BlogDelays expected for paper-based family sponsorship applications

18 August 2020

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Since March 11, 2020 when COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, nearly all aspects of immigration processing have been negatively affected. The closure of many immigration visa offices, visa application centres, and biometrics collection points have exposed some of the flaws and limitations of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada’s (IRCC) current application processing system. Specifically, IRCC continues to rely on paper-based applications, which are not easily processed in the era of COVID-19 when much of its workforce is working from home. As a result, the processing of paper applications like those made under the Family Class to sponsor loved ones for Canadian permanent residency are expected to suffer from lengthy backlogs.

For years IRCC has been moving away from paper-based applications and encouraging the submission of online applications to improve processing times. Online applications are more easily and quickly processed compared to paper-based ones because the documents are submitted in a digital format, which makes them easier to store, access, and assign to visa officers for processing depending on where there is processing capacity within IRCC’s network of offices.

Despite these efforts, IRCC has notably failed to modernize the visa application system for the Family Class, a paper-based application system to sponsor parents and grandparents, children and spouses for permanent residency based on their relationship to a Canadian citizen or permanent resident sponsor. These applications are among the most important that IRCC processes because they involve the reunification of families in Canada and because these applications account for more than 25% of the total number of new permanent residents admitted to Canada in any given year. Section 3 of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act specifically sets out that one of the key objectives of Canada’s immigration program is to see that families are reunited in Canada.

Since paper-based applications require the physical presence of a person to review, catalogue and process, they are not being handled as quickly as before the emergence of COVID-19. To make matters worse, Family Class applications are traditionally cumbersome to process because there are many types of documents that need to be reviewed.

Consider, for example, what is required to apply to sponsor a spouse for Canadian permanent residence. These “spousal sponsorship” application packages are often between 100-200 pages long because there are standardized application forms for more than one person to complete (sponsor and spouse), including additional forms that must be filled in if there are any accompanying children who are between the ages of 18 and 21 years old. In addition to the application forms, spouses are asked to produce evidence that their relationship is genuine, which often includes many pages of phone records, text messages, pictures, money transfers and other important documents. All these documents would also need to be translated by a certified translator if they are not in English or French.

These processing hurdles have now been clearly exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and we are already starting to see evidence that a backlog of cases is building up. In the case of spousal sponsorship applications, before the pandemic it was standard to receive an acknowledgement email from IRCC after about two months from the filing of the paper-based application. As an immigration lawyer, I have cases I filed over three months ago in April 2020 that have not yet been acknowledged by IRCC and I have recently heard of cases filed in February 2020 that are only being acknowledged five months later in July 2020. These delays raise serious concerns for families, especially those waiting to be reunited in Canada and cannot come to Canada without their permanent resident visas.

COVID-19 has dramatically changed the way that all organizations operate their businesses. IRCC is in the business of processing visa applications and they are no exception to the need to adapt in the face of adversity. Given the importance of Family Class applications, it is imperative for the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship to acknowledge the processing issues created by the outdated paper-based Family Class application system, and to create solutions for them. These solutions may include investing in technology to modernize the application process and ensuring that additional financial and technical resources are made available to increase the number of visa officers available to address the growing backlog of Family Class applications.

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