‘It’s a racist system’: Some couples say Canada’s visa system is cruelly extending their COVID-19 separations

Visa requirements by their very nature discriminate between those more likely to overstay and those not:

Still in pain after delivering her first child, Kaitlyn Hebb asked her mother in the birthing room to video-call her husband in Egypt, so he could meet their newborn son.

It’s the closest the new mother from Bridgewater, N.S., could come to sharing the moment with Alaa Ali, who has been kept out of Canada while waiting for his stalled spousal sponsorship application to be processed in the middle of a pandemic.

“Alaa is never going to get this moment back. He’s never going to be in pictures. He couldn’t be here to help me. He couldn’t be here to hold our baby. I felt guilty,” said Hebb, a registered nurse, who married Ali in 2018 after the couple met online two years earlier.

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed a practice entrenched in Canada’s immigration system that critics say is discriminatory against some travellers — the majority of whom are from the developing world — who need a valid visa to come into this country.

Due to COVID-19, Ottawa has imposed tight border restrictions against foreign nationals. But two weeks ago, it relaxed the measures to let in unmarried but committed partners of Canadians, as well as international students and those with a dying family member here.

However, one is out of luck if the foreign partner, even married, as Ali is to Hebb, is from a country that needs a visa — a barrier that travellers from visa-exempted countries don’t face.

“Alaa is being discriminated against because of the country he’s from,” said Hebb, whose husband was refused a visitor visa and has yet to hold their now-six-month-old son, Enzo.

“People are saying, ‘It’s like that for everyone. It’s the pandemic. Wait your turn and we need to keep people safe.’ But they don’t realize it has been that way before the pandemic.”

Advocates say couples’ married status can actually work against their chances of getting a visitor visa.

Chantal Dube is a spokesperson for Spousal Sponsorship Advocates, a 5,000-member advocacy group that has been lobbying for family reunifications during COVID-19. She said officials almost always refuse to grant a visitor’s visa if they don’t believe that the applicant’s stay in Canada will be temporary. Those being sponsored by their Canadian spouses are viewed to have the intent to overstay, she said.

The majority of the advocacy group’s members have a spouse from a visa-required country. A survey it conducted in September found only five per cent — or 29 of the 553 respondents — have had their foreign spouses’ visitor visas approved.

“As we are watching all these other spouses and partners and extended family members being granted permission to come to Canada, we have members of our group who can’t even come for the birth of their children. It’s very difficult to wrap our head around it,” said Dube.

“How’s that fair and compassionate? That’s a misstep for our government. It’s important to investigate a possibility of systemic discrimination going on.”

Dube is from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., and her husband, Arvind Singh Grewal, is from India. With their spousal sponsorship application in the system since last October, he has not applied for a visitor visa, for just this reason.

“Why would we put our spousal sponsorship applications at risk by overstepping the boundaries of the time limit put on the temporary visas?” asked Dube, whose members will stage a national virtual protest Saturday.

Opposition NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan said officials often “robotically” refuse applicants, citing their lack of travel history and assets in their home country.

“We have dealt with cases where people are still rejected on this ground even if they have had travel history without incident,” Kwan said.

“It’s as if the travel history for individuals in developing countries is somehow less valid than those in developed countries. It is as if there is some unspoken rule that the standards to obtain a travel visa for those from developing countries are much higher.”

Deanna McConnell of Perth, Ont., said her Haitian husband, Jean Bernard Valeus, has had his visitor visa applications refused twice because immigration officials were not convinced he would leave Canada after his stay.

That was on top of a refusal of their first spousal sponsorship in 2018 because officials didn’t believe it was a genuine marriage. A new sponsorship application was submitted in February 2019 and a decision is pending.

“Our lives are on hold with no recourse. On Feb. 14, 2021, we will be married for four years. That is less than three months away. We are at the mercy of the system,” said McConnell, who met Valeus while visiting her cousin in Haiti in 2011.

“Why is this so difficult?”

Joelle Bruneau of Val-David, Que., was so sick and tired of the separation from her husband, Erick Pineda in Honduras, that she and their 20-month-old daughter, Estrella, flew down to see him as soon as his country’s border reopened in August.

He has twice been refused a visitor visa during Bruneau’s pregnancy and twice after the girl’s birth. Meanwhile, Bruneau said the parents of her friend were allowed to visit Canada from France during the pandemic.

“This is totally unfair. It’s a racist system we live in. All the people from privileged systems can come and enjoy their time with their families. Erick is from a developing country. The process is so much harder for him,” said Bruneau, who met Pineda while vacationing in 2018.

“All the moments Canada Immigration has stolen from us, we will never have it back,” added Bruneau, whose spousal sponsorship has been in the queue since January 2019.

In response to a growing immigration backlog, the federal government in September announced a plan to assign 66 per cent more staff to process spousal sponsorship applications. It aims to accelerate, prioritize and finalize some 6,000 applications each month from October until December.

“We understand that the last few months have not been easy for those who are far from their loved ones in these difficult times. This is why we are accelerating the approval of spousal applications as much as possible,” said Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino.

Spousal Sponsorship Advocates says it’s great to see the government invest in addressing the backlog but what their members immediately need is a visitor visa for their loved ones to be with them in Canada now.

Source: ‘It’s a racist system’: Some couples say Canada’s visa system is cruelly extending their COVID-19 separations