Creation of ombud’s office urged to tackle immigration snafus
Advocates say a public complaints office could save taxpayers’ money and improve efficiency, transparency of Canada’s immigration system.
A Bangladeshi woman had visited her parents in Toronto numerous times with no problem before Canadian officials suddenly declined her subsequent visitor’s visa applications.
A British man’s spousal sponsorship was rejected because his “common-law” Canadian wife checked the “conjugal” box on the application — instead of “common-law” — and must now reapply, adding further frustrating delays to the process.
A Syrian family of seven ended up stuck in Lebanon after phone numbers and a document allegedly went astray, delaying efforts by a Toronto private sponsorship group to bring them to Canada.
These cases are problems critics say an ombudsman at the immigration department could easily fix, saving taxpayers money for reprocessing and potential litigation, and immigration applicants the agony of having their lives thrown into disarray.
“These are the majority of problems people have day to day that could be resolved if there is the will to cut through the red tape,” said Toronto immigration lawyer Raoul Boulakia.
“Immigration cases are expensive to litigate. In some cases, the court would not intervene and the process takes so long. Having an ombudsman’s office would be terrific.”
The idea of establishing a public complaints office at Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada has been floating around for years but never got traction because of the lack of organized efforts among applicants and Ottawa’s short-sighted arrogance to cater to foreign nationals with no voting power.
However, with the new Liberal government’s emphasis on transparency and accountability, critics say an ombudsman could aptly look at these systemic challenges and find solutions.
While Immigration Minister John McCallum agreed that “obviously there is enormous room for improvement” for his department’s service delivery, he is noncommittal to the idea.
“That’s what a lot of my job is about. We are trying to reduce processing times and improve services. The idea of an ombudsman is an interesting idea, but it might be a little bit duplicating of what my office and I are trying to do, and it would add costs. Our objective is similar,” he told the Star.
“If having an ombudsman would assist that task, I would consider it … if it’s value-added. Right now, people can go to their MPs, the MPs might bring it to me and we work on it. We certainly spend a huge amount of time dealing with these problems and cases trying to get the best outcomes.”
The Public Service Alliance of Canada, the union that represents the 5,000 immigration department employees, said frontline services have suffered after 10 years of cuts — staffing was down by 5.3 per cent while workload increased — under the previous government. That led to minimum service and sometimes tainted decision-making, the union said.
“Our members are caught between a lack of resources and instructions. They are being told you have two minutes to respond to a phone call, basically. That’s not worthy of client service in our mind,” said Chris Aylward, national executive vice-president of the union.
“It is nice for the minister to say he’s all for increasing the service and service delivery, but in order to increase service delivery, you have to make sure the resources, tools and training are there.”
The union is all for the establishment of an impartial office if it serves both the clients and its members instead of creating an additional administrative burden and more work under existing resources, Aylward added.
Queen’s University professor Sharry Aiken, who specializes in migrant law and policy, said an ombudsman could best handle administrative issues that emerge in application processing as a result of “misunderstanding, poor representation and human error” that could easily be fixed.
Currently, members of parliament are overwhelmed by constituents’ requests for assistance on immigration files for relatives and friends looking for updates on applications, and immigration cases are inundating the court system and tribunals.
Aiken said the cost of setting up a well-equipped ombudsman’s office at the immigration department could easily be offset by the savings in resources in other jurisdictions and improved operational efficiency. Meanwhile, the courts and tribunals should still handle cases involving errors in law, she added.
“The office would need the authority and resources to deal with these cases and circumstances,” said Aiken, who co-chairs the Canadian Council for Refugees’ legal affairs team. She said the danger of setting up an ombud’s office without proper resources is it would get swamped and couldn’t investigate complaints in-depth.
The immigration department does have a call centre to field questions from the public, but the agents only have the capacity to provide information and have no authority to act on files in the system, said Dory Jade, president of the Canadian Association of Professional Immigration Consultants.
“The call centre is not an alternative,” Jade said. “They can’t make decisions or amend things on a file. Sometimes you get two answers from two different agents.”
Data collected by an ombudsman’s office, he said, could help identify problems and gaps at the organizational level as well as the individual level among staff to hold them accountable for their performance.
“It could certainly help establish benchmarks. Say Officer John in Beijing had 200 complaints and Joe in Ankara only had three complaints. You could go deep into the data to improve customer satisfaction,” Jade noted.
NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan agrees.
“An ombud’s office would bring accountability and transparency to the system and individual (decision-making). It would save people’s time and agony,” said Kwan, whose party supported the idea in its campaign platform.
For too long, Boulakia said, the Liberals under Jean Chrétien had taken a laissez faire approach in the immigration operation, letting bureaucrats run the department — making the system less transparent and more difficult for applicants.
That culture was further reinforced under the Stephen Harper government, despite the Conservatives’ micro-management approach in the immigration operation, he explained.
Immigrant support gradually slipped for the Chrétien Liberals because of neglect and lack of resources for the immigration department, said Boulakia. While immigrant communities initially bought into the Tories’ higher efficiency and anti-fraud immigration agenda, the support could only be sustained if officials continued to be indifferent to their interests and voices.
“The protest vote helped elect the (Justin) Trudeau Liberals, but eventually the same is going to happen if the government remains indifferent to their concerns,” said Boulakia, adding that culture of “neglect and excuse-making” in the immigration department must change.
People caught up in bureaucracy:
- ‘We feel helpless’:
Sufia Alam had travelled to Toronto to visit her parents many times since they moved here in 1995. But in 2009, the Bangladeshi homemaker’s request for a visa was turned down, as were requests in 2013 and 2014 because the visa officer was not satisfied Sufia, 51, would leave at the end of her trip. Her dad, Moyeenul Alam, 79, a retired journalist, is baffled since Sufia has had no problem visiting the U.S. Now, to see their daughter, the Alams have to take an 800-km bus trip to a relative’s home in Virginia when Sufia visits. “We just feel helpless,” says Alam.
- Misplaced numbers, lost time:
If it wasn’t for misplaced cellphone numbers and a document that went astray, Barbara Falk and her refugee sponsorship group wouldn’t have been leasing an empty apartment for several months. Their application to sponsor a Syrian family was approved in January, but then weeks passed without a word. Falk called immigration and was told documents were mailed to the family in Lebanon instead of being sent to their smart phones. The family said the documents never arrived and was told the father’s military record went missing and had to be resubmitted, adding further delays. “The tragedy here is that, but for the loss of information about the cellphone numbers and the second loss of the military service document, this family would have boarded a flight to Canada and been with us today,” Falk said. Immigration, however, said no documents were misplaced and the application is at the security checks stage.
- Frustration over long wait:
Gamjit Kaur, a foreign student from India, applied for permanent residency in Canada under the Canadian Experience Class in July 2013, after getting work experience as an early child educator at a Montessori school. In February 2014, she was told to pay her landing fee and go for a medical exam. Her application has since been stalled. “I put in an access to information request and got the officials’ notes on my file. There’s no issue of my eligibility or medical. Everything was clear,” said the 30-year-old. The processing time for CEC has gone up from 13 months to 19 months, but my application has now taken 34 months. Can someone explain to me why it’s taking so long for no reason?”
- Checking the wrong box:
Torontonian Alexandra Mastronardi submitted a spousal sponsorship application for her British partner, Steven Jackson, in June 2014. She checked the box marked “conjugal” in describing their relationship because at that point they had only lived together for four months and didn’t meet the one-year minimum to be classified as “common-law.” Trouble is, almost 18 months passed before the couple’s application was dealt with. It was denied: “I am not satisfied that there were any legal or other impediments to you either marrying or cohabiting with your partner prior to your sponsorship application,” said the rejection letter. “I am not satisfied that you would suffer unusual and undeserved or disproportionate hardship as a result of the refusal of your application, given that you appear eligible to apply under another family class category, namely common-law partner.” The couple is pondering their next step.
- Glaring ‘clerical error’:
An office administrator, Aussie Rose-Mary Torbarac had worked in Calgary for 20 months and applied for permanent residency in March 2014. On Jan. 18, she received an email from immigration saying her application was approved and asking her to pay the landing fee to finalize the process. Six hours and 41 minutes after submitting all the requested documentation and the fee, the Sydney native received another email telling her to “disregard” the previous letter, sent to 9,000 immigration applicants in a clerical error. “Putting in any sort of application for immigration isn’t just a huge deal. It’s life changing. You expect when you raise concerns, answers will be given. When you point out issues, people will be held accountable for their mistakes,” she said. “This has not happened.”