency and requires full-time work experience in Canada. (Surgeons are classified as self-employed, so have a harder time earning those points.)

While the invitation was a gift, the rules all but prevented him from accepting it. His application – which had to be begun afresh, with no relationship to the existing paper trail of his Express Entry application – had to be personally submitted at a specific time on a weekday. This hours-long procedure on a newly created and deeply dysfunctional and crash-prone web portal was nearly impossible for a working surgeon. For some reason it forbade lawyers and immigration agents from helping, and reportedly barred applicants from working during the application process, which could drag on for months.

The long-standing rules also required him to submit the results of a fluency test in English or French. His language skills weren’t in doubt – you can’t be a high-level surgeon without them – but the testing centres had weeks-long delays, and the minister’s invitation had an hours-long application window.

Many people filed applications without the language test, hoping it could be added informally later. Months later, they found their claims were rejected without any communication from the department, and the whole system had to start again. It was an ordeal for a privileged surgeon; for the nurses and home-care workers for whom the program was intended, it was far worse.

“In 25 years of practice I have never seen the client service as poor as it is now,” says Barbara Jo Caruso, the surgeon’s immigration lawyer. “I think there is a fundamental disconnect right now. … The department needs to change the way front-line workers work, so they can be facilitative and solve problems by making a call. Otherwise they’re wasting enormous amounts of human resources doing the same things over and over.”

The major problem, says Andrew Griffith, a former director-general of Canada’s immigration department, is “not understanding the service needs of the target population.”

In essence, Ottawa is trying to force a growth-oriented policy through a haphazard, enormously complex and often uncommunicative set of provincial and federal bureaucracies that were constructed over the last five decades to restrict immigration and control numbers, and to administer a range of often contradictory immigration programs.

The result has been chaotic. Even though experienced front-line health workers ought to be the most desirable new Canadians, Ottawa was not able to come close to its target of 20,000 of them – after the deadline passed this summer, only 7,155 had reportedly been able to get their names on the list. Tens of thousands more simply could not manage to apply.

Other invitations suffered the opposite problem: The target of 40,000 student-visa holders who’ve completed their degrees was met in fewer than two days. Then a computer failure reportedly caused thousands more to be let into the system in a mess of false messaging and panicked confusion, so Ottawa had to give another 7,300 applicants admission.

Despite its high annual immigration targets (which will continue to rise), Canada has become notorious for its inability to turn people into immigrants and citizens without years of unnecessary delay and reams of procedures that can’t be navigated without a lawyer – even if you’re a nanny earning less than minimum wage. Ottawa currently says it has 1.8 million immigration applications stuck in the queue, many lost on the desks of an understaffed and overburdened public service.

A new Immigration Minister, Sean Fraser, was appointed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau a few weeks ago. He ought to have one job: to scrap and rebuild the entire system, reducing the off-putting hodgepodge of outdated programs and procedures with a single, understandable and sensible immigration pathway for all applicants that actually serves the country’s needs. If nothing else, the pandemic months have taught us that we need to start afresh.

Source: Opinion: The pandemic exposed Canada’s inefficient immigration system. It needs to be scrapped and rebuilt

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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