Canada spent millions to upgrade its systems. Why are immigration backlogs still so bad?

The Toronto Star

Nicholas Keung The Star Tue., Nov. 15, 2022

When Ian Bromley invited his girlfriend to come from Costa Rica and visit him after Canada’s border had reopened, the Toronto man thought it would be a few weeks before she could get her visa.

After trying unsuccessfully to navigate the tedious online application process, Bromley paid a lawyer $3,000 to submit an application on Jeannett Anton Mendoza’s behalf in April.

Six months later, in October, the immigration department’s website still showed officials had yet to open Anton Mendoza’s file, which included her fingerprints and a stack of translated documents to prove she had a job, a mortgage and money in her bank accounts to go back to in San Jose.

Despite repeated calls and emails to the department himself and through an MP, Bromley did not once receive an update from immigration officials.

“Rather than fixing the failure, they’ve put a lot of layers on top of it to keep people away from it,” says Bromley, who teaches at University of Toronto Mississauga after years of working in economic development at provincial and municipal governments here and abroad.

“It’s shocking.”

Almost three years after the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on Canada’s immigration system, halting processing, visa offices have reopened, more staff have been hired, and millions of dollars have been invested in upgrading government computer systems to streamline case management and keep applicants updated.

However, officials are still struggling with an unprecedented immigration application backlog.

As of Sept. 30, the number of temporary and permanent residence applications in its inventory had soared from 1.8 million at the end of last year to 2.6 million. Fifty-seven per cent of the files have been in the queue beyond the processing timelines set by the government.

This week, Immigration Minister Sean Fraser unveiled Canada’s latest immigration targets, which will see this country look to bring in 465,000 new permanent residents next year, 485,000 in 2024, and 500,000 in 2025.

Yet with the nagging backlog, and significant delays for applicants to get a visa, critics are asking whether Canada can, in fact, handle more immigration applications despite the injection of an additional $50 million in this week’s fall federal economic statement that is meant to eliminate backlogs.

“There’s no one silver bullet,” Fraser confessed to reporters when asked at the plan’s release about the immigration department’s capacity to handle the workload.

“It takes every tool in the tool box to solve this challenge. It takes resources. It takes policy. It takes technology.”

‘Nothing short of a dumpster fire’

Immigration backlogs and processing times have been the focus of a study by the parliamentary immigration committee. Since May, 44 witnesses — from advocates to legal professionals and policy wonks, as well as community and industry groups — have laid out what they think is wrong with the system.

At a recent committee hearing, immigration lawyer Chantal Desloges summed up the two main causes of the backlogs and delays: the department’s “outdated and ineffective” IT systems and its “culture of secrecy.”

“It seems that every new online system is full of glitches, to the point where lawyers are now actively resisting the move to mandatory online processing, because it is nothing short of a dumpster fire. It is characterized by disappearing data and almost daily system-wide crashes,” said Desloges, who has practised immigration law for more than a quarter of a century.

The lack of transparency breeds delay, she said, and people are left in the dark despite bombarding the immigration call centre and submitting inquiries through web forms.

“Then we have to bother you, the members of Parliament, which again sometimes helps and sometimes doesn’t. So then we’re forced to bother the Access to Information Office, and that takes months. As a last resort, we’re then forced to go to the Federal Court and bother the Federal Court and the Department of Justice through litigation,” Desloges noted.

“It’s a waste of valuable resources at every level, and if we could just get a clear reply the first time, we wouldn’t have to do any of this.”

That’s the situation Bromley and his girlfriend found themselves in.

Two months after they applied for the visa and with no sign that application had been touched, they emailed the immigration department and contacted the call centre; meanwhile, the visa processing time for Costa Rica had ballooned from 26 days in April to 197 days in October.

In July, they contacted MP Carolyn Bennett’s office and say they kept bugging her sympathetic assistant for updates. But even the MP’s office was stonewalled and told officials couldn’t give processing time estimates due to “ongoing effects” of the pandemic on visa offices.

“When we set out to apply for the visa, we thought it would be a slam dunk. Jeannette ticks all the boxes. I had no idea it’s going to be anything like this,” said Bromley, whose girlfriend was only approved the visa late last month, after a Star inquiry into their case.

Back up and running?

An operational update in May from the immigration department said 98 per cent of the Canadian overseas missions and 97 per cent of its visa application centres were open for business. As of March, all immigration offices and service providers in Canada were operating, though 94 per cent of the staff continued to telework.

Fraser said most of the permanent residence processing is back on track — skilled immigrants selected under the Express Entry talent pool face six-month waits; family reunifications are taking 12 months.

“There are still applications that are in the system today that have been in longer than that, and we’re not going to bump them from the line to process new applications first,” he assured reporters.

Fraser’s comment gave no comfort to Tejas Ghutukade of Burlington, who waited almost four months just to get an acknowledgment of receipt this May after applying in January to sponsor his wife, Seema Kore, to come from India as a permanent resident.

Shortly after filing the application, he was asked to provide his proof of permanent residence. He did it immediately through a web form and by mail to the immigration office in Sydney, N.S. He even followed up with the call centre to confirm it had received the documents.

In June, he was shocked to get an email from Immigration telling him his sponsorship was rejected because he had failed to respond to a request. But when he checked his account in the department’s portal, it said the application was still in process.

Ghutukade reached out to the call centre again and the agent was also confused and said he would ask an officer in the processing centre to get back to him. When no one followed up with him, Ghutukade made an access-to-information request for officials’ notes on his file — and asked his MP for help.

“It’s all very confusing,” said the 32-year-old software engineer, whose attempt to bring his spouse here on a visitor visa was refused in January. “We don’t know who’s processing our application. There’s a lot of disconnection within the system. It’s surprising that we still have this backlog almost three years after the pandemic started.

“It’s very frustrating. I’m already having this thought of moving back to India. I’ve been married but separated from my wife. It just doesn’t make sense,” added Ghutukade, who received an update Nov. 4 from immigration to refer his wife to a medical exam.


Although many of the system’s issues can’t be addressed overnight, Desloges said officials in the interim should take all the borderline cases in the backlog and push them through if they have no criminal and security concerns.

“At this point, it is the cost of doing business, because the damage that’s being imposed by the backlog far outweighs any potential damage that could be caused by the odd person who gets erroneously approved,” Desloges said.

Immigration lawyer Mario Bellissimo said the lack of transparency and accessibility is one of the biggest challenges facing the immigration department, which needs a cultural change, he said, from an enforcement-focused mindset to one that strives to serve prospective migrants.

“We’re trying to facilitate immigration. We’re not trying to prevent it.”

He urged Ottawa to follow Australia in establishing an immigration college to provide accredited and consistent training for staff to ensure high quality decision-making. Improved competency, he said, could speed up processing.

And then there’s the other step.

Given the demand to come to Canada always outstrips the country’s visa-processing capacity, Bellissimo said, the only way to keep backlogs in check is to cap intakes and return unprocessed applications to applicants.

“That’s what other countries — the U.K, New Zealand and Australia — have done,” he said. “It’s the only way to solve the backlog. It’s the only way to keep the system nimble and to be able to take on new batches of inventory. Otherwise, you’re just always working in the past.”

Canada’s approach is half-baked, critics say. Although it has annual quotas for most permanent-residence categories, it lets unprocessed applications accumulate — and there’s no cap at all for temporary resident applications. That explains why study and work permits and visitor visas now account for 63 per cent of the 2.6 million immigration inventory in the system.

Bellissimo said officials could complement the caps with new targeted streams to address urgent travel or humanitarian needs, such as the crisis in Ukraine, through what he calls an “applicant-centric” approach.

Fraser agrees there’s a lot more work to do but said the numbers of applications processed this year until July — 275,000 new permanent residents admitted; 349,000 new work permits issued; 360,000 study permits finalized — are trending in the right direction.

“Immigration is about people. It’s about starting a new job, reuniting a family and creating a new life in this beautiful country we call home,” the immigration minister told reporters recently.

“By adding resources where they are needed, and leveraging technology to make processing faster and applying easier for our clients, we can give newcomers and new citizens the welcoming experience they deserve.”

‘My interest and desire to go there has faded’

But time is money for businessman Dilhan De Silva, who bought two franchised home-care services agencies in Greater Toronto last summer and has been waiting for a work permit under the intracompany transfer program since August 2021.

“I didn’t expect this kind of backlog or unresponsiveness from a modern country like Canada,” said De Silva, a chartered accountant, who runs a conglomerate of companies in import and export trades in Colombo, Sri Lanka. “I saw this business opportunity in Canada but now my interest and desire to go there has faded.”

His lawyer has made numerous unreturned inquiries about the delays and is now preparing to sue the immigration department for undue processing delays.