Tories deny immigration bill will shut doors
New law aimed at visa backlog, officials say
By Andrew Mayeda
The Canwest News Service (Canada)
April 9, 2008
Ottawa — The Harper government went on a charm offensive Tuesday to demystify its controversial immigration bill, insisting the proposed changes are designed to reduce a massive backlog of visa applications, and not to close the door to immigrants.
Federal officials also shot down speculation by the opposition the government will use the law to shut out immigrants of certain ethnic or religious backgrounds. Such a policy is out of the question, as it would violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, officials say.
The government last month tabled a bill that would amend the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act that removes the Immigration Department's obligation to process all visa applications and allows the immigration minister to instruct visa officers to fast-track certain types of applications.
Department officials say the changes are essential if the visa backlog, which has reached about 925,000 applications, is to be eliminated.
But the bill has become a political football in the House of Commons, with the opposition accusing the Conservatives of seeking a back-door way to enforce an anti-immigrant agenda harkening back to its Reform party roots.
The NDP has tabled an amendment to the bill, which has been rolled into the broader budget-implementation bill, that would effectively kill the budget bill. Since the budget bill is considered a matter of confidence in the government, its defeat would trigger an election.
The House of Commons is expected to vote on the NDP amendment as early as today.
At a technical briefing for reporters Tuesday, a senior Immigration official said the department has concluded the visa-processing system is 'simply not flexible enough to meet labour-market needs,' a 'structural problem' that can only be addressed by legislative changes.
Under the new law, the immigration minister is expected to issue annual instructions to department officials on 'categories' of applications that should be fast-tracked, such as those from high-demand professionals, such as doctors. The minister will decide which categories to prioritize based on input from the provinces and territories, Bank of Canada, Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, as well as employers and labour unions.
The Immigration Department's efforts to catch up with the volume of visa applications comes as the refugee-claim backlog swells to record levels.
In a report to Parliament recently, the chairman of the Immigration and Refugee Board projects the refugee backlog will hit about 62,300 claims by the end of 2008-09, and about 84,300 claims by the end of 2010-11.
Brian Goodman, the IRB chairman, said the backlog is partly due to unfilled vacancies for adjudicators at the board.