Pandemic pretext: More delays in long-awaited access to information answers

ATIP is far too often late and, as the examples below indicate, sometimes very late, in responding, with COVID-19 providing further excuses for delay:

Federal departments that have stalled access to information requests for three years or more are now citing the pandemic as the reason for further delays.

Emails are going out to people who make access to information requests, notifying them the requests are now “on hold.”

“We cannot send consultations out because most third parties, other government departments (municipal, provincial, territorial and federal) are closed or reduced to minimum employee capacity,” the department now says.

“So until we are given the green light to start processing consultations again, we won’t be able to process any of the records for your request. But in the meantime, we would like to know if you still wish to proceed with your request or if you wish to abandon.”

Rubin says Health Canada owes him answers to about a dozen requests dating back for years — one from 2014 about adverse pharmaceutical reactions including some deaths, one on drug licensing from 2015, others from 2016 and 2017. They now warn him of “possible delays in treating your request,” due to the pandemic.

“Openness, transparency and accountability are guiding principles of the Government of Canada. However, our ability to respond to requests within the timelines mandated by the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act may be affected” by the pandemic, the department says.

The Finance Department wrote him using the the exact same words.

National Defence says it has reduced staff in the access office and hasn’t enough secure lines to handle his requests remotely. They asked for Rubin’s consent to put the request on hold. Rubin said no.

“You have to push back,” he said. “A lot of people don’t consider this a human right. But it’s not just administrative.”

Public Service and Procurement Canada (PSPC) has several aging Rubin files, and he hadn’t heard about them either, until this month’s message that “PSPC’s network is currently limited to essential and critical services such as pay, pension and procurement. While we are committed to respecting your right of access and are actively looking for solutions to maintain operations, we have little to no capacity at this time.”

One department told him: “despite all our efforts, we will not be able to respond to your ATIP request within the legislated timelines.” The legislated timeline ended years ago.

“Our access to information legislation is so flawed that it’s possible for access to information requests to be delayed and delayed and delayed, which turns the whole purpose of the legislation into a joke,” said James Turk, director of the Centre for Free Expression at Ryerson University.

“The fact that people who haven’t heard for a year or two years are now getting a notice that it’s been delayed because of COVID reveals how badly flawed” it is.

“I like Ken’s remark that oh, it’s good to hear from you.”

He also noted that the lockdown shows the unevenness of government services, as some are cut off from paper documents while others shift to digital documents.

This newspaper asked Environment Canada more than a year ago for internal emails involved in sending out a single news release on climate change. This month, after our request passed its first anniversary, we asked how long it would take.
The answer: They were just about to send us the information, and then the lockdown hit.
The department promises a speedy answer once its office reopens.

Source: Pandemic pretext: More delays in long-awaited access to information answers

USA: Wait Times for Citizenship Have Doubled in the Last Two Years

Another illustration of the Trump administration’s anti-immigration policies:

After working through the Las Vegas summer lugging boxes and heavy furniture to raise money to apply for United States citizenship, Jose Silva plunked down the $725 fee in the fall of 2017, just days after he turned 18. “I hoped to vote in the midterm elections,” he said.

But it took until last week, more than a year and a half after he applied, for the college student to be scheduled for a citizenship interview, which he will have on March 20. If approved, Mr. Silva will take the oath later this year.

The time that aspiring Americans must wait to be naturalized is now almost twice as long, 10 months, as it was two years ago. In Las Vegas, where the office has a particularly large backlog, applicants could wait 31 months.

The delays come as the Trump administration tightens scrutiny of applications, diverts staff from reviewing them and introduces proposals likely to make it more difficult, and cumbersome, for green-card holders to qualify and complete the process.

Nearly nine million immigrants are eligible for citizenship. The steep application fee and the civics and English tests have historically deterred many from naturalizing. Instead, they renewed their legal residence every decade.

But the administration’s move to tighten restrictions on immigration have awakened many longtime permanent residents to the fact that a green card does not shield them from deportation. It has also compelled many to seek citizenship in order to cast a ballot, with hundreds of thousands of immigrants poised to become potential voters ahead of the 2020 election.

After supporting legislation that would cut overall immigration, President Trump recently championed the economic benefits of attracting foreign talent. In his State of the Union address, the president said he wanted “people to come into our country in the largest numbers ever, but they have to come in legally.”

Yet the lengthening backlog in applications is making it more difficult for immigrants to become civically engaged and to solidify ties to their adopted country, critics of the administration’s policies say. “Far from the public eye, the Trump administration is strangling the naturalization process,” said Steven Choi, a chair of the National Partnership for New Americans, a coalition of advocacy groups that is pushing to offer naturalization workshops and legal services to would-be citizens.

Coalition members filed a federal lawsuit in Los Angeles in September against the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that reviews the applications, challenging the processing delays.

The federal agency has blamed the delays on a sharp rise in applications.

“U.S.C.I.S. continues to adjudicate the pending naturalization caseload, which skyrocketed under the Obama administration, more than doubling from 291,800 in September 2010 to nearly 700,000 by the beginning of 2017. Now, despite a record and unprecedented application surge workload, U.S.C.I.S. is completing more citizenship applications, more efficiently and effectively — outperforming itself,” Michael Bars, an agency spokesman, said in response to emailed questions.

There have been bigger application spikes in the past, such as in 2007, when the caseload swelled to 1.4 million and the agency was able to work through the backlog by the following year. That has not happened with the current pileup.

A total of 750,793 applications were pending at the end of June, the latest period available. But the rate at which they are being processed is at the lowest in a decade, according to an analysis released this month by Boundless Immigration, a technology company in Seattle that helps immigrants obtain green cards and citizenship. The agency was able to work through only about half its applications in 2017, compared to about 60 percent in 2016. (Data for 2018 is not available.)

“Applications for citizenship have surged many times in the past and U.S.C.I.S. was able to bring enough resources to bear to tame them. Wait times have doubled and the agency is barely processing half of their backlog,” said Doug Rand, a founder of Boundless Immigration.

A Feb. 12 letter to the director of Citizenship and Immigration Services that was signed by 86 members of Congress raised concerns about the “alarming growth in processing delays” for naturalization and other services like green cards and visas.

It noted that the agency’s proposed budget for the 2019 fiscal year included a request that more than $200 million of its fee revenue be transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency that rounds up people for deportation.

“This appears to represent part of U.S.C.I.S.’s larger shift toward prioritizing immigration enforcement over the service-oriented adjudications at the core of the agency’s mandate,” said the letter, which sought details about efforts to reduce and eliminate backlogs.

Processing times vary across the country, depending on caseloads and staffing at regional offices. Applicants in Houston could wait almost two years; in Atlanta, the wait could be even longer. In contrast, those seeking citizenship in Louisville, Ky., have been completing the process in up to 10 months. In Buffalo, the wait is just over a year.

Citizenship applications are receiving additional scrutiny — and that is likely to intensify. The Trump administration says that it is placing a premium on integrity. But immigration lawyers and other experts report that officers are digging up information going back years to raise questions that are delaying, and jeopardizing, citizenship for many applicants.

“The Trump administration has infused the entire legal immigration system with skepticism, but naturalization should be different: These people are already here legally; they want to be citizens to better assimilate,” said Mr. Rand, who served in the Obama administration.

The government has also been taking a harder look at some immigrants who have already become citizens. Last year, the agency launched a denaturalization task force with the aim of stripping citizenship from people found to have committed fraud to obtain it.

Some applicants have shown up for their interview only to learn they could be deported.

“This past year, for the first time we have started to see people who apply for naturalization not only have it denied but also be placed in removal proceedings to take away their permanent residence,” said Ted Farrell, an immigration lawyer in Louisville.

Ahmed Bafagih, 31, a permanent resident since 2010, was denied citizenship after he told an officer during his interview last month in Houston that he was born in Kenya, not Yemen, as appeared in his file. He is appealing the decision.

“Acting in good faith, I tried to correct the error that would have gone unnoticed,” said the lab technician, who moved to Sana from Mombasa, his birthplace, when he was about 30 days old.

The denial, reviewed by The New York Times, stated that, “Your record reflects that there was fraud in procurement of your Legal Permanent Resident status,” referring to the erroneous birth certificate.

Mr. Bafagih’s Yemen-born parents and three sisters are American citizens.

His father, Jamal Bafagih, who won awards during 25 years of service with American government missions in the Middle East, including with the Pentagon and the Commerce Department, said: “I raised my kids to love this country. Suddenly when my son reports an error, it bounces back to hurt him; that leaves a very bad taste.”

Slated for implementation are a series of regulatory changes that are likely to make the process even more onerous.

One proposal would require many citizenship applicants to produce a decade of international travel history, rather than the current five; more documentation, like children’s birth certificates, which many refugees lack; as well as more information to ascertain “good moral character.”

The agency has also proposed narrowing the eligibility criteria for a waiver of the full $725 filing fee, which would reduce the number of low-income immigrants who could afford to naturalize.

Meanwhile, many agency officers who conduct citizenship interviews have been reassigned to the southern border to interview asylum seekers, whose cases the administration wishes to expedite, according to an agency official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to speak to the media.

For many of those waiting their turn, more is at stake than the simple pride of citizenship. Holding an American passport opens access to certain jobs, such as in law-enforcement agencies, and scholarships that are not available to noncitizens. Mr. Silva the applicant in Las Vegas, is studying Arabic, a language in high demand by government agencies, which often only hire citizens.

He’s studying at a community college, but hopes to transfer to a four-year university next year — and that’s another issue.

“My passion is languages,” said Mr. Silva, “and for scholarships I have found, you have to be a U.S. citizen.”

Liberal MPs put heat on McCallum to address immigration processing ‘mess,’ say lengthy delays ‘unacceptable’

Not surprising, the range and nature of complaints (which may have been a factor among visible minority voters during the recent election) but turning this around takes time:

Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship John McCallum has been under intense pressure at recent national caucus meetings from Liberal MPs who want him to address the “mess” in the processing times of immigration applications, which in some cases is taking more than six years for family class applications.

“This is not acceptable. We have to do something about it,” Liberal MP Sukh Dhaliwal (Surrey-Newton, B.C.) told The Hill Times.

In the last two national caucus meetings—Sunday, Jan. 24 and Wednesday, Jan. 27—about 20 MPs spoke up, in total, in both meetings, Liberal sources told The Hill Times. Liberal MPs told Mr. McCallum (Markham-Thornhill, Ont.) that, up until the last election, Conservatives were to be blamed for the slow processing of applications because they were in power. But Canadians now want to know what the Liberals have done to speed up the processing times in the last three months, according to Liberal sources. During the Jan. 24 caucus meeting, Mr. McCallum and his departmental officials conducted a briefing for MPs about the causes of the delay and introduced them to some departmental resources that can help MPs in serving their constituents on immigration files.

Sources told The Hill Times that Liberal MPs recognize that Mr. McCallum and the Immigration Department is focused on the politically sensitive Syrian refugees file, but they also want swift action on Immigration applications in the regular streams.

During the last election campaign, the Liberals had promised to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by the end of last year, but they missed the deadline and are now aiming to achieve this goal by the end of February. As of last week, about 14,000 have arrived in Canada. Because of the high-profile domestic and international implications of the Syrian refugee file, Mr. McCallum and the Immigration Department have been in the media spotlight for months. The Syrian refugee crisis is considered the biggest refugee crisis since the end of World War II and it’s estimated 12 million have been displaced as a result of the civil war in Syria.

Meanwhile, the Immigration application processing times are different for different categories including family class, economic class, refugee and humanitarian and compassionate classes.

In the case of parents and grand parents sponsorship applications, the department is currently processing the ones that were filed on or before Nov. 4, 2011, according to the departmental website. The processing time for spouses or common-law partners living inside Canada is 26 months and for the ones outside of Canada is 17 months.

In the economic class, if an application was filed between 2008 and 2010, the processing time is 67 months while for the ones filed between 2010 and 2014, is 13 months.

Canada takes in about 260,000 immigrants each year in all categories, combined. The statistics were not available for last year, but in 2014, 66,661 received Canadian immigration in the ‘family class’ category, 165,089 in the ‘economic class’ category and 23,286 in the ‘refugee class’ category, according to the departmental website. In 2013, Canada took in a total of 259,023 immigrants including 81,843 in family class, 148,155 in economic immigrant class and 23,831 in refugees class.

In interviews last week, Liberal MPs told The Hill Times that about 60-70 per cent of their constituency work is immigration related and specifically for family class applications.

Mr. Dhaliwal said that Mr. McCallum, who also served in former the Cabinets of prime ministers Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin, has assured MPs that he understands and recognizes the processing of applications and will take steps to speed things up.

“He [Mr. McCallum] has publicly said and he has privately said that he’s going to fix and fix [this issue] once for all. The pressure is on and this is one of the toughest ministries and tasks to handle and John McCallum comes up with a lot of experience behind him. He’s a thoughtful individual and working on this file. We are trying to help him by giving our input and he’s consulting people,” said Mr. Dhaliwal.

Source: Liberal MPs put heat on McCallum to address immigration processing ‘mess,’ say lengthy delays ‘unacceptable’ | hilltimes.com