Heartbreak, confusion, frustration: Applications for permanent residency are stuck in pandemic limbo
TORONTO -- The COVID-19 pandemic has affected almost every aspect of life in Canada, including those trying to make a new life in the country.
Despite the federal government seeking to increase immigration over the next three years with ambitious targets, in 2020 immigration slowed dramatically.
A report by RBC Economics puts the number at just 184,000 new permanent residents entering Canada in 2020, half of what was targeted at the beginning of the year.
And for those waiting on their permanent residency applications to be approved, or those who sought asylum or refugee status in Canada, the pandemic has put them in a frustrating limbo with Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada (IRCC).
Eddie Song of Winnipeg has been living and working in Canada since 2017. He applied for permanent residency (PR) through the “Express Entry via the Provincial Nominee Program,” meaning Manitoba nominated his application and boosting his candidacy in the ranking system for applicants.
“I completed my application on Feb. 5, 2020 and it has already hit [the] one-year mark,” Song said in a telephone interview with CTVNews.ca on Tuesday. “And each time I make an inquiry about my case they [IRCC] just say, ‘you need to be patient and you need to wait because we have a delay, and we had limited staff right now.’”
Song said the last time someone touched his application was June 25, 2020, after his and several other applicants’ files were sent to an IRCC facility in Toronto, where he says they have languished ever since.
Without his PR status, Song said he has had to shell out hundreds of dollars to extend his temporary resident status and medical coverage, and has missed out on employment opportunities.
“I was planning to receive my PR card half a year or so ago, so I can attend the licensed immigration consultant entry-to-practice exam,” Song said. “But you have to get your PR first, they only do a certain amount of entry tests a year and I have missed them all so far.”
“You cannot change your job, even though I want to open another company or do some business in Manitoba. You cannot do that. You don't have PR. The prices for the house insurance, we all have to pay the extra tax, extra costs to extend our rights of temporary status and to get the new coverage.”
Travel restrictions due to COVID-19 and uncertainty about his PR status meant that Song’s spouse back in China was unable to see him for more than a year and a half.
Now that he joined Song in January on a visitor visa, while his work visa has yet to be processed, Song said he faces bureaucratic difficulties as well.
“My spouse, he can’t get health coverage right now because he didn't have the temporary status extension,” Song said. “Everything is stuck.”
Song also laid out frustrations with how the IRCC has handled processing applications during the pandemic.
On Feb. 13, the IRCC announced that approximately 27,300 workers with Canadian work experience received an invitation to apply for PR to “bolster economic recovery,” something Song says felt like a betrayal.
“It’s not fair,” he said, wondering how the IRCC was going to process those newly offered applications while his and others have been sitting for a year.
“Immigration is pretty important to Canada as a country, we rely on this and the immigrants come together to work, to pay the taxes, to make a contribution to this country. You cannot keep telling those people already in Canada to just wait for a long time,” he said. “We just wish the public to know about the system - it's broken.”
Jaskaran Singh was 19 when he came to Canada to study. Now age 23, he works as an IT administrator in Surrey, B.C. He too was a provincially nominated PR applicant and like Song, has been waiting for the IRCC to process his application – leaving his future in limbo.
“It's been 10 months now,” Singh said in a telephone interview with CTVNews.ca Wednesday. “I have also called them multiple times asking for an update, but every time they reply back to me saying with COVID-19, they are short-staffed.”
Singh’s father and sister have moved to Canada in recent years, but his mother remains in India, where COVID-19 restrictions and fears over his PR status mean he has not been able to visit her in four years.
In an emailed statement to CTVNews.ca, the IRCC said they have “devoted additional resources to speed up processing, including increasing staff devoted to spousal sponsorship processing by 66 per cent…and digitized more of our operations, increasing the amount of processing happening virtually. This includes our permanent resident landings process, which has now actually reduced the amount of time it takes to land a permanent resident compared to the pre-pandemic process. Permanent resident admissions in January 2021 have exceeded initial projections.”
The IRCC also said they have begun opening offices across Canada and applications centres globally in line with public health measures and have extended submission deadlines for applicants who face delays due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“No application in progress will be closed or refused as a result of ongoing service disruptions related to COVID-19. In November 2020 we completed 29,700 permanent resident application final decisions across all permanent resident business categories, roughly the same as our pre-pandemic number from February 2020.”
But Singh and others who applied for PR in 2020 remain in limbo – he said aspirations of furthering his education are on hold indefinitely due to his application stalling.
“My university gave me a deadline for 2021 to submit my application - I've already missed the deadlines, so I have to wait for another year,” he said. “You know, this is the time when a person is highly motivated in his life and wants to go - but my future is totally uncertain.”
His career path is affected too.
“Within the last year, there have been many openings in my company and I wanted to apply for them. I know that I could have got those jobs,” Singh said. “But because I applied through Provincial Nominee Program and I haven't heard back from them…I couldn’t go for those positions.”
And like Song, Singh is feeling frustrated at the seemingly wildly variable times in processing different kinds of PR applications during the pandemic.
“I was reading somewhere that people who applied in November 2020, six months after me, are getting their applications approved,” he said. “When I called on Monday [Feb. 22], they said that my application is still waiting for an officer to review.”
“I mean, even after 10 months an officer has not been assigned or an officer didn’t review my application,” Singh said. “So I'm not sure what's going on… I don't know what will be happening with me and what my future in Canada is.”
REFUGEES AND ASYLUM SEEKERS SUFFERING
Toronto immigration and citizenship lawyer Chantal Desloges, who specialises in refugee law, had a similarly candid observation of how the IRCC has handled the pandemic, especially for refugees and asylum seekers.
“It's a real mess,” she said in a telephone interview with CTVNews.ca Tuesday. “For both inside Canada refugee filings and outside Canada refugee filings”.
The major issue, Desloges explained, was that the pandemic had nixed in-person eligibility interviews.
“The first problem that people encounter is that in order to even get referred to the refugee board for a hearing … you have to be declared eligible to make a claim,” she said. “So you've got people now who are lodging refugee claims, but for months and months are not being called in for an eligibility review.”
“The problem with that, is that until you have your eligibility interview, you're not eligible to get a work permit and you don't have health care.”
Refugees and asylum seekers are left with applying for welfare being their only option, as they do not qualify for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) or other federal pandemic relief.
“Then once they are declared eligible, they have to actually get a hearing in front of the refugee protection division, and that also is taking quite a long time,” Desloges said, adding that now the IRCC is incorporating digital hearings, “but of course, they have months of hearings that had to be cancelled so on top of all the new claims that are coming in they've got a huge backlog.”
The disparity in processing applications for PR and for filing for asylum or as a refugee was also noted by Desloges and her colleagues.
“Different types of applications seem to be ticking along like usual and other types of applications seem to be completely bundled up,” she said. “For example, if you had a humanitarian application, I have noticed that those particular applications are not seeing any delays whatsoever, and they’re perhaps the most complex types of cases in terms of volume of documentation and the complexity of the adjudication.”
In their emailed statement the IRCC said they have recently launched “a new pilot program to conduct interviews virtually, and look forward to extending it to more [asylum] claimants in the weeks and months to come.”
Some in-person services have been reinstated, the IRCC said, like the collection of biometric information which will “help clear the backlog over the next few months.”
As for the limbo facing applicants with the current backlog and wait times, the IRCC said in their statement said they are processing applications “as quickly as possible” for “vulnerable people.”
The IRCC said “it’s not currently possible” to project or anticipate timelines for when normal operations may resume or when applicants experiencing delays could expect an officer to update them on their status.
CHILDREN LEFT IN LIMBO TOO
Zhenlei Wang and her husband Song Qin, along with their 10-year-old son Rui, have been living and working in Regina, Sask., since 2017.
Wang and Qin were both visiting professors at the University of Regina on contract. When that ended, the entire family applied for PR in January 2020. They say they have heard nothing from the IRCC since.
“It’s been about 13 months since then, so it's a long wait,” Wang and Qin said in a joint telephone interview with CTVNews.ca on Wednesday.
Wang and her family said they had applied through IRCC for their work permits in the past and had “only waited about a month” to be approved.
Now with their PR status in limbo, they are unable to work and must live off savings. Their son Rui, they say, is suffering in the fallout.
“We enquired with Saskatchewan health services before our health cards expired, and they replied that the health card would be valid automatically another six months, but that [extension] is almost up,” Wang said. “I also submitted my PR application to the Regina Public School Boards as proof [of intent to settle in Canada] before our last work permit expired, so my son would be able to continue his school.”
“After six months they reviewed his case, then they said my son may come back after our PR got approved,” Wang explained. “This December, they told us he cannot go to school.”
Because Wang and her family applied for PR, which is considered a “change in status,” but does not give the applicant “implied status” – and their temporary work permits expired while applying for and waiting for PR – they do not have legal status in Canada, and Rui cannot go to school.
In an email to CTVNews.ca, a Regina Public School Board spokesperson said while they cannot comment on the specifics of any particular student issue, “a child is eligible to continue learning, if their parent(s) are in implied status while their temporary permit is being processed by IRCC. If a permit has lapsed and the parent(s) has/have not applied to renew their temporary permit, a child cannot attend a Regina Public School. The Government of Saskatchewan Education Act, 1995 does not require Saskatchewan boards to register students who are not residents of Saskatchewan.”
Wang said her son, who is a competitive figure skater, is losing out on competition opportunities and she has lost out on a job because of the delays.
Wang and Qin said the last time they spoke to an IRCC agent on the phone this January, they were told there was no issue with their application, there was just a “backlog” due to COVID-19.
But Wang says they can’t wait anymore. They are running out of time and money – and despite the pandemic, have even thought about waiting for their status back in China, a country they have not visited in four years.
“We have nothing to do ... we are imprisoned in the apartment,” Qin said. “And it would be good to see my mother or my wife's mother and my son's grandparents.”
And like so many other immigrants to Canada, Wang and her family have pinned their hopes on their PR being approved so that they can build a new life here.
“I think the PR means a lot for everyone, especially us who live in Canada as a foreigner,” she said. “If you hold a PR, you are truly Canadian and your heart is stable [sic].”
This story has been updated to clarify the position referred to as Eddie Song's employment opportunity and details surrounding his spouse's visa