Michelle Rempel Garner: They’re really sorry, but your parents won’t be able to come to your wedding

Of interest by Conservative MP Rempel Garner. Most media coverage of backlogs has focussed on permanent residents, work permits and citizenship rather than visitor visas but this is as important given the impact on families and tourism. 74 percent as of this October.

Somewhat surprising in that visitor visas are a leading program in using AI and other tools to improve and streamline processing.

My take on this and related processing delays and backlogs is somewhat different from hers. I would place more blame on the political level for recklessly focussing on increasing numbers across all programs without sufficiently considering the ability to deliver (whatever happened to Deliverology?). The COVID excuse is past its best before date:

Two of my best friends got married in early October. It would have been a perfect day except for one thing — a glaring family absence.

Despite applying for something called a temporary resident visa (TRV) over four months before their wedding date, the parents of one of the grooms were unable to travel to Canada for the wedding. Their absence was due to a massive backlog in the Canadian government’s review process of this routine piece of paperwork.

For the uninitiated, a TRV is a document issued by the federal government that allows a person to enter Canada as a visitor, student or worker. If you hold a Canadian passport and have travelled to another country, you most likely never have had to apply for a visa, because many countries grant visa-free entry to Canadians.

The same isn’t true for many foreign nationals who want to enter Canada, including several countries that have large diaspora populations in Canada. The TRV application review process is supposed to be thorough, but fast. It’s designed to screen applicants for things like if they pose a security risk to the country, if they have sufficient financial resources to support themselves during their stay in Canada, and if they have enough permanent ties to their home country to ensure they return to it.

Years ago, this process would only take a few weeks, at most, to complete. Now, as with my friend’s parents, it’s taking months at best. As of the end of September 2022, there were nearly a million outstanding applications for a TRV in the processing backlog, with roughly 75 per cent of new applicationstaking longer than the service standard to process. 

The problems this backlog has created are big ones, and they have a far-reaching impact. 

TRV processing delays have had a critical negative impact on several industries, and create a drag on our economy. At a time when Canada is facing an enormous labour shortage, workers may forego coming to Canada due to the uncertainty the backlog has created. International students that could provide talent and expertise to Canada are choosing to go elsewhere. Families, even spouses, that want to be reunited with loved ones have lost a clear line of sight on if and when they’ll be able to do so. 

The backlog is also raising concerns about equity issues. Desperate applicants will attempt to get the Minister of Immigration to directly intervene. Immigration lawyers are sometimes retained in hopes of finding some way to speed up the process. This raises the question — why should application processing be determinant upon access to money and influence? 

When attempting to explain the cause of the backlog, the federal government points to global pandemic restrictions, an increase in the number of applications, limited resources, and the complexity of processing visas.

For many, these reasons don’t hold water. The backlog was rapidly growing before the pandemic started. And in recent years the federal government has dramatically increased spending on the department in charge of processing TRVs. Despite this, processing wait times have grown and remained high. Other countries with similar economic profiles and demand for visas to Canada have managed to keep their backlogs comparatively low.

The real reasons for the backlog go deeper than resourcing.

Civil society groups have raised numerous valid inequities in the TRV processing system that may add to the backlog, including how applications from certain countries have longer wait times than others. Requirements for approval change often and are not well communicated to applicants, leaving many confused and uncertain about their eligibility. This increases the likelihood of submitting incomplete applications, which creates more administrative burden for the government. 

And the actual criteria used to approve or reject an applicant is pretty opaque. Many applicants are denied visas despite meeting all of the listed requirements, so they re-apply, putting more burden on the system.

From where I sit, a big part of the reason for the backlog lies in the Liberal government treating the immigration ministry like the armpit of their cabinet. Successive Liberal immigration ministers have been allowed to throw money at the problem without seeing meaningful results and without suffering demotion from their role. To get movement on the backlog, the minister must ensure that recalcitrant senior bureaucrats aren’t incentivized to find excuses for why the problem can’t be fixed. Their continued collective employment should be contingent upon doing the opposite. 

Nor should the government be tempted to sacrifice the integrity of the process to process more applications. Thorough diligence is still needed. Nor should standard service timelines be raised to manage expectations instead of application volume. For the hundreds of millions of dollars Canadian taxpayers have spent on this system, we should get a visa processing system that is fair, rigorous, and fast — not the debacle the federal government is currently presiding over.

My friend’s parents’ TRV was approved five months after they applied; one month after the wedding. Their frustrating journey to come to Canada has become the rule, not the exception. 

For the countless Canadians who, due to the backlog, will be separated from loved ones this holiday season, and for the thousands of businesses that are without workers, that rule has brought shame to our country. We ought to be embarrassed. 

Source: Michelle Rempel Garner: They’re really sorry, but your parents won’t be able to come to your wedding

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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