Compounding Immigration Mess

Compounding immigration mess

Carol Goar
The Star
Nov 19, 2007

Canada has a backlog of 850,000 unprocessed immigration applications.

The federal government plans to admit a maximum of 265,000 immigrants next year.

It doesn't take a calculator to figure out that the pipeline will be clogged for years.

Even if Canada stopped accepting new applications which it has no intention of doing and Ottawa reached its immigration target which it has seldom done there would still be 585,000 applications in the queue.

Some of these people have been waiting for seven or eight years. Some have lost hope.

Either the governing Conservatives don't consider this a problem or they aren't prepared to spend the money to solve it.

Immigration Minister Diane Finley clearly knows how backed up the system is. Her annual report to Parliament written by departmental bureaucrats warns that the logjam is compromising service and eroding confidence in Canada's capacity to absorb newcomers. “Looking ahead, actions to control application intake and bring down the inventory are critical.”

Yet in her introductory message, Finley merely thanked employees for their hard work and dedication. She ignored their plea for help.

Phil Mooney, president of the Canadian Association of Professional Immigration Consultants, says there is only one way to eliminate the backup: Admit more immigrants.

“We're set up for 265,000 people and we've got this mass of workers already in the system. All the department can do is whittle away at the edges and hope Parliament increases the number of people who can come in.”

If Ottawa refuses to do that, Mooney says, three things will happen:

Migrants will apply for temporary work permits and stay in Canada illegally. “We'll become a guest worker society.”

Applicants will jump the queue by getting provinces to nominate them. “They know they can get to the head of the line that way.”

And employers will face acute labour shortages. “We need workers in large numbers in all categories and the system is not equipped to handle it.”

The Conservatives didn't create this mess, but they compounded it.

Until 2002, the immigration backlog was small. That year, the Liberals introduced a stringent new set of entry criteria for skilled workers.

Hoping to beat the deadline, close to 500,000 people applied under the old rules.

To give them a fair chance, the government put in place a 12-month transition program, under which applicants could be assessed under either system. When it ended, there was still a sizable backlog so Denis Coderre, the minister of the day, announced a three-month extension.

Then he cut it off. Close to 100,000 applicants, whose cases had not been adjudicated, got letters of rejection.

To Ottawa's dismay, they launched a class action suit and won. A federal court judge ordered the government to assess the 100,000 applications under both the old and the new rules. He set a deadline of September 2005.

It slipped by with many cases still unresolved.

The Conservatives added new pressures when they took office.

First, they ramped up Canada's temporary foreign worker program once used primarily to bring in seasonal farm workers creating a large influx of migrant manual labourers. Then they devolved responsibility for selecting immigrants to the provinces, creating 10 new entryways.

“If you wanted to create a backlog, you couldn't have done it better,” Mooney says.

He sympathizes with the immigration officials. “They're good people facing mind-numbing challenges.”

He gives them credit for getting some things right. “They do a fabulous job on children. You can usually get them in within three to six months. And they do a great job re-uniting spouses. That takes less than six months.”

But people who apply as skilled workers at a time when Canada urgently needs skilled workers can expect to stand in line for years.

This country has a long tradition of welcoming newcomers. Immigrants built and shaped the Canada of today.

The Canada of tomorrow will need them even more.

Carol Goar's column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.