Canada faces a staggering immigration backlog. With the border reopening and applicants anxious to get here, how should Ottawa prioritize?
August 7, 2021
Thanks to COVID-19, Linda Shaji and Canada have had what you might call a bad romance.
After a lengthy vetting process, the 29-year-old from India was approved for permanent residence here on March 20, 2020 — two days after this country’s border was closed.
Now, 16 months later, her Canadian immigration visa has expired and Shaji is still home at her parents’ house, waiting to be admitted into this country.
The worst part is, after all this time, she’s still in the dark — met with automated email responses and told by Canada on its immigration website: “To wait for us to tell you what happens next. You don’t need to contact us again.”
“Ghosting us when we ask questions. Denying anything is wrong. Saying we are too needy when we question the long silence,” Shaji paused, “if this is a relationship, these are some serious red flags.”
The pandemic has wrecked havoc on the entire immigration system, with backlogs for every program — from family reunification to different economic immigration streams — that are only growing.
Now, as the border begins to reopen, the federal government is faced with long lines of disgruntled applicants, all looking to be the first to come in and start new lives in this country, while the bureaucracy struggles to digitalize an outdated case management and processing system.
Since March 18, 2020, when Canada closed its border in the face of the emerging pandemic, the immigration system has ground to a halt. The federal immigration department found itself scrambling to secure laptops for stay-at-home staff and to transition its processing online.
As of July 6, the backlog of permanent residence applications had skyrocketed by 70 per cent to 375,137 since February 2020, with the number of applications for temporary residence currently sitting at 702,660 cases.
The backlog of citizenship applications has also ballooned: it’s reached 369,677 people from 208,069 over the same period. These numbers do not include the applications that have been received at the mailroom of immigration offices but which have yet to be entered into the system.
Amid border lockdowns here and around the world, Canadian officials prioritized foreign nationals whose travels were deemed essential, such as migrant farm workers and health workers. They also responded to the plight of international students, who had paid a fortune to study in Canada and were in immigration limbo.
Wanting to keep the country’s immigration pipeline flowing, but not knowing how long travel restrictions would be in place, officials turned to the huge pool of migrant workers already in Canada to offer some of them permanent residency.
Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino has, meanwhile, been criticized by applicants left, right and centre who have had their lives, careers and dreams put on hold, some facing prolonged separation from spouses and parents or grandparents who are being kept out of the country.
“The growth of the inventory or what is described as backlogs is very much a function of the pandemic. There (was), quite literally, in the case of new permanent residents, no place for them to come to as a result of the travel restrictions,” Mendicino said.
“We hear you. We see you. Each and every one of your cases matters to me and to our department and to our government.”
While Mendicino has boasted about the quick adaptation of the immigration system to the pandemic, often citing the virtual citizenship test and oath-taking ceremony as examples, he has yet to make public a detailed plan or priorities for when the border reopens.
Recently, Canada’s reopening effort reached a new milestone, with the federal government set to welcome fully vaccinated U.S. citizens and green card holders at the land border for non-essential travel beginning on Aug. 9 without having to quarantine, and from other countries beginning Sept. 7.
What Mendicino needs to do immediately, experts and advocates say, is bring in the migrants who have already been vetted and approved for permanent residence but kept outside of Canada.
“All of the backlogs have now been exacerbated. The government has to provide some clear pathways and criteria for prioritization,” said independent Sen. Ratna Omidvar, a strong voice on migration, diversity and inclusion in the Senate.