Canadians with foreign national spouses face obstacles at border

Seems a bit pig-headed and contrary to the intent of the measures:

When Canada closed its border mid-March due to the pandemic, John Alan Aucoin and other Canadians were unequivocally assured their spouses from abroad would be allowed into the country despite the travel bans.

Little did they know it would come with a catch. Canada Border Services Agency actually had its own rules when applying the government order.

Aucoin didn’t expect his American wife, Adrienne Berg Yorinks, to have trouble coming home to Cape Breton. The couple’s only concern returning from Florida was being able to drive through Maine and New York with those states in lockdown.

But like many foreigner nationals married to Canadians but yet to become permanent residents, Yorinks was refused entry at the border. The couple have been separated for weeks now, one in Florida, the other in Nova Scotia, not knowing when the border will reopen.

“Adrienne was not on a shopping trip. It was not an optional travel. She’s travelling to our primary home with me, a Canadian,” said Aucoin, who met his now wife in 2014. They wed in 2018.

“The fact is Canadian families are being separated notwithstanding of our prime minister’s assertions.”

On March 16, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the border would be closed to non-Canadians, he made exceptions for immediate family members of Canadian citizens and permanent residents. The travel ban, as stated in the government’s orders, was to curtail the spread of COVID-19.

However, since April, a growing number of foreign spouses and children of Canadians have been refused admission into Canada because their travels are deemed “non-essential and optional” by Canadian border agents at airports and land border crossings, said lawyers.

“The Order-in-Council is very clear that immediate family members of a Canadian citizen or permanent resident are exempted from the travel restrictions,” said Barbara Jo Caruso, a former chair of the Canadian Bar Association’s immigration division.

“It appeared the border was open for a period of time, and then they started tightening it in early April. And now nobody gets in except if (the travel) is of essential nature.”

On Good Friday, after being on the road for hours driving back from Juno Beach, Fla., Aucoin, a retired lawyer, and Yorinks, an artist and author, arrived at the border crossing between Calais, Maine and Saint Stephen, N.B. at 5:30 a.m. A border agent refused to let Yorinks in because her travel was deemed non-essential.

When the couple returned to the United States border entry, American officials refused to let Aucoin in because Washington’s COVID-19 travel ban doesn’t have provisions to exempt foreign spouses accompanying Americans.

“It’s been a roller-coaster for us, and we have tried to keep our spirits up,” said Aucoin, who had consulted a lawyer, obtained a notarized statement from the Justice of Peace who married them in Cape Breton and drafted a quarantine plan upon arrival. Yorinks ended up having to drive home to their winter home in Florida by herself.

Immigration lawyer Rafeena Rashid, who used to represent the federal Justice Department and now has her own practice, said her clients — a British and Canadian couple — boarded a government repatriation flight to Toronto Pearson airport April 13 after Global Affairs Canada cleared them.

However, the border agency seized the British husband’s passport and sent him back to the U.K. the next day. The couple are still separated.

“It is very clear that one thing is said to the public while something else is done behind the scenes by CBSA,” said Rashid. “CBSA absolutely has no oversight. Zero. Who’s CBSA to come up with its own criteria that’s not based on the law?”

In response to the Star’s inquiry, the border agency referred to a provision in the government’s COVID travel orders that says: A foreign national, including a Canadian’s immediate family member, is banned from entry if they seek to enter for an optional or discretionary purpose, such as tourism, recreation or entertainment.

However, an internal instruction for front-line border agents obtained by the Star revealed that Canada Border Services Agency actually has set criteria beyond that.

The guidelines include, among other criteria, a ban against a “foreign national coming to Canada to temporarily reside with spouse or immediate family during the pandemic.”

The immigration department last week also posted on its website examples of what are deemed discretionary: visit family on vacation; spend time at a secondary residence; attend a funeral; and birth of a grandchild.

What is not discretionary, it says, is for people to spend the pandemic period with their Canadian family member to ensure each other’s health, safety and well-being. “It would be beneficial to all parties, as the reunification of family members is a key point of the Order in Council,” it notes. “This allows for families to be together during this difficult time.”

Lawyers said the border agency’s own rules go against the spirit of the government order.

“There’s a consistent reference to essential travels, and they don’t see keeping a family together in crisis as essential,” said lawyer Erin Simpson, who has filed a court challenge against a border agency decision to deny one of her client’s entry to Canada.

Nadia Drost of Toronto said her Italian journalist husband, Bruno Federico, was denied entry at Pearson airport on April 22 and sent back to New York City, where he had travelled for an assignment for a documentary about COVID-19. The two had already booked an Airbnb for his 14-day quarantine.

“It’s wrong that border officers are following secret guidelines that are different from what the public is privy to,” said the 42-year-old Toronto woman, also a journalist. “We need oversight of CBSA in the way they interpret the government order. They’ve got to square up.”

Source: Canadians with foreign national spouses face obstacles at border

Immigration Department makes major headway on spousal sponsorship backlog | Toronto Star

Cute timing but the reduction in backlogs welcome:

Immigration Canada has worked hard to play Cupid in the past year by reuniting Canadians with their significant others abroad.

To celebrate Valentine’s Day, Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen hosted a news conference at a Mississauga dessert shop to update his department’s dramatic reduction of the spousal sponsorship backlog.

According to Hussen, the number of spousal immigration applications in the queue has dropped to 15,000 from 74,900 a year ago, and the average processing time has also been sharply reduced to 12 months from 26 months.

“The Government of Canada is committed to family reunification. We understand how important it is to reunite couples. It also makes for a stronger Canada,” said Hussen.

“Canadians who marry someone from abroad shouldn’t have to wait for years to have them immigrate or be left with uncertainty in terms of their ability to stay.”

The minister attributed the success to a focused working group, dubbed the “Family Class Tiger Team,” that was created in spring 2016 to develop innovative mechanisms and redesign application kits and workflow to reduce processing times.

The special team reviewed spouse and partner related forms, guides, websites, tools and processes in order to improve the client experience and achieve faster processing times for most applicants. The team wrapped up in December 2016.

Since then, the Immigration Department’s spousal application package has been revised. At the time Hussen’s predecessor, John McCallum, announced the government intended to reduce the backlog of spousal sponsorship cases by 80 per cent and shorten processing times to 12 months.

Changes to the application kit were made following the announcement, condensing the previous 14 checklists down to four new ones.

On Wednesday, the department said the process will be streamlined further next month.

Starting on March 15, officials said spousal applicants will be asked to submit their background form and police certificates as part of their initial paper application package, instead of later in the application process to help move the process “quickly and efficiently and avoid unnecessary delays.”

The government’s spousal backlog reduction has surprised many, including veteran immigration lawyer Lorne Waldman.

“In my experience, there has been some reduction but it has not been as noticeable as the numbers suggest,” he told the Star. “I do not doubt the numbers but simply note that there are still cases that are taking a long time and it depends a lot on the offices.”

Spousal applications from countries such as Haiti, Mexico, Pakistan, Qatar and Sri Lanka still face wait times ranging from 14 to 19 months, above the 12-month global average, according to the Immigration Department website.

Vancouver immigration lawyer Steven Meurrens said one important reason the backlog was reduced was the increased annual quota for sponsored spouses and children coming into the country, allowing more applications to be processed.

Ottawa increased its annual target for spousal reunification by one-third to 64,000 last year from 48,000 in 2014. The quota is even higher for this year and through 2020, at 70,000 a year.

“The Liberals increased targets, which would increase the number of applications that they process in a year, meaning faster processing,” Meurrens noted.

Waldman pointed out that the government’s time frames for processing do not take into account the delays associated with applications that are returned because they are deemed incomplete.

“If my clients sends in a sponsorship and some officer wrongly decides it is incomplete and sends it back, this adds three or more months to the processing but is not included (in the backlog),” he said. “We have had lots of files wrongfully returned and this has caused a lot of hardship to our clients.”

via Immigration Department makes major headway on spousal sponsorship backlog | Toronto Star

Foreign spouses hit snags with ‘streamlined’ sponsorship program

As happens with so much reporting, the focus is on the personal anecdotes with minimal evidence as to the degree that the problems are widespread (20 cases flagged by the Canadian Association of Professional Immigration Consultants (CAPIC) compares to January-June 2017 numbers of some 32,000 – number includes children). This does not, of course, some of the apparent slip ups in processing as described in the article and the consequent hardship on applicants:

The federal government’s streamlined spousal-sponsorship program was supposed to fast-track the immigration process for the foreign-born husbands and wives of Canadians.

But for a Swedish woman living in Ottawa, the process has been anything but smooth, with her application being sent back not once, but twice. Her immigration lawyer blames government error. Each time, Alexandra Dickenson’s application went back to the bottom of the pile.

“It’s just ridiculous,” said Dickenson.

In 2011, Dickenson married professional hockey player Lou Dickenson who had spent a decade playing in Europe. They had two children and decided to move to Canada when Lou hung up his skates and retired. In September 2016 they arrived in Ottawa to start the next chapter of their life.

Their children had no problems with their immigration paperwork. But for Alexandra, it’s been another story.

In one case, an officer with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) wrote that Dickenson didn’t include her birth certificate and passport photos in the application. However, her immigration lawyer who compiled the documents, says that’s not true. The returned application contains proof — the birth certificates and photos — remain clipped inside, said her lawyer.

“You should look through the whole application before you send it back,” said Dickenson.

It’s a problem that her lawyer, Kristen Dunbar Tobin, says she’s seeing more often since the government announced in December 2016 it was speeding up the processing time for spousal sponsorships — capping it at 12 months. The average wait time before that was two years. The changes were supposed to streamline the process to make it simpler for families.

‘This wasn’t happening before’

Tobin says her office dealt with multiple cases last year in which IRCC sent back applications erroneously.

The government said documents were missing that were actually there, according to Tobin. She knows because she made copies of the application packages before sending them in. And because, when those same packages were returned by IRCC, the “missing” documents were still there.

That said, in some cases, other key documents were not returned, she said.

“This wasn’t happening before,” said Tobin. “Ever since the processing times changed, something that was supposed to be easier and faster, got more difficult actually. Families are being lost in the process.”

Tobin first sent Dickenson’s application in January 2017. Both times it was sent back — over errors her lawyer said didn’t exist — it meant up to three months of delay. They had to start from scratch to re-apply.

Meanwhile, the clock was ticking on Dickenson’s visitor status that was only valid for half a year after entering Canada. It had expired by the time her second application was returned.

‘You want to start working’

For more than 10 months, Dickenson couldn’t work and her family had to live off one paycheque.

“You want to start working,” said Dickenson. “It’s hard not to know what your future looks like.”

It was only after Tobin complained to the government that it gave Dickenson a work visa in November 2017. But she’s still waiting for permanent residency and expects it’s likely to take longer than the government’s self-imposed one-year deadline since she’s already behind in the process.

The family is living in limbo while they wait.

It’s “definitely a frustrating process,” said Dickenson. “Something’s got to change. It feels like something’s wrong.”

Alexandra Dickenson, a Swedish woman living in Ottawa, says the government erroneously returned her spousal sponsorship application twice, forcing her to re-apply all over again. 0:32

Push to submit applications online

The CEO of the Canadian Association of Professional Immigration Consultants (CAPIC), Dory Jade, says he received up to 20 complaints this past fall about IRCC and “missing” documents.

CAPIC complained to the government and says, in some cases, work permits for spouses were expedited. But the delays remain for permanent residency.

“You are in a pending situation,” he said. “The longer this pending situation remains the more stressed, the more unstable situation you are in.”

Jade says he’s been pushing the government for two years to create an online application system for spousal sponsorships to help eliminate mistakes like this. Other types of applications are accepted online.

“Either you upload the right documents in the right box or you can’t click submit,” said Jade. “This makes it very difficult to submit an incomplete application.”

IRCC did not make anyone available for an interview and has yet to comment on lawyer concerns over applications being erroneously returned.

The department did however say that IRCC has no immediate plans to accept spousal sponsorship applications online.

In a statement to CBC News, IRCC says that despite spousal applications being submitted via hard copy, it has been working to improve the process.

“That’s why we made updates to the new checklists and guides in June 2017,” IRCC wrote. “With the changes introduced to the application kit in December 2016 and June 2017, the Department has received fewer incomplete applications than when the old kit was being used. These changes demonstrate our ongoing commitment to enhancing client service.”

Source: Foreign spouses hit snags with ‘streamlined’ sponsorship program

Addressing concerns about marriage fraud: Meurrens

Good and balanced assessment by Meurrens:

As soon as conditional permanent residency was implemented, it was clear that there were problems with the law, many of which were clearly unintended consequences. By far the most severe shortcoming of conditional permanent residency was that many people did not know about the abuse exception to the two-year cohabitation condition and, sadly, stayed in abusive situations to avoid deportation.

The second issue with the abuse exception was that some recent immigrants would make false allegations of abuse in order not to lose their status. In some cases the Canadian sponsors felt so terrible about ending a marriage or common-law relationship with a recent immigrant, knowing that this outcome would lead to the possible deportation of their partner, that they were even willing to participate in the fabrication. During one memorable consultation, a Canadian sponsor who wanted to amicably end his common-law relationship but did not want his partner to face removal from Canada went so far as to ask me how hard he would have to hit her in order for her to qualify for the abuse exception to conditional permanent residency. Frankly, I don’t think the Conservatives realized how far some people would go to stay in Canada, and how difficult it would be for immigration officials to adjudicate whether there was abuse.

Finally, the problem with conditional permanent residency that impacted the largest number of people was that it applied to those who were already inside Canada and who could have obtained permanent residency through economic immigration programs, but instead chose Canada’s family reunification stream because of faster processing times and the ability to work on open-ended work permits during processing.

For example, an international graduate who had been living here with her girlfriend for one year and working for a Canadian employer might have qualified under both the economic and the family reunification programs. From 2012 to 2015, however, the Conservatives frequently imposed application caps on certain economic immigration programs, and in some cases they even terminated whole classes of applications that were in processing. So it was not uncommon for many individuals to submit immigration applications under both economic and family reunification programs. Applicants who succeeded in being admitted through family reunification were then subject to conditional permanent residency, even though they had been working and living in Canada well before they had applied to immigrate. Unfortunately, the rules left some people trapped in relationships that they did not want to stay in. Such outcomes made it clear that the solution to marriage fraud should not be to impose hardship on all in order to catch a few.

While the repeal of conditional permanent residency might have caused some to think that the Liberals are soft on marriage fraud, it is important to note that the Trudeau government is maintaining two other significant measures that the Harper government introduced to address the issue.

The first Conservative reform that remains in place is the requirement that applicants must show that their marriage is genuine at the time of the visa officer’s assessment and that it was not entered into primarily for an immigration purpose. Before 2010, prospective immigrants had to prove only one or the other.

Second, in March 2012 the Conservatives introduced measures prohibiting immigrants who had been sponsored by a Canadian spouse or common-law partner from sponsoring a new spouse or common-law partner within five years after they immigrated. This change has prevented people from marrying a Canadian, immigrating to Canada, quickly divorcing the Canadian, travelling abroad, marrying someone else and then sponsoring that person to immigrate.

Given that both these reforms remain in effect, the Trudeau government’s approach to combatting marriage fraud can perhaps best be described as “three steps forward, one step back.” Supporters of both parties should have confidence that Canada currently has a system to combat marriage fraud that, while not perfect, generally works.

via Addressing concerns about marriage fraud

Ottawa to eliminate rule used to crack down on marriage fraud

Good range of commentary on the Government’s recent announcement on its planned removal of the two-year delay on spousal permanent residency:

One Vancouver immigration lawyer said Monday that anecdotal evidence (the government has yet to make public the official data) suggests that the 2012 measures have been effective.The two-year delay has had “the desired effect of discouraging this kind of behaviour. So if you eliminate that, I wouldn’t be surprised if (marriage fraud) went back up again,” said Andrew Wlodyka, a former assistant deputy chair with the appeal division of the Immigration and Refugee Board.

“But the government has made this decision, and they’re going to have to live with the consequences.”

Geeta Ghardwaj, a settlement worker for Punjabi immigrants at Abbotsford Community Services, said she noticed a “significant” reduction in marriage fraud cases as a result of the 2012 policy changes.

But other immigration specialists praised the pending move, saying the two-year delay had unintended consequences that put new immigrants, especially women, in a vulnerable position.

Marriage fraud “was a problem, there is no question about that,” said Vancouver immigration lawyer Alex Stojicevic, past-chairman of the Canadian Bar Association’s immigration section and an adjunct professor at the University of B.C.

But the policy “caused more problems than it solved (by creating) incentives (for sponsored spouses) to stay in abusive and bad relationships simply to keep their status.”

He said the separate prohibition on a second spousal sponsorship less than five years after an initial marriage should be an effective deterrent.

Stojicevic noted that Citizenship and Immigration Canada has also developed sophisticated tools in recent years to detect marriage fraud, making a “Draconian” measure like the two-year delay unnecessary.

Vancouver immigration lawyer Richard Kurland said there are other tools to discourage fraud, like a mid-2015 regulation that excluded “proxy” marriages executed via telephone, fax or the Internet.

But he said the government should maintain the two-year ban as a discretionary option for visa officers when they have suspicions about a spousal sponsorship, but want to give the couple a conditional benefit of the doubt rather than reject their application outright.

The Conservatives brought in both the two-year and five-year provisions in 2012 after Jason Kenney, the immigration minister at the time, told of “thousands” of victims who had their hearts broken by marriage fraudsters.

A year later, CBSA documents obtained by Kurland indicated that roughly a third of spousal immigration applications from China and India were fraudulent.

Read more: http://www.vancouversun.com/ottawa+eliminate+rule+used+crack+down+marriage+fraud/11753186/story.html#ixzz41gdoS5Rn

Spouses of Canadians to get permanent residency immediately

Another platform commitment being implemented, reflecting a preference to reduce the risk of spouses being trapped in abusive situations compared to the previous government’s preference for reducing marriage fraud and marriages of convenience:

Immigration Minister John McCallum says he’s planning on introducing changes in the “next couple of months” that will grant permanent resident status to the sponsored spouses of Canadians, immediately, upon arriving in Canada.

“When spouses come in now, they don’t immediately become permanent residents; there’s a two-year period where they are not yet permanent residents,” Mr. McCallum (Markham-Thornhill, Ont.) said in an interview with The Hill Times. “We said in our platform that we will end that so that they will become permanent residents on arrival.”

Currently, sponsored spouses of Canadians receive conditional permanent residency upon arrival in Canada and have to wait for two years to obtain permanent-resident status. If the relationship breaks down, the sponsored spouse’s permanent residency can be revoked. Spouses holding conditional permanent resident status enjoy the same rights and benefits as any other permanent resident.

The Conservatives introduced the conditional permanent-resident provision in 2012 to address the issue of marriage fraud.

Since becoming the immigration minister in November, a number of Liberal MPs in ridings with large visible-minority populations have been asking Mr. McCallum (Markham-Thornhill, Ont.) to take immediate measures to make the application processing time of family sponsorship applications faster. Most MPs representing major urban centres from all parties say that issues related to immigration, refugees and citizenship account for 70 to 80 per cent of their constituency work.

Mr. McCallum, whose riding has the third-highest percentage of visible minority population at 82 per cent, said that he finds it “abominable” that it takes almost two years for the spousal immigration applications to be processed, and after arriving in Canada, another two years to receive permanent-resident status. He said that his department is working on coming up with plans to speed up the application processing times. Mr. McCallum did not offer a specific target timeframe for reducing the application processing times, but said that it will be brought down “radically.”

Source: Spouses of Canadians to get permanent residency immediately: McCallum | hilltimes.com