‘Racism plays a role in immigration decisions,’ House Immigration Committee hears

While always important to recognize that bias and discrimination can influence decisions, different acceptance rates can also reflect other factors, and that misrepresentation may be more prevalent in some regions than others.

Training guides and materials need to provide illustrations and examples. Meurrens is one of the few lawyers who regularly looks at the data but his challenge of the training guide “Kids in India are not back-packers as they are in Canada.” is odd given that the data likely confirms that statement.

Moreover, the call for more transparency, welcome and needed, may provide opportunities for the more unscrupulous to “game the system.”

“Kids in India are not back-packers as they are in Canada” reads a note appended to a slide in a presentation used to train Canadian immigration officials in mid-2019.

In a recent access to information request, Immigration lawyer Steven Meurrens said he received a copy of the presentation which was used in a training session by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) officials, dated April 2019 and titled “India [Temporary Resident Visa]s: A quick introduction.” He shared the full results of the request with The Hill Times.

The slides, which detail the reasons why Indians may apply for a Temporary Resident Visa (TRV) and what officials should look for in applications—have notes appended to them, as if they were speaking notes for the person giving the presentation. On one slide detailing potential reasons for travel to Canada, the notes read: “Kids in India are not back-packers as they are in Canada.”

In an interview, Meurrens spoke to an apparent double standard for Indian people looking to travel to Canada.

“It drives me nuts, because I’ve often thought that, as a Canadian, a broke university student, I could hop on a plane, go anywhere, apply for visas, and no one would be like, ‘That’s not what Canadians do,’” Meurrens said, adding that he’s representing people from India who did in fact intend to come to Canada to backpack through the country.

A screenshot of the page wherein an IRCC presentation notes that ‘Kids in India are not back-packers as they are in Canada.’ Image courtesy of IRCC

“To learn that people are trained specifically that Indian people don’t backpack” was “over the top,” he said. It reminded him of another instance of generalizations made within IRCC about different nationalities of people, when in 2015, an ATIP he received showed that training materials within the department stated that when a Chinese person marrying a non-Chinese person was a likely indicator of marriage fraud.

At the time, the department said that document was more than five years old, and no longer in use.

“[I’d like us] to get to a state where someone’s country of origin doesn’t dictate the level of procedural fairness that they’ll get and how they’re assessed,” he said.

The fact of systemic racism within Canada’s Department of Citizenship, Immigration, and Refugees Canada (IRCC) is not new; evidence of such racism was uncovered through what is colloquially known as the Pollara report. This report, conducted by Pollara Strategic Insights and released in 2021, was the result of focus groups conducted with IRCC employees to better understand “current experiences of racism within the department.”

The report found that within the department, the use of the phrase “the dirty 30” was widely used to refer to certain African nations and that Nigerians in particular were stereotyped as “particularly corrupt or untrustworthy.”

As the House Immigration Committee heard last week, there remains much work to be done to combat systemic racism within IRCC.

On March 22, the House Committee on Immigration and Citizenship began its study on differential outcomes in immigration decisions at IRCC, and Immigration Minister Sean Fraser (Central Nova, N.S.) appeared at the committee on March 24. Other issues brought up by witnesses included a lack of transparency from the department as well as concerns of systemic racism and bias being embedded in any automated intelligence (AI) the department uses to assess applications.

From students in Nigeria being subjected to English-language proficiency tests when they hail from an English-speaking country, to the differential treatment of some groups of refugees versus others, to which groups are eligible for resettlement support and which are not, the committee heard several examples of differential treatment of potential immigrants to Canada due to systemic racism and bias within IRCC.

“I know it’s very uncomfortable raising the issue of racism,” said Dr. Gideon Christian, president of the African Scholars Initiative and an assistant professor of AI and law at the University of Calgary.

“But the fact is that we need to call racism for what it is—as uncomfortable as it might be. … Yes, this is a clear case of racism. And we should call it that. We should actually be having conversations around this problem with a clear framework as to how to address it,” he said.

According to Christian, Nigerian students looking to come to Canada to study through the Nigerian Study Express program are subjected to an English-language proficiency test, despite the fact that the official language in Nigeria is English, that English is the language used in all official academic institutions there, and that academic institutions in Canada do not require a language test from Nigerian students for their admission.

A spokesperson for IRCC said the department does not single out Nigeria in its requirement for a language test.

“IRCC is committed to a fair and non-discriminatory application process,” reads the written statement.

“While language testing is not a requirement to be eligible for a study permit, individual visa offices may require them as part of their review of whether the applicant is a bona fide student. This includes many applicants from English-speaking countries, including a large number from India and Pakistan, two nations where English is widely taught and top countries for international students in Canada.”

“Nigeria is not singled out by the requirement of language tests for the Nigeria Student Express initiative,” the spokesperson said.

Systemic racism embedded in AI

Christian, who is also an assistant professor of AI and law at the University of Calgary and has spent the last three years researching algorithmic racism, expressed concern that the “advanced analytics” IRCC uses to triage its immigration applications—including the Microsoft Excel-based software system called Chinook—has systemic racism and bias embedded within it.

“IRCC has in its possession a great deal of historical data that can enable it to train AI and automate its visa application processes,” Christian told the committee. As revealed by the Pollara report, systemic bias, racism and discrimination does account for differential treatment of immigration applications, particularly when it comes to study visa refusals for those applying from Sub-Saharan Africa, he said.

“External story of IRCC—especially the Pollara report—have revealed systemic bias, racism and discrimination in IRCC processing of immigration applications. Inevitably, this historical data imposition of IRCC is tainted by the same systemic bias, racism and discrimination. Now the problem is that the use of these tainted data to train any AI algorithm will inevitably result in algorithmic racism. Racist AI, making immigration decisions,” he said.

The Pollara report echoed these concerns in a section that laid out a few ways processes and procedures adopted for expediency’s sake “have taken on discriminatory undertones.” This included “concern that increased automation of processing will embed racially discriminatory practices in a way that will be harder to see over time.”

Meurrens, who also appeared at committee on March 22, said a lack of transparency from the government impedes the public’s ability to assess whether it is indeed making progress on the issue of addressing systemic racism or not.

He said he’d like to see the department publish Access to Information results pertaining to internal manuals, visa office specific training guides, and other similar documents as downloadable PDFs on its website, pointing out this is how the provincial government of B.C. releases its ATIP responses. He also said he thinks IRCC should publish “detailed explanations and reports of how its artificial intelligence triaging and new processing tools work in practice.”

“Almost everything public today [about the AI programs] has been obtained through access to information results that are heavily redacted and which I don’t believe present the whole picture,” he said.

Whether the concerns were actually reflected in the AI itself, Meurrens said, could not be known without more transparency from the department.

“In the absence of increased transparency, concerns like this are only growing,” he said.

Fraser: racism is a ‘sickness’

On Thursday, Fraser told the committee that he agrees that racism is a problem within the department, calling it a “sickness in our society.”

“There are examples of racism not just in one department but across different levels of government. It’s a sickness in our society that limits the productivity of human beings who want to fully participate in our communities. IRCC is not immune from that social phenomenon that hampers our success as a nation, and we have to do everything we can to eradicate racism, not just from our department,” he said.

Fraser said there is “zero tolerance for racism, discrimination, or harassment of any kind,” but acknowledged those problems do exist within the department.

The minister pointed towards the anti-racism task force which was created in 2020 and “guides the department’s strategy to eliminate racism and applies an anti-racism lens” to the department’s work. He also said IRCC has been “actively reviewing its human resource systems so that Indigenous, Black, racialized peoples and persons with disabilities are better represented across IRCC at every level.”

Fraser also referenced a three-year anti-racism strategy for the department, which includes plans to implement mandatory bias training, anti-racist work and training objectives, and trauma coaching sessions for Black employees and managers to recognize the impacts of racism on mental health, among other things.

“It’s not lost on me that there have been certain very serious issues that have pertained to IRCC,” he said.

These measures are different from the ones witnesses and opposition MPs are calling for, however.

NDP MP Jenny Kwan (Vancouver East, B.C.) her top priority on this topic is to convince the government to put an independent ombudsperson in place whose job it would be to assess IRCC policies and the application of said policies as they relate to differential treatment, systemic racism, and gender biases.

“Let’s dig deep. Have an officer of the House do this work completely independent from the government,” she said in an interview with The Hill Times.

At the March 22 meeting, Kwan asked all six witnesses to state for the record if they agreed that the government should put such an ombudsperson in place. All six witnesses agreed.

Kwan questioned the ability of the department to conduct its own internal reviews.

“As the minister said [at committee], he’s undertaking a variety of measures to address these issues and to see how they can rectify it. … But how deeply is it embedded? And if it’s done internally, then how independent is it?” she wondered.

Fraser said the implementation of an ombudsperson was something he would consider after reading the committee’s report.

Conservative MP Jasraj Singh Hallan (Calgary Forest Lawn, Alta.), his party’s immigration critic and the vice-chair of the committee, agreed with Meurrens’ calls for increased transparency. “We need more evidence that the government is serious about this,” he said in an interview.

Hallan also said he wants to see consequences for those within the department who participated in the racism documented by the Pollara report.

“[Fraser] should start by approaching those employees of IRCC that made these complaints from that Pollara report and find out who is making these remarks. Reprimand them, fire them if they need to be,” he said.

Source: ‘Racism plays a role in immigration decisions,’ House Immigration Committee hears

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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: