‘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

Home Office to scrap ‘racist algorithm’ for UK visa applicants

Of note and a reminder that algorithms reflect the views and biases of the programmers and developers, and thus require careful management and oversight:

The Home Office is to scrap a controversial decision-making algorithm that migrants’ rights campaigners claim created a “hostile environment” for people applying for UK visas.

The “streaming algorithm”, which campaigners have described as racist, has been used since 2015 to process visa applications to the UK. It will be abandoned from Friday, according to a letter from Home Office solicitors seen by the Guardian.

The decision to scrap it comes ahead of a judicial review from the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), which was to challenge the Home Office’s artificial intelligence system that filters UK visa applications.

Campaigners claim the Home Office decision to drop the algorithm ahead of the court case represents the UK’s first successful challenge to an AI decision-making system.

Chai Patel, JCWI’s legal policy director, said: “The Home Office’s own independent review of the Windrush scandal found it was oblivious to the racist assumptions and systems it operates.

“This streaming tool took decades of institutionally racist practices, such as targeting particular nationalities for immigration raids, and turned them into software. The immigration system needs to be rebuilt from the ground up to monitor such bias and to root it out.”

Source: Home Office to scrap ‘racist algorithm’ for UK visa applicants

Is Trump admitting defeat with his new U.S. visa rules?

Likely, a narrower administrative approach that will nevertheless be subject to legal challenges. But this analysis, essentially arguing that the measure is more virtue signalling to his base, given some of the implementation issues covered in earlier posts, is likely correct:

Last week, the State Department released regulations effective Jan. 24 that make it more difficult for pregnant women to get tourist visas to visit the United States. It’s part of the Trump administration’s attack on “birth tourism,” a term that implies that some women visit just to give birth to a U.S. citizen child. The changes attempt to do an end run around the 14th Amendment, which says that anyone born on U.S. soil is a citizen.

Throughout immigration history — both in the United States and in other countries — pregnant women’s motives have been scrutinized. This new regulation may be an acknowledgment that the Trump administration can’t get rid of birthright citizenship as easily as it may wish.

What’s the change?

The regulations instruct U.S. Embassy personnel around the world to explicitly deny applications for what are called B1/B2 visas (a temporary visa for business and tourism) for birth tourism. The provisions don’t apply to tourists from the 39 (mostly European) countries covered by the visa waiver program, which allows citizens of these countries to visit the United States without a visa.

Here’s the wording:

“This rule establishes that travel to the United States with the primary purpose of obtaining US citizenship for a child by giving birth in the United States is an impermissible basis for the issuance of a B nonimmigrant visa.”

(Department of State, Public notice 10930, pages 1-2)

While there are exemptions for women traveling to the United States for medical treatment, applicants must prove that treatment is necessary and that they can pay for it.

Birthright citizenship around the world

More than 30 countries around the world have some kind of birthright citizenship. But the terms vary widely. While some countries like the United States offer citizenship unconditionally to anyone born on their soil (with narrow exceptions for the children of diplomats), others condition citizenship on such factors as how long the parent or parents have lived in the country or their immigration status; where the child will live; or some combination of those.

At least one country that used to grant birthright citizenship, Ireland, repealed it by referendum in 2004 because many people thought that pregnant foreign women were using a child’s birth on Irish soil to secure residency and circumvent Irish asylum laws. Gender and women’s studies professor Eithne Lubehéld‘s book “Pregnant on Arrival: Making the Immigrant Illegal” observes that the Irish drew inspiration and information from U.S. debates about birth tourism.

In the United States, birthright citizenship dates to Reconstruction

The 14th Amendment states: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and the States wherein they reside.” The Amendment, ratified in 1868 during Reconstruction, clarified the citizenship status of free black Americans and overturned the 1857 Supreme Court case Dred Scott v. Sanford that stated that black people could not be citizens.

While the amendment was being debated, some members of Congress worried that birthright citizenship would enable the Chinese to become citizens. But concern for children born to European immigrants overrode the anti-Asian prejudice. The Supreme Court clarified that the birthright citizenship clause covers children born to immigrants — not just formerly enslaved and free African Americans — in U.S. v. Wong Kim Ark (1898), writing:

“To hold that the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution excludes from citizenship the children, born in the United States, of citizens or subjects of other countries would be to deny citizenship to thousands of persons of English, Scotch, Irish, German, or other European parentage who have always been considered and treated as citizens of the United States.”

U.S. v. Wong Kim Ark (1898)

Historically, the United States has scrutinized pregnant immigrant women — sometimes excluding or deporting them — under the provisions “likely to become a public charge” and “moral turpitude,” dating back to the early 20th century. The public-charge regulation grew from fear that pregnant immigrant women would use public resources like hospitals, burdening American communities both economically and socially. Moral turpitude was supposed to exclude immigrants who had committed certain crimes or offenses — although it has never been clear which ones, exactly, would get someone excluded or deported. Consular officers sometimes used theseagainst women and others who violate social norms, such as unwed pregnant women or single women traveling alone.

In his recent book “Almost Citizens: Puerto Rico, the U.S. Constitution, and U.S. Empire,” legal scholar Sam Erman wrote that in the early 20th century, the commissioner of immigration told Ellis Island immigration inspectors to aggressively enforce the public-charge provisions. Under these instructions, Erman writes, “Ellis Island policy dictated that women who were pregnant and not married had to be held for additional investigation.”

Rutgers student Alyzette Consoli wrote about Minnie Langford, a pregnant black woman traveling from Nova Scotia to New York City in 1920. When she was hospitalized at Bellevue because of pregnancy complications, immigration officials were notified and she was deported. Consoli noted, “It was common practice at this time to exclude a woman on the basis of being ‘Likely to become a Public Charge’ (LPC) when they were actually being targeted for moral turpitude offenses.”

What does all this mean for the Trump administration’s new regulations?

Consular officers already enjoy wide discretion in granting and denying visas, and they do not have to explain their denials. An applicant has no right to appeal, and the decision is not subject to judicial review.

President Trump has often railed against the United States’ generous birthright citizenship policy. In a 2018 interview with Axios, he stated, “We’re the only country in the world where a person comes in and has a baby, and the baby is essentially a citizen of the United States … with all of those benefits. … It’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous. And it has to end.”

Changing the regulations may be the administration’s concession to those who insist that the only way to get rid of birthright citizenship would be by amending the Constitution, even though Trump has argued that a law or an executive order would be enough.

AI system for granting UK visas is biased, rights groups claim

Always a challenge with AI, ensuring that the algorithms do not replicate or create bias:

Immigrant rights campaigners have begun a ground-breaking legal case to establish how a Home Office algorithm that filters UK visa applications actually works.

The challenge is the first court bid to expose how an artificial intelligence program affects immigration policy decisions over who is allowed to enter the country.

Foxglove, a new advocacy group promoting justice in the new technology sector, is supporting the case brought by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) to legally force the Home Office to explain on what basis the algorithm “streams” visa applicants.

The two groups both said they feared the AI “streaming tool” created three channels for applicants including a “fast lane” that would lead to “speedy boarding for white people”.

The Home Office has insisted that the algorithm is used only to allocate applications and does not ultimately rule on them. The final decision remains in the hands of human caseworkers and not machines, it said.

A spokesperson for the Home Office said: “We have always used processes that enable UK Visas and Immigration to allocate cases in an efficient way.

“The streaming tool is only used to allocate applications, not to decide them. It uses data to indicate whether an application might require more or less scrutiny and it complies fully with the relevant legislation under the Equalities Act 2010.”

Cori Crider, a director at Foxglove, rejected the Home Office’s defence of the AI system.

Source: AI system for granting UK visas is biased, rights groups claim

Visitors from India face high rejection rates on visa applications

Good analysis of the data and indication that the government is addressing fraud and applying risk management to different applications:

Refusals on visitor applications from India due to fraud and misrepresentation are soaring, which Ottawa and immigration experts say is in part due to unscrupulous “ghost consultants.”

While the number of Indian visitor visa applications has increased significantly, refusals are growing at an even faster clip. Data provided by the federal government show that the percentage of refusals due to an applicant misrepresenting themselves – through fraudulent submissions, for instance – has nearly tripled. In 2017, 0.9 per cent of all Indian visitor visa rejections were for misrepresentation; from January to May this year, the number jumped to 2.5 per cent.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) refused 1,477 applications due to misrepresentation in 2017. Between January and May of this year, that number had already reached 3,709. The department could see close to a 500-per-cent increase in fraud refusals by year’s end compared with 2017 if current trends hold.

In response to the increasing number of refusals for Indian applications, in June the federal government rolled out an information campaign targeting Indians applying for visas. The effort includes resources on identifying and reporting fraud throughout the process, including by ghost consultants – unscrupulous, unlicensed immigration consultants.

“We anticipate that this campaign will help address some of the spinoff effects of circulating misinformation, such as high refusal rates and abuse of the asylum system,” Mathieu Genest, a spokesperson for Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen, said in an e-mailed statement. Mr. Genest said the problem of ghost consultants is “particularly acute” in India.

Bank statements, income taxes, medical files, education histories, funeral home letters and even letters of support from members of Parliament are some of the types of fraudulent documents received by IRCC in recent years. Aside from fraud, Mr. Genest said the government is also seeing an increase in repeat applications from Indians previously denied and an overreliance on paper applications, which take longer to process, but noted that the increase in refusals should not affect legitimate applicants.

Partly owing to the increase in misrepresentation refusals, approval rates on Indian visitor visa applications have plummeted.

In April, 2015, 88 per cent of visa applications from India were approved – Ottawa received 27,600 applications that month. But by December of 2018, Canadian immigration authorities were receiving more than 58,000 applications each month and approval rates had dropped to 40.8 per cent.

The drop in India’s approval rates comes as the federal government has worked to streamline the visa process. According to documents obtained by The Globe and Mail through access-to-information requests, IRCC is using artificial-intelligence tools to review temporary resident visa applications from China and India as they come in.

Online applications predicted by AI models to be low-risk are sent to an immigration officer for review, simplifying the process. According to IRCC, 30 per cent to 40 per cent of China’s visitor visa applications are are now handled through this streamlined process; however, only 3 per cent to 5 per cent of Indian applications meet that low-risk threshold.

As of April, India was the top source of visitor visa applications to Canada. The country recently surpassed China, where applications have declined in recent months, which some attribute to the continuing diplomatic dispute between Ottawa and Beijing.

According to data from IRCC, Indians submitted 73,457 temporary resident visa applications that month, accounting for nearly a third of the worldwide total. China came in second place, with 46,646 applications.

Visitor visas are required for anyone from a non-visa-exempt country and looking to visit, work or study in Canada. As such, they’re often the first step in the immigration process.

Prashant Ajmera, an immigration lawyer in India who has an office in Montreal, was surprised to hear that the approval rate for visas from India had decreased so dramatically. He said the Canadian government has been touting the growing number of visitors from India, drawing attention to the fact that Canada welcomed nearly 300,000 visitors from that country last year. (There is no cap on how many visitor visas Canada issues each year.)

However, Mr. Ajmera said the Canadian government’s information campaign in India will not solve the problem, as applicants already know about visa fraud and immigration scams.

“They are aware of it but they’re taking calculated risks, most of them,” Mr. Ajmera said. “It’s a very common story.”

He said it would be a better use of Canada’s time to work with other like-minded governments, such as the United States, Britain and Australia, to encourage the Indian government to better regulate its immigration consultants in an effort to stem visa fraud.

One Canadian immigration lawyer thinks that the immigration consultant industry itself may be to blame. Ravi Jain, a Toronto-based immigration lawyer at Green and Spiegel LLP, said that lawyers are taking on clients who first worked with an Indian immigration consultant, only to find that the client’s visitor visa application was riddled with mistakes.

In some cases, unlicensed immigration consultants impersonate applicants throughout the process. “Often times, those people will even make up e-mail addresses. I’m not kidding, they do this,” he said.

Unscrupulous immigration consultants are not the only possible explanation for the decline in India’s approval rates.

Vancouver-based immigration lawyer Richard Kurland said he believes visa fraud, particularly relating to study permits, is the main reason for the decline in the approval rate of temporary resident visas from India. He said study permits are the “number one threat to Canada’s immigration system today” because there is no cap on the number of permits the government can issue, allowing foreign immigration consultants to take advantage of the program.

A recent Globe and Mail investigation revealed that private colleges in Canada are being accused of paying overseas agents to persuade international students that paying tens of thousands of dollars in tuition to study in Canada is the easiest way to get into the country and work toward becoming a permanent resident.

Why are the U.S. immigration norms being tightened?

US immigration checking of social media noted in Indian media (a reminder to us all to more mindful when on social media):

The story so far: On May 31, 2019, the U.S. Department of State introduced a change in online visa forms for immigrant (form DS-260) and non-immigrant visas (form DS-160) requiring applicants to register their social media handles over a five-year period. The newly released DS-160 and DS-260 forms ask, “Do you have a social media presence?” A drop-down menu provides a list of some 20 options, including Facebook, Instagram, Sina Weibo and Twitter. There is also a “NONE” option. Applicants are required to list their handles alone and not passwords. All sites will soon be listable according to an administration official who spoke to The Hill, a Washington DC-based newsletter. The policy does not cover those eligible for the visa waiver programme and those applying for diplomatic visas and certain categories of official visas.

How did it come about?

The policy is part of U.S. President Donald Trump’s intent to conduct “extreme vetting” of foreigners seeking admission into the U.S. In March 2017, Mr. Trump issued an Executive Order asking the administration to implement a programme that “shall include the development of a uniform baseline for screening and vetting standards and procedures for all immigrant programs.”

In September 2017, the Department of Homeland Security started including “social media handles, aliases, associated identifiable information, and search results” information in the files it keeps on each immigrant. The notice regarding this policy said those impacted would include Green Card holders and naturalised citizens. In March 2018, the State Department proposed a similar policy, but for all visa applicants — this is the policy now in effect. Earlier, only certain visa applicants identified for extra screening were required to provide such information. Asking visa applicants to volunteer social media history started during the Obama administration which was criticised for not catching Tashfeen Malik, one of those who carried out a mass-shooting in San Bernardino, California, in 2015. Malik had come to the U.S. on a K-1 fiancé visa, and had exchanged social media messages about jihad prior to her admission to the U.S.

How will it impact India?

Most Indians applying for U.S. visas will be covered by this policy. Over 955,000 non-immigrant visas (excluding A and G visas) and some 28,000 immigrant visas were issued to Indians in fiscal year 2018. So at least 10 lakh Indians — and these are just those who are successful in their visa applicants and not all applicants — will be directly impacted by the policy.

What lies ahead?

The new policy is expected to impact 14 million travellers to the U.S. and 700,000 immigrants worldwide according to the administration’s prior estimates. In some individual cases it is possible that the visa policy achieves what it is (ostensibly) supposed to — allow the gathering of social media information that results in the denial of a visa for an applicant who genuinely presents a security threat. However, the bluntness of the policy and its vast scope raise serious concerns around civil liberties including questions of arbitrariness, mass surveillance, privacy, and the stifling of free speech.

First, it is not unusual for an individual to not recall all their social media handles over a five-year period. Consequently, even if acting in good faith, it is entirely possible for individuals to provide an incomplete social media history. This could give consular officers grounds for denying a visa.

Second, there is a significant degree of discretion involved in determining what constitutes a visa-disqualifying social media post and this could stifle free speech. For instance, is criticising the President of the United States or posting memes about him (there are plenty of those on social media these days) grounds for visa denial? What about media professionals? Is criticising U.S. foreign policy ground for not granting someone a visa?

Third, one can expect processing delays with visas as social media information of applicants is checked. It is possible that individuals impacted by the policy will bring cases against the U.S. government on grounds of privacy or on grounds of visa delays. The strength of these cases depends on a number of factors including whether they are brought by Green Card holders and naturalised citizens (who were impacted by the September 2017 policy not the May 31 one) or non-immigrants. The courts could examine the intent of the U.S. government’s policy and ask whether it has discriminatory intent.

Source: Why are the U.S. immigration norms being tightened?

Lawyer versus consultant? Immigration data shows visa applicants have best shot with former

There may also be some selection bias involved (e.g., nationals who engage lawyers may be stronger candidates for visa approvals):

Foreign nationals who prepare their own Canadian visa applications are nearly as successful in being accepted as those who spend money on a consultant to do the job.

But chances of success are much higher if they hire an immigration lawyer to help get their study, work or visitor visas, according to immigration data obtained under an access to information request.

Canada received 342,154 temporary resident applications in 2017, the data shows. While 86 per cent of applicants declared themselves as self-represented, 6 per cent were represented by consultants and another 5 per cent by lawyers. The remaining 3 per cent hired Quebec notaries or used “non-remunerated” representatives.

Overall, 18.9 per cent of the applications were rejected. Those who prepared their own applications had a 19.3 per cent refusal rate, slightly higher than the 18 per cent among those who paid a consultant to do it.

In contrast, only 10.4 per cent of applications prepared by a lawyer were rejected. The refusal rates for applications prepared by Quebec notaries and unpaid representatives were 13.1 per cent and 10.1 per cent respectively.

Marina Sedai, chair of the immigration section of the Canadian Bar Association, said she wasn’t surprised lawyers had the highest success rate.

“Canadian lawyers’ rigorous education, legal analysis skills, and high ethical standards enforced by an effective regulator, have long been understood to result in better outcomes,” Sedai said.

“Lawyers’ culture of the law being a calling rather than a business means that although lawyers will often take the tough cases, they will also protect clients by advising them against hopeless cases.”

When it comes to the lower success rate for consultants, lawyers are quick to point out that group has lower educational requirements and a less robust regulatory regime than lawyers. For their part, consultants say the immigration data is too general and doesn’t give the full picture.

“It is based on the flawed assumption that all applications are equally complex. In reality, applications completed by unpaid representatives may be far simpler, thus having a much higher chance of success,” said the Canadian Association of Professional Immigration Consultants in a statement to the Star.

Currently, licensed immigration consultants must meet a minimum language requirement and graduate from an accredited immigration practitioner program, which takes about a year to complete full time. While only about 1,000 lawyers practise immigration law, there are five times more licensed consultants in Canada.

“Immigration lawyers typically have completed a four-year bachelor’s degree before undergoing a very competitive process for admission to law school. Law school degrees take three years to complete and are also no cakewalk. Then there is the bar admissions course which must be passed, the articling process, etcetera,” said Toronto immigration lawyer Ravi Jain.

“Many immigration consultants have only completed online courses at a community college. The education and training is just not comparable.”

The immigration consultants’ association, which has more than 2,000 members, said it’s pleased more people are using consultants and believed that’s due to the generally higher fees charged by their lawyer counterparts.

Regulatory bodies for lawyers and consultants do not mandate how much their members can charge clients, but fees can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars.

Jain, who is also vice chair of the bar association’s immigration division, said the success rate for lawyers would likely be even higher if not for the fact lawyers often take up very difficult and complex cases.

“A lot of my clients come to me after they have gone to a consultant or tried on their own,” Jain said, adding many are reluctant to lodge a complaint against their former consultant and prefer just to have him reapply.

“It’s much more difficult to obtain approvals when applications have already been refused,” he added.

Source: Lawyer versus consultant? Immigration data shows visa applicants have best shot with former

Australia: Plans to outsource visa processing are scary, former immigration official says

The risks are real without proper consideration and oversight:

A Department of Home Affairs plan to outsource visa processing will lead to increased automation and “premium” services that could undermine the integrity of the system, a former senior immigration official has warned.

Abul Rizvi, a former departmental deputy secretary, told Guardian Australia the potential for a private provider to create a fast and slow lane for processing had “frightening” long-term implications and the proposed use of applicants’ data for marketing purposes was “appalling”.

Rizvi joins the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) and the Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia in expressing concern about the outsourcing plan, which has not received a final sign-off from the cabinet after months of testing the market for expressions of interest.

In February Guardian Australia reported that departmental briefings to industry had revealed that a successful private bidder could offset the $1bn cost of a new visa processing system by raising revenue through “premium services for high-value applicants”, different access for those able to pay more, and “commercial value-added services”, such as offers from banks, telcos and tourist operators.

Rizvi said he was “very concerned” about the prospect of premium services because “there would inevitably be an incentive for the company to be more facilitative with regard to subjective criteria for applicants who have paid for the fast lane”.

“Any monopoly provider would want to maximise charges for the fast lane and try to drive as many applicants as possible into that lane.”

He said applicants whocould not afford the higher charges were likely to come to Australia on visitor visas and apply for other visas after arrival, exacerbating “integrity problems” caused by the existing backlog of people in Australia because of the department’s “extraordinarily poor administration”.

In July, the home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, boasted about a decline in permanent migration, despite industry warning that the government was “throttling back the rate of migration by stealth” through longer wait times.

Rizvi predicted that outsourced visa processing would lead to tension between the Department of Home Affairs’ increased use of “subjective criteria” for certain visas and the private operator’s desire for increased automation.

“The company or companies that win these tenders will want to automate decision-making as much as possible to minimise costs.”

Rizvi said it was appalling that “extraordinarily personal information” such as an applicant’s relationship status, job, income and health could be used by a commercial firm for marketing purposes.

The chairwoman of the Federation of Ethnic Community Councils of Australia, Mary Patetsos, said it would be “very concerned” about commercialisation of applicant information. She also opposed measures that could lead to an increased cost of visas, particularly for family and partner visas.

“Australia has a long-standing reputation for its impartial, fair and transparent immigration system,” she said. “It should not be put at risk.”

Patetsos warned that premium services “could undermine fairness”. “The opportunity to bring family to Australia to live or visit for extended periods should be available to all Australians – not just the wealthy.”

She said it would be unacceptable for Australian families of limited means to be denied family reunion, which was “integral to successful settlement, social cohesion and wellbeing”.

The deputy national president of the CPSU, Lisa Newman, said a two-tiered visa processing system “will lead to dangerous outcomes”, with the operating company incentivised to to put its profits ahead of the need to assess “gold-plated” visa applicants to the same standards applied to those who could not afford to pay a premium.

“It would also give the company an incentive to further delay processing times for regular customers to try to force them into upgrading.”

She called on the Coalition to abandon the proposal.

The CPSU intends to campaign on the visa outsourcing issue at the next federal election, targeting the immigration minister David Coleman’s seat of Banks, and other electorates with a high number of Australians born overseas, including in western Sydney.

Tender requests went to the market in July and there have been industry briefings in Sydney, Canberra, San Francisco, Singapore and Bengaluru, as well as consultation by the Department of Home Affairs with its workforce.

Groups reportedly keen to bid include a joint venture between Accenture and Australia Post, and a consortium involving Pacific Blue Capital, Qantas Ventures, PwC and Ellerston Capital.

Pacific Blue Capital is run by Malcolm Turnbull’s former employee and friend Scott Briggs. In September, Labor signalled it would pursue the government’s planned outsourcing of the $1bn visa processing system in Senate estimates and called on ministers linked to Briggs to recuse themselves from consideration of the outsourcing proposal.

Source: Plans to outsource visa processing are scary, former immigration official says

Access denied: Canada’s refusal rate for visitor visas soars – The Globe and Mail

Good in-depth reporting. Data indicates that Liberal government is not as soft on immigration and refugees as opposition would lead us to believe. Article would have benefitted, however, for a more balanced discussion regarding the risks of those over staying their visas or claiming asylum which largely drives visa policy (i.e., the benefits, not just the costs).

The different rates for countries suggest this is risk-based.

And like any system that has to make numerous decisions, it sometimes gets them wrong, either refusing people who should be let in, or letting in others that should not:

For a country that prides itself on its openness to the world, Canada makes its borders surprisingly impenetrable for millions of people who want to visit from abroad.

Last year alone, Canada refused entry to nearly 600,000 people who wanted to come for a short stay for tourism, school, business, academic conferences or simply to see their families. And the refusals have skyrocketed: The number has more than doubled since 2012, according to data obtained by The Globe and Mail.

The trend has huge implications for Canada’s relationship with the world, yet the issue is rarely debated. Entry decisions are left to mid-level bureaucrats, and little information is provided to applicants, even though the rising number of refusals and opaque application process can damage Canada’s reputation on the global stage.

Part of the trend is simply due to globalization. People are more mobile, formerly poor countries have more wealth and the number of entry-visa applications has soared in recent years, leading to a larger number of visitors.

But the data also suggest it is becoming tougher to get into Canada, and the odds against applicants are rising.

In 2012, the number of rejections was about 18 per cent of the total number of applications for Canadian visitor visas (excluding student visas). By last year, the refusal rate had increased to 26 per cent. And in the first three months of this year, the refusal rate had risen again to about 30 per cent. Similarly, the refusal rate for student visas has also increased, from 26 per cent in 2012 to a new rate of 33 per cent last year.

Statistics obtained by The Globe from the federal immigration department show that the highest refusal rates are clustered in Africa and the Middle East. Over the past two years, Canada rejected more than 75 per cent of visitor applications from countries such as Somalia, Yemen, Syria and Afghanistan.

Other countries are affected, too. About 200 delegates, including dozens of Chinese government officials, were denied visas to attend a recent conference of the World Guangdong Community Federation in Vancouver.

When scholars gathered at Queen’s University in early May for their annual African studies conference, the program had a dozen gaps. Twelve invited scholars from Africa were denied an entry visa or could not obtain one in time.

Organizers had to scramble to find replacements or combine sessions to make up for missing panelists. “It’s frustrating and disruptive, and it discourages people from coming next time,” said Belinda Dodson, a geographer and Africa migration expert based in Ottawa.

The intangible costs for Canada

The World Economic Forum, which conducts an annual study of travel and tourism competitiveness around the world, puts Canada’s visa requirements among the most complex and opaque in the world. In a 2017 survey that ranks 136 countries from best to worst when it comes to the difficulty of their visa rules, Canada placed a dismal 120th – a drop of 14 places from an earlier survey in 2013.

The process is about to become even more difficult. Beginning on July 31, visa applicants from Africa, Europe and the Middle East will be required to give their fingerprints at a foreign-based application centre. The rule will be imposed for Asians and Latin Americans at the end of December.

In most cases of denied visas, Canadian officials say they are not satisfied that the applicants would leave at the end of their visit. Officials can reject an application if they believe the applicant has not shown evidence of sufficient funds to pay for their stay, or has close family or financial connections to Canada and looser ties to their home country.

Denying visas to tourists or business investors costs the country millions of dollars in potential revenue. Canadian tourism promoters say the visa system is one of their biggest headaches.

The Tourism Industry Association of Canada, which estimates that tourism employs 1.7 million people in Canada, says the visa application process is “an area of significant concern.” It can be an “unnecessarily complex” barrier to visitors, it says.

“Canada continues to lag behind its competitors in terms of requirements, processing times and reciprocity programs,” the association said in a recent report. “Canada must find ways to ease or eliminate such access barriers for legitimate travellers.”

And there is a more intangible cost. When officials reject an application from a respected scholar or activist, it often leads to a flurry of negative publicity, undercutting Canada’s image as progressive on freedom and human rights, especially when the poorest countries seem to suffer the highest refusal rates.

“It casts Canada in a poor light, belying the government’s encouragement of transnational exchange of academic research,” Audrey Macklin, a law professor at the University of Toronto, said after many African and Asian scholars were denied visas to attend a recent conference she helped organize in Toronto.

“Participants denied visas lose – and we lose, too. It certainly damages Canada’s reputation abroad.”

Angola’s most famous anti-corruption campaigner, Rafael Marques de Morais, and a prominent Bahraini human-rights activist, Maryam al-Khawaja, are among those who were recently denied visas to visit Canada, although the decisions were reversed. Both had been penalized in the visa process for criminal charges against them – even though they were charged by authoritarian regimes as a result of their human-rights work.

Scientists from around the world protested in 2013 when Canada denied a visa to Russian scholar Vladimir Kolossov, then president of the International Geographical Union (IGU), to attend an assembly of the International Social Science Council in Montreal. Visa officials said he had failed to give proof of his employment and financial resources, but the IGU said he had provided documentation of both. The geographical union called it an “arbitrary and unreasonable denial of free scientific exchange.

Applications on the rise

Requests for Canadian visas have surged to record numbers in recent years. Applications increased from about 1.3 million in 2012 to about 2.3 million last year. Many of the new applicants are tourists or business visitors from booming countries such as China and India who have more money to travel. But the surge has been accompanied by an even faster growing number of rejections.

The government insists it can handle the dramatic rise. “Updated technology allows the department to take advantage of capacity anywhere in our global network so that applications can be processed quickly,” Shannon Ker, a spokeswoman for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, said in response to questions from The Globe.

But errors can happen. Shuvai Mandigo, a 38-year-old Zimbabwean with eight years of experience in community development work, won a scholarship to study at the Coady International Institute in Nova Scotia – but was denied a Canadian student visa. Officials mistakenly told her she had applied in a different category.

She applied a second time, and was again denied. Officials decreed that she might try to stay illegally, even though she visited Canada twice before and returned home both times.

The decision “breaks my heart,” she said. “I was really hurt. Opportunities come once in a lifetime, and to think that the only opportunity I had to study in Canada – after so much effort by my Canadian friends and well-wishers – could not come to pass because someone just thought I will not come back to Zimbabwe after my stay is really unfair.”

The House of Commons standing committee on citizenship and immigration, in a report last year, recommended that Canada provide more detailed information to applicants to explain its visa denials. “It is possible to provide failed applicants with a more fulsome explanation, while maintaining fast processing,” the committee said.

The soaring number of visa applications could be leading to mistakes and arbitrary rejections in an overly hasty processing system. Rejections typically come in a terse and generic letter that provides no explanation of the specific reasons for the denial.

In many cases, Canadian civil servants have not made the decisions, because Canada has outsourced the job to private foreign firms in the countries where the applicants originate.

The Canadian branch of Amnesty International often invites foreign human-rights activists and civil society leaders to Canada for meetings and conferences. “Every time we are faced with this, we steel ourselves for what we know is going to be an arduous, fraught and highly unpredictable process,” said Alex Neve, secretary-general of Amnesty’s office in Canada.

Foreign human-rights activists have suffered “blatantly discriminatory” visa delays and denials from the Canadian government for years, Mr. Neve said. They are forced to “jump through an immense number of hoops” to get the paperwork Canada demands.

When not all applicants are equal

The government denies any discrimination. “All applications from around the world are assessed equally against the same criteria,” Ms. Ker said.

But not every applicant is equal. One of the factors visa officers consider is the “economic and political stability of the home country,” according to Mathieu Genest, press secretary to Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen.

Mr. Neve expressed particular concern about the high refusal rates for visa applications from countries with serious records of human-rights violations, such as African and Middle Eastern countries. He said those applications require even more special attention to ensure people are not penalized because they’re from a certain country.

“If there’s a possibility here that people’s visa applications are being refused simply because they come from a country experiencing war or human-rights violations, that there’s an irreversible presumption that they’re not going to go home and their … application gets treated differently, that certainly is a concern.”

Annie Bunting, a social sciences professor and Africa expert at York University, said two of her Nigerian colleagues were recently denied visitor visas to travel to Toronto, where they were scheduled to present their research at a law and society conference. Their participation had been funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), a federal research funding agency.

One of the scholars, Lawan Balami, a medical doctor and researcher, was planning to present research on women and girls kidnapped by Islamist radical group Boko Haram.

Umar Ahmad Umar was planning to present his research on access to justice for Nigerian victims of gender-based violence and child marriage. “He has a family in Nigeria, has full-time employment,” Ms. Bunting said. “He has travelled before. He’s fully funded. It’s an international conference with a letter of invitation from the conference, from me, and mention of the SSHRC grant – and that is not enough to get a visitor’s visa to come for a week.”

via Access denied: Canada’s refusal rate for visitor visas soars – The Globe and Mail

Ottawa expands program to collect fingerprints, photos from foreign nationals coming to Canada | CBC News

Planned for some time:

Canada is expanding a program to collect biometric data — including fingerprints — from foreign nationals coming to this country, while experts are warning of the potential for heightened risks to privacy.

The expanded biometrics program will be rolled out over two years, beginning next month, with new requirements to collect biometric data from people from Europe, the Middle East and Africa coming to Canada to visit, work, study or immigrate. Previously, the program was limited to visa applicants from countries believed to pose a higher risk of immigration document fraud, as well as refugee claimants and asylum seekers.

Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen has said the program’s expansion from 30 to about 150 countries will strengthen border and immigration systems with the ability to quickly and accurately establish a traveller’s identity.

Brenda McPhail, director of privacy, technology and surveillance at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said greater use of biometrics — physiological identifiers like fingerprints — is probably inevitable, given global trends. She said she sees both benefits and risks.

“Every time you expand a program like this, you add to the level of risk and complication and increase the chances that something could go wrong,” she said.

Due to the highly sensitive nature of biometric information, McPhail said, data collected by Canada likely would be targeted by “malicious actors.” She said the program’s collection process is risky because the data is collected on foreign soil on Canada’s behalf by private sector firms contracted to do the work — making it extremely important that those third-party employees are screened and their activities are tracked and audited.

Biometric data from the expanded collection program will be shared with Canada’s international intelligence partners: the U.S., U.K., Australia and New Zealand. McPhail said that degree of information-sharing introduces its own risks.

“The more counties you start sharing information with, the more dependent we are (on) other people to also have good processes in place to make sure that the information they’re sharing with us is accurate, that they’re storing it properly and transmitting it safely,” she said.

Hussen’s spokesman Mathieu Genest said detailed privacy risk mitigation measures have been outlined in a series of privacy assessments that were shared with the Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien, and in turn informed the department’s policy development.

“The government of Canada takes its privacy obligations very seriously, and safeguards have been built into policies, procedures and technical systems,” Genest wrote in an email.

RCMP to retain data

The privacy commissioner’s office said the act of collecting fingerprints from visitors is justified by the need to verify admissibility to Canada, and cited the fact that data will be retained for 10 years and destroyed when a permanent resident is granted citizenship as a “positive feature.” The office also said the RCMP will retain the data under strict safeguards.

The commissioner’s office has received various privacy impact assessments on biometric data collection from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada in the past, and has advised the government on the need for strict protocols on information sharing and safeguards protecting the fingerprints, photos and documents collected by private sector employees at visa centres abroad.

Applicants from Europe, Middle East and Africa will be required to pay an $85 fee to capture their biometric data beginning July 31. (IRCC)
“We are awaiting an update from IRCC and may have additional comments to make down the road,” said privacy commissioner spokeswoman Valerie Lawton.

​Applicants from Europe, Middle East and Africa will be required to pay the $85 fee to capture their biometric data beginning July 31, 2018. As of Dec. 31, applicants from Asia, Asia Pacific and the Americas will be required to do the same.

Those exempt include:

  • Canadian citizens, citizenship applicants (including passport applicants), or existing permanent residents;
  • visa-exempt nationals coming to Canada as tourists who hold a valid Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA);
  • American citizens on a work or study permit;
  • children under 14 and seniors over 79;
  • heads of state or government, cabinet ministers and accredited diplomats on official business;
  • U.S. visa holders transiting through Canada.

Ann Cavoukian, a privacy expert at Ryerson University and the former privacy commissioner for Ontario, said that when used properly and stored securely, biometrics data can protect privacy because using it leaves authorities less dependent on documents that are vulnerable to theft.

There is a potential for privacy breaches, though, when data is used without strict protocols or is shared too broadly, she said.

Cavoukian said expanded collection should not proceed until an updated privacy impact assessment is submitted and adequate time given to make any changes recommended by the privacy commissioner.

“This is a major, major development. We rely on his independent oversight and comments and his independent assessment of this,” she said.

via Ottawa expands program to collect fingerprints, photos from foreign nationals coming to Canada | CBC News