Immigration Minister Fraser takes heat for ‘short-sighted’ approach to processing backlogs

Informative account and opposition right to hold government to account on processing times and the choices and trade-offs they made in order to meet the higher levels in 2021:

Opposition MPs accused Immigration Minister Sean Fraser of being “misleading” about processing times for Canada’s considerable immigration backlog, with the department’s timeline to address the 1.8 million applications still “opaque.”

Fraser (Central Nova, N.S.) fielded questions and took heat from some MPs on the House Immigration and Citizenship Committee during his Feb. 15 briefing on immigration timelines and acceptance rates.

The government’s fall economic statement promised to inject $85-million into Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) to reduce the backlog of 1.8 million applications that continues to grow. The funding is being specifically directed towards reducing processing times for work and study permits, permanent residency applications, and visitor visas. Much of the money is being used to automate aspects of the application review process, as well as introducing electronic systems for immigration applicants to review the status of their applications.

In response to a question from NDP MP Jenny Kwan (Vancouver East, B.C.) about the processing times for family reunification applications, Fraser enthusiastically shared that immigration processing times were back to the service standard of 12 months.

Fraser acknowledged there were some “real frustrations” for some whose family reunification applications got stuck in limbo while Canada’s borders were closed due to the pandemic.

But, through federal investments in the system, including hiring 500 staff, Fraser said IRCC now has “the capacity to process new applications and family reunification streams in 12 months in accordance with the service standard that has existed since before the pandemic.”

However, later in the meeting, officials from IRCC confirmed this standard processing time is only back in place for new applications—not for those applicants who are still pending in the backlog. After hearing this, Kwan said the minister’s comments were “misleading.”

The 12-month processing time only applies to people who are submitting applications starting this year, Daniel Mills, senior assistant deputy minister at IRCC, told MPs at committee.

“However we do have to work on the backlog or the inventory that we have, and that’s what we are doing,” he said.

In the Immigration Levels Plan 2022-2024 tabled in Parliament on Feb. 14, Fraser set new goals for immigration levels, raising this year’s goal of 411,000 new immigrants to 432,000, with the hope to reach immigration levels of 451,000 newcomers to Canada by 2024. One way the department plans to do this, he said, is by boosting departmental productivity due to a new digital platform in the works. For MPs at committee, however, questions still remained as to how the department will clear the existing backlog, rather than more quickly process new and future applications.

In an interview with The Hill Times, Kwan said she hears from constituents who have family who have applied through the family reunification stream that have been stuck in the system for two or three years “all of the time.”

“Those people have already missed the boat with respect to that processing standard,” Kwan concluded. “And they’re going to probably get another problem because soon people will come back and say, ‘how come the newer applicants got processed before me?’”

Kwan called it a “short-sighted way of dealing with the situation.”

“They’re trying to create this perception that they are somehow on top of things, when in fact, frankly, they’re not. And the system remains opaque. There’s a lack of transparency, and lack of accountability,” she said.

At committee, Conservative MP Rosemarie Falk (Battlefords-Lloydminster, Sask.) followed up on Kwan’s point.

“I’m actually very concerned with what MP Kwan had just brought up. What I had heard you as the official say is that applicants as of this month, February 2022, will have the service standard of 12 months. So what is happening to all of the backlogs previous to this? What is the timeframe to clean these backlogs up?”

The department’s answer: “it depends.” Family class applications, for instance, has 35,000 pending applications, Mills said, and the department processed 8,000 applications in January—above the average processing rate of about 6,000 applications per month the department saw in 2021.

Falk pressed officials during the same exchange to offer details on Fraser’s instructions to the department.

“What direction has the minister given the department to clean up these backlogs, that I’m hearing the excuse of the delayed processing times is because of COVID?”

Mills told Folk the department is trying to reduce the inventory and process them “as quickly as we can.” That is being sped up through digitization of files, which allows the department to process applications virtually, he said.

Off the bat, Fraser laid blame for the backlog at the feet of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“As the members of the committee know, the pandemic has caused applicants processing delays and backlogs,” he said in French. In English, “folks, it’s not lost on me that there are challenges when it comes to processing in the immigration system,” he stated.

Several members of the committee across parties did not accept that premise, and said the COVID-19 pandemic was being used as an “excuse.”

Kwan said “that excuse is running tired.”

“Let’s face it, there were backlogs pre-pandemic. There’s no question that COVID has exacerbated it. But you know, we’re more than two years into the pandemic,” said Kwan, who is her party’s immigration critic.

Fraser said the primary cause of the backlog was the fact that during the first year of the pandemic when borders were closed, Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada stopped bringing in new immigrants, and instead processed the applications of newcomers and permanent residents who were already in Canada.

COVID-19 public health orders also resulted in the shut-down of a number of in-person immigration offices and services within an application process that requires some elements to be conducted in-person. Prior to the pandemic, for instance, citizenship ceremonies were only ever done in-person, and initially, the pandemic put these ceremonies on hold. Now, the minister said they are able to conduct them online, which should help expedite the clearing of that backlog.

“At the same time, when we were welcoming people who were located in Canada already, we continued to see a significant number of applications that were coming in from people who were overseas,” Fraser said.

He said he believed it was the right decision to make, and as a result of focusing on applications of people who were already here, Canada welcomed the most new permanent residents in any year.

“But we knew that that would come with certain consequences that we now need to deal with.”

At the meeting, Conservative MP Kyle Seeback (Dufferin-Caledon, Ont.) cited backlog figures including 548,000 Permanent Resident applications, 112,392 refugee applications, 775,000 temporary resident applications, including study permits and work permits, and; 468,000 Canadian citizenship applications.

Conservative MP Jasraj Singh Hallan (Calgary Forest Lawn, Alta.) also took issue with the suggestion that COVID-19 was responsible for the delays and lack of communication he is hearing about from Afghan refugees and their families who are trying to come to Canada.

“You know, it’s easy for now to say, you know, it’s COVID, and we didn’t have time or IRCC wasn’t prepared, but I mean, [the government was] more prepared for an election plan than they were for an evacuation plan. And the same thing goes with IRCC… I don’t think we can use COVID as an excuse anymore for what’s going on,” he said in an interview after the meeting.

MP Hallan’s exchange with the minister became heated early in the meeting, with Hallan concluding his line of questioning with accusations of the election taking priority over Afghan refugees. Tensions were high at the meeting as Conservative MP Brad Redekopp (Saskatoon West, Sask.) accused immigration officials of “remarkable callousness” in their lack of response to applicants, citing an instance in which one of his constituents’ permanent residence card was 66 days overdue, meaning she could not travel home to visit her dying mother.

“Is this a systematic failure based upon incompetence or are you maliciously blocking PR cards for people who want to see their dying parents?” Redekopp asked. The minister said he would “pass on commenting” on malicious intent.

“I can reassure all members of this House that any challenges that we are facing are due to the circumstances tied to the pressures that COVID-19 has put on Canada’s immigration system, including on PR cards, which typically require somebody to show up for an in-person appointment when many of the offices have been closed down and there hasn’t been that opportunity for face to face engagement,” Fraser said.

Source: Immigration Minister Fraser takes heat for ‘short-sighted’ approach to processing backlogs

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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