Language Test Angers Lawyers

Language test angers immigration lawyers

Nicholas Keung
May 03, 2008 04:30 AM
The Toronto Star

All immigrants applying to come to Canada as skilled workers even those who grew up speaking English or French could soon be required to take a mandatory language test to prove proficiency in one of Canada's official languages, the Star has learned.

Until now, English- and French-speaking applicants including immigrants from the U.S. and England could bypass the test by submitting a letter testifying to their language skills. Officials say the proposed change will make language assessments more transparent. But immigration lawyers say the change would only increase delays at a time when the federal government is introducing dramatic changes to reduce an immigration backlog, especially to smooth the way for those most likely to succeed in the job market.

Critics say the extra hassle and fees would discourage applicants.

“Say you are French and want to take a job in Quebec and you are asked to write a French test. I see it as an insult to most people,” said lawyer Alex Stojicevic, chair of the Citizenship and Immigration Section of the Canadian Bar Association, whose executives plan to meet Monday to write a group response.

“Same for those from the United Kingdom. English is called English for a reason. (Testing them) is just silly and embarrassing.”

Currently, applicants in the skilled-worker class with good language skills can earn up to 16 “points” either by taking the International English Language Testing System test or with a written submission. The policy change wouldn't be applied to applications already in the system, or to those in the family category.

To qualify as a skilled immigrant, an applicant needs at least 67 points out of a possible 100 awarded for education level, work experience and family connections to Canada, among other factors.

While immigration officers have the discretion to decide if testing is warranted, high school graduates from Britain, the United States, Australia and the like generally get the full 16 points by testifying to their abilities in a letter.

“Written submissions are lengthy to assess and visa officers are not language experts,” said department spokesperson Danielle Norris, who emphasized that the change is still just a proposal. “This makes it difficult to be fair and consistent in assessing language ability.”

While immigration officials claim a significant number of people who are not native English or French speakers are also choosing to bypass the language test, no statistics to back that up were available.

But lawyers warn the proposal will be off-putting to people most likely to integrate easily in Canada's labour market, such as the 17,000 Brits and Americans who come each year. “They would say, it's not worth the effort for me to take the test, I'm not going to take the step. I have better things to do with my time,” said Vancouver immigration lawyer Catherine Sas.

Stojicevic said the rule would force a client of his from Austin, Texas, to pay $200 and drive more than four hours to the state's lone English-language test centre in Houston to take the exam. It's not even available in every state. And scheduling issues could cause further delays, he added.

The general English-language test, which has a maximum score of 9 in each of the writing, reading, speaking and listening components, is available in 500 locations in 120 countries. Under the proposal, a skilled immigrant would need to score a 7 in each part of the test to claim the full 16 points allocated for language proficiency. (International English Language Testing System has a higher-level test for university entrance that's used, for example, by the London School of Economics.)

Toronto lawyer Robin Seligman said the rule would also affect applicants from English-speaking countries who use the language mark to make up for points lost due to their lack of higher education, for example tradespeople and truck drivers.

“The language test is counterproductive to what the immigration minister has said she's going to do in the (recent) amendments,” said Seligman, adding that it's not fair to use the same benchmark for applicants in different job categories.

In Australia, trades need a lower language test score than non-trades. The U.K. exempts applicants from its former Caribbean colonies from testing because they speak English.