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A tighter, less welcoming Canada

The Immigration Line
|Written By Jennifer Nees

The immigration bar is up in arms over Minister of Citizenship Immigration, and MultiCulturalism’s Jason Kenney’s recent announcement that foreign nationals from the Czech Republic and Mexico will now require visas to enter Canada.

The announcement, made only 24 hours before the rule came into effect, cited a high number of refugee claims from those countries as reason for the change.

The immigration bar seems to be split on whether or not this is a good thing. Regardless of opinion, most agree the decision came out of left field.

Lawyers on both sides of the issue can argue eloquently about protecting Canada’s refugee system and the rights of those in fear of persecution by allowing individuals already in Canada to remain here. I have read countless e-mail exchanges and news accounts of people arguing the implications these new requirements will have on the Canadian refugee system and find that no one has been able to come up with a cogent solution.

The first approach is the “don’t blame the refugee, blame the refugee system” ideology. Too few refugee board members (who decide refugee cases in single-person panels); poor scheduling times and backlogs; and a government that has seemed to endorse the notion that most, if not all, Czech or Mexican refugee claims are fake must take some of the blame for any increase in the number of refugee claims.

Or a second approach: “blame the refugee and accept the system isn’t perfect.” Without visa requirements, these foreign nationals can buy a plane ticket and enter Canada without ever having to establish ties to their home country or articulate a reason for coming to Canada to an immigration officer prior to the entry. The port of entry officer can always refuse the foreign national at the border, but seldom do unless there is a strong overriding issue.

The government seems to be arguing that forcing citizens of these countries to apply for visas in advance, they are, in essence, giving immigration officials the opportunity to recognize and weed out those applicants who have refugee plans in mind.

There is also the “blame the refugee and the system and so fix the system approach.” Some foreign nationals are so desperate to remain in Canada that they claim refugee status when they really shouldn’t.

As an immigration practitioner, I often get calls from people who are so desperate to work here that they are willing to submit a less-than-legitimate refugee claim for the privilege of a work permit and health coverage for as long as it takes the application to process.

These calls come from people who have travelled here from all over the world, many who applied for visas in their home country prior to arriving. Having a visa requirement for every traveller to enter Canada will not fix this issue nor will it fix the system.

Due to processing delays, refugee applications can sometimes languish in the system for months. During this time, the refugee claimant has an open work permit and health coverage. Even after a refusal, refugee applicants may then have been in Canada long enough to apply for humanitarian and compassionate consideration, and often will be able to stay while that application processes.

It’s a somewhat legitimate path that keeps the foreign national here for many years and may seem a small price to pay for someone who is fleeing a country where they perceive themselves as having no financial opportunities.

By actually “fixing” the system so that there are more panel members to hear refugee claims, faster processing times for refugee applications, and by creating a more expedient removals process, the system itself will no longer be seen as a means for prolonging a stay in Canada indefinitely.

The system and foreign nationals are both to blame in part. A few bad apples can spoil the cart and a slow unwieldy system can also be perceived as a golden opportunity to those looking for a way in. But is requiring visas for Mexicans and Czechs the answer?

If not, then what is the solution? How do we protect the system while remaining open and encouraging international trade and tourism?

I don’t know the answer or that there is one. The government could require visas from everyone regardless of where they are from in order to make it more “fair,” or it could hire more members in order to account for a faster processing of refugee claims, or impose penalties on those who are found to submit false claims.

Immigration law isn’t super sexy. But it is an area of law, especially in Canada, that touches a wide number of people and affects people down to their very core. How many of us have neighbours, partners, parents, nannies, or doctors who started life in another country?

In the various immigration firms I’ve worked at, I’ve seen it all. Humanitarian cases that had me in tears, family reunifications that saw me laughing and hugging newly reunited families, and business deals that through my hard work and the companies’ tenacity have seen massive labour market improvements in Canada.

These new regulations don’t feel like they are in the spirit of what makes Canadian immigration law great, but they do seem indicative of a Canada with tighter borders and less welcoming arms.

Jennifer Nees is a senior associate at business immigration boutique firm, the Bomza Law Group. She can be reached at