‘Anything would be better:’ Critics warn Ottawa’s family-reunification lottery is flawed, open to manipulation – The Globe and Mail

Almost comical if it were not for the impact on people. And it should not be surprising, given our immigration system’s emphasis on high skilled economic immigrants, that some of them should have the mathematical and technical smarts to point out the lack of randomness:

Canada’s family-reunification program is using a common spreadsheet application to select candidates as part of a process critics say is flawed and open to manipulation.

As the first step in the program, the federal government uses Microsoft Excel to randomly pick applications in its lottery, The Globe and Mail has learned. Experts have warned that using Excel to conduct such a sensitive lottery could be problematic, and that the lottery process itself may make the system less fair over all.

The Parents and Grandparents Program allows Canadians to sponsor family members for permanent-resident status. The Liberals introduced a lottery in 2017 in an effort to make the system fairer – previously, applications were accepted on a first-come, first-served basis. The program receives roughly 100,000 applications each year and selects 10,000.

Details on the lottery, obtained through an Access to Information request shared with The Globe, show a procedure carried out in just a few steps: Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) uses Excel to assign each application a random number, then takes the first 10,000 numbers.

Excel’s method for generating random numbers is “very bad,” according to Université de Montréal computer-science professor Pierre L’Ecuyer, an expert in random-number generation. “It’s a very old generator, and it’s really not state-of-the-art.” Prof. L’Ecuyer’s research has shown that Excel’s random-number generator doesn’t pass certain statistical tests, meaning it’s less random than it appears. Under the current system, “it may be that not everybody has exactly the same chance,” Prof. L’Ecuyer said.

Excel uses pseudo-random number generators, a class of algorithms that rely on formulas to generate numbers. These generators have a key flaw – they rely on a “seed” number to kick off the mathematical process. In the case of Excel, this seed is generated automatically by the application. “If you know one number at one step,” Prof. L’Ecuyer explained, “you can compute all the numbers that will follow.”

This means the process could be exploited by someone with the right skills. It’s happened before: In 1994, IT consultant Daniel Corriveau discovered a pattern in a keno game – which uses a random numbering system – at the Casino de Montréal and won $620,000 in a single evening. An investigation later determined the game was using the same seed number at the start of each day.

Using more robust generators, such as the ones used for cryptography, may not cost the government much, either. “Cryptographic generators are free. They are on the internet,” Prof. L’Ecuyer said. “Just pick one, you need to know about it and that’s all. It’s not complicated.

“Anything would be better.”

For its part, IRCC is satisfied with its use of Excel, spokeswoman Shannon Ker said in an e-mailed statement. “We stand by this randomized selection process as a sufficient means of equal opportunity for all who look to express an interest in sponsoring their parents and grandparents.”

Others would rather see the lottery scrapped altogether. For the past two years, Igor Wolford, a data-analytics manager at Loblaws, has applied to sponsor his parents in Russia. He hasn’t made it past the lottery stage, and recently started a website to petition the federal government to abandon the system.

Mr. Wolford has corresponded with members of Parliament about his concerns. “I actually prepared an Excel sheet showing how random processes work,” Mr. Wolford said. “After 10 years of selection, only half of people who were eligible 10 years ago would be selected.”

Number of people from an original pool of 95,000 applicants who haven‘t made it past the lottery stage
Assuming 20,000 new applicants each year and 10,000 applicants selected each year

https://s3.amazonaws.com/chartprod/cZByyEpAhKuPixSBk/thumbnail.png 

Although the lottery selects roughly one in 10 applications, the number of people who pass additional vetting and ultimately make it into the program is far lower.

“Last year, they selected the original 10,000 people [during the lottery], but only 6,000 people actually [made it into the program],” Mr. Wolford said. This is partly be cause the lottery is the first step in the process, meaning anyone can fill out the form.

IRCC responded to these complaints in 2018 by including a self-assessment screening for applicants. However, the questions are still optional, as one Twitter user noted.

When told the lottery was conducted in Excel, Mr. Wolford wasn’t surprised. “That’s a very sad process. It’s easily manipulatable,” he warned. According to IRCC, the process is double-blind, and to date there is no indication the system has been manipulated.

“The process has become unpredictable,” Mr. Wolford said. “Before, you knew that it would take seven years from start to finish, and you could plan your life. Right now, you don’t know if it will happen this year, in five years, in 15 years.”

“Because it’s a lottery, you might never be selected.”

via ‘Anything would be better:’ Critics warn Ottawa’s family-reunification lottery is flawed, open to manipulation – The Globe and Mail

Parent sponsorship program still deeply flawed despite changes, immigration lawyers warn

No perfect system:

The federal government has made changes to a problem-plagued lottery program for those wishing to bring their parents or grandparents to Canada, but immigration lawyers warn the updated system is still deeply flawed.

The 2018 sponsorship program for parents and grandparents opened Tuesday. This year, those interested will have to provide more information about who they want to sponsor and whether they meet the program’s income requirements before their names are entered in the lottery. The change is an attempt to winnow out those who aren’t eligible to apply, after thousands of people selected last year failed to follow through with their applications.

“Helping more people reunite with their parents and grandparents in Canada demonstrates the government’s commitment to keeping families together, leading to successful integration and stronger ties to Canada,” said Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen in a statement from Dec. 22, when the 2018 program was announced.

But Elizabeth Wozniak, a Halifax-based immigration lawyer, said the lottery system is “just a bit of a crapshoot.” She believes ineligible applicants will still submit the initial paperwork, bogging down the system and making it harder for those who do meet the criteria to bring their loved ones to Canada.

“Anyone can throw their name in once again, same as last year,” she said. “It’s just going to be more of the same.”

In years past, the sponsorship program for parents and grandparents was first-come, first-served. People submitted full applications during the earliest days of the new year, and the first 5,000 would be processed. In 2016, that number was doubled to 10,000.

But last year, the government decided to change the rules and use a lottery system instead. Those interested had to submit only basic information using an online form between January and February, after which 10,000 names were randomly selected to submit complete applications.

The change was intended to make the system fairer for those living further afield and for those who couldn’t afford a lawyer to help them prepare the full application on time.

Last year, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada received 95,000 online forms, and randomly chose 10,000 of them. But according to information presented by Hussen in the House of Commons in December, the department only ended up receiving 6,020 applications.

Wozniak said the program’s income requirements are the biggest obstacle for would-be applicants. The government requires that sponsors prove they meet income thresholds for the previous three years, which vary depending on the size of their family.

But the 2017 online form didn’t ask for any information about income, which meant ineligible people could be selected from the lottery and only then realize they couldn’t actually apply.

This year, the new online form asks whether would-be applicants meet the income thresholds — but it doesn’t require proof. Wozniak said that’s not good enough. “Ineligible people can still be selected and they won’t be vetted out,” she said.

Last year, the immigration department eventually sent out a second round of invitations to make up the rest of the 10,000 spots. The applications were due in December. The government has yet to say whether it reached its target.

Wozniak said she had about 25 clients who were in the pool last year, and none were selected in either draw. “It was a real letdown for people who were eligible,” she said.

Toronto-based immigration lawyer Matthew Jeffery said the new online form is a “definite improvement” over last year, but cautioned that it will still be difficult to weed out ineligible applicants.

“At the end of the day, I consider the process arbitrary and unnecessary,” he said. “It boils down to luck. So someone who’s qualified to sponsor their parents and has been for a long time, if they’re unlucky, they may never be able to sponsor their parents.”

He believes the 10,000-person limit should be scrapped altogether, and said he thinks the income threshold and other requirements are enough to limit the number of applicants.

Wozniak said the old first-come, first-served system was working fine.

“It wasn’t great, it wasn’t perfect… but we had no issues getting eligible people into processing,” she said. “It’s much more certain and it was faster, easier, more predictable.”

As for her 25 clients from last year, she said, their parents and grandparents would be permanent residents by now under the old system: “No doubt.”

Source: Parent sponsorship program still deeply flawed despite changes, immigration lawyers warn

Subsequent article with some of the comments during consultations on the changes: ‘Cruel’ immigration lottery system relaunched after angry backlash – Kathleen Harris

‘Profoundly unfair:’ Frustration mounts over immigration lottery to reunite families

No matter which system, there will always be more demand for family reunification that can be accommodated easily within the overall levels of immigration.

And kind of funny to hear Conservative critic Michelle Rempel arguing the government to use a “sober, management lens.” After all, when in power, the Conservative government reduced the levels for parents and grandparents as part of the relative shift to more economic class immigrants, thus creating a backlog even with the introduction of longer visitor visas to address the demand.

A valid policy choice, although one that was not necessarily popular with affected communities:

Hundreds of Canadians frustrated by the government’s shift to a lottery system to sponsor their parents and grandparents as immigrants to Canada are hoping to prompt change through an electronic petition.

Petition e-739, which closes for signatures this afternoon, calls on the Liberal government to take a phased-in approach and give priority to qualified sponsors who have made repeated applications.

This year the government moved from a first-come, first-served process to one where potential applicants were randomly selected by draw. The change was announced in December 2016 by then immigration minister John McCallum, just weeks before the deadline under the old system.

Brad Fach, a Cambridge, Ont., software engineer who launched the petition, was shocked to learn of the sudden change after he and his wife spent much time and money preparing the required forms and documentation to apply for her mother and father to emigrate from Belgium. He said the government has reduced a sensitive, emotional process to an undignified, “botched” system.

“I believe it mocks a very serious issue of family reunification, and is the wrong way to go,” he told CBC News.

Last week, the government announced that 95,000 people had filed an online form to win one of 10,000 spots to apply for sponsorship under the new lottery system. That put the chances at roughly one in 10.

Under the previous system, the first 10,000 completed applications turned in to the immigration processing office when it opened in January were accepted. The switch to a lottery system aimed to make it more fair and transparent, according to the government, as the old process favoured those who were geographically close to the centre or had the financial means to pay for couriers or legal representatives to help get them to the front of the queue.

Fach rejects that rationale. To qualify as a sponsor for parents or grandparents, he said, you must be in strong financial shape.

“You need money regardless, so you already have an advantage over the rest of the population. To claim that this somehow levels the playing field is complete crap,” he said.

Give ‘ray of hope’

Fach believes the new system is flawed because the online form to enter the lottery required only basic information, not details to ensure applicants were qualified and met financial requirements to sponsor their parents or grandparents.

If the government remains committed to the lottery, Fach said, it should at least devise a system that accounts for waiting time to give people a “ray of hope” they will eventually be invited to apply as sponsors.

Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel likened the lottery to an “abdication of responsibility,” leaving the system to chance instead of making improvements in a systemic, purposeful way.

“It almost seems like we’re giving up. We’re giving up on process efficiencies, and it’s luck of the draw on whether you get into Canada or not,” she said.

Rempel said Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen must look through a “sober, management lens” to improve processes that match up with new legislation and immigration priorities.

“That’s going to be a tall order, because they’ve changed this so much and they’ve got so many problems now,” she said.

NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan said the parent and grandparent program is the only immigration category where the fate of applicants is up to the “luck of the draw.”

“I think that is fundamentally wrong,” she said.

Source: ‘Profoundly unfair:’ Frustration mounts over immigration lottery to reunite families – Politics – CBC News

Liberals scrap parent visa application process over concerns people pay for spots at the front of the line

Market responds and government reacts:

Coveted spots for the parent and grandparent visa program will be awarded by lottery in 2017 after the federal Liberals have scrapped the old first-come, first-serve system that had raised concerns over people paying to be at the front of that line.

Applications for the always over-subscribed program had been accepted only via courier or mail at a single immigration office and since they were processed in the order received, couriers had been doing brisk business promising to be at the front of the line, in exchange for fees that could be as high as $400.

But that system has now been replaced by a random draw, the federal immigration minister announced Wednesday.

“We’re ensuring everyone can access the application process by giving them the same chance to have their name chosen,” Immigration Minister John McCallum said in a statement.

Beginning Jan. 3, Canadians will have 30 days to fill out an online form indicating their desire to sponsor a parent or grandparent. From those, immigration officials will randomly draw 10,000 individuals who will then be asked to submit the full application within 90 days.

The change comes after The Canadian Press first reported earlier this year that the previous first-come, first-serve process was seeing couriers charge more than $400 to guarantee applications would be at the top of the pile for the spots available in 2016.

That raised concerns that the visas were going to those who could afford to pay the high fees or camp out for hours at the Mississauga, Ont., immigration office.

A lot of people had been rejected in the past and were looking forward to this year

High demand came in part from the fact the previous Conservative government closed the program entirely between 2011 and 2014 to bring down a massive backlog.

It re-opened in 2014 with an annual cap of 5,000 applications. Last year, 14,000 applications were received and the Liberals later raised the cap on the number of applications they would accept to 10,000.

Couriers had already started taking reservations to deliver 2017 applications, with fees ranging from $60 to $200, depending on whether someone wanted to guarantee their application was delivered first.

Source: Liberals scrap parent visa application process over concerns people pay for spots at the front of the line | National Post

USA: Time to Eliminate Diversity Visas?

It is a weird system:

There has been too little public debate about legal immigration, however, beyond the affirmation by many that amnesty for illegal aliens is unfair to those immigrants who abided by law or remain overseas waiting for their turn.

Sure, there has been some debate about who the United States should welcome: refugees fleeing Syria? Family reunification? Birthright citizenship? Those with special technical ability or willing to invest vast sums in the American economy?

One of the strangest categories of legal American immigration is the “diversity visa,” sometimes known as the green card lottery. The concept of the lottery is simple: Citizens of countries from which fewer than 50,000 people have immigrated to the United States over the previous five years are eligible to apply to a lottery, from which 55,000 immigrants to the United States are chosen. Russians, Poles, Guatemalans, and Taiwanese can apply, for example, but Haitians, Colombians, and Mexicans cannot. Here, it gets more complicated: The State Department and Department of Homeland Security divide the world into six regions for the purpose of the lottery and seek to privilege lottery applicants from those regions which have sent fewer immigrants than other regions. Hence, for 2017, Africa has been allotted 20,400 slots, while Europe receives 14,000. Five lucky Bahamians will win spots reserved just for them.

The green card lottery is a relatively new phenomenon, a legacy of three Democratic congressmen—Howard Berman, Brian Donnelly, and Bruce Morrison—during the Reagan administration. The Immigration Act of 1990, sponsored by Chuck Schumer, formalized the program in more or less its current form. The bar for green card lottery winners is low—no criminal history, a high school education, and be in generally good health. There is no ideological bar, however. Pakistanis, Uzbeks, or Yemenis who win the lottery might be sympathizers to radical causes, but so long as they don’t have a criminal history they are good to go.

Given the fact that winners often bring their families, there are now well over a million Americans—probably twice that—who can attribute their citizenship to the lottery. But is that a wise way to welcome citizens? Does diversity really mean bringing people from East Timor to East LA or from South Sudan to South Dakota? Is there anything wrong with cynically seeking to benefit not only the immigrant but in a more immediate sense the United States by choosing the best educated, best able to immediately integrate into society and contribute to the economy? This isn’t mean to suggest that humanitarian concerns shouldn’t come into play, but the lottery doesn’t alleviate suffering; it is just random.

Many liberals and even many conservatives may feel unease as President-elect Trump’s populist rhetoric about immigration but that does not mean the system isn’t broken or outdated and can’t be reformed. When that debate comes—and it is looming—the notion that the United States should still have a visa lottery should certainly be on the agenda.

Source: Time to Eliminate Diversity Visas? | commentary