The following is an article that I wrote for Policy Options.

On February 14, 2018, Ahmed Hussen, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), announced that the processing time for spousal sponsorship applications had been reduced from 26 months to 12 months in 80 percent of cases. The Minister attributed the reduction to a “Family Class Tiger Team” that had redesigned application packages and introduced workflow efficiencies.

What the Minister didn’t mention was that IRCC achieved its reduction in processing at least in part because it has established an unbelievably strict triage system for marriage-based immigration applications. As reported in several media outlets at the end of January 2018, this intake-management system has in many instances left Canadian families in limbo, caused people who were legally in Canada to lose their status and impeded the ability of the foreign-national spouses of Canadian citizens to work.

On the same day that the Minister made his announcement, IRCC issued an Operational Bulletin stating that effective March 15, 2018, IRCC would return as incomplete applications that do not include a detailed form listing personal and address history, and police certificates from countries where applicants have lived. These forms and police certificates were previously required but not subject to the triage system.

This triage system makes it difficult to accurately compare application processing times and, more importantly, it creates unnecessary and unwarranted hardship for Canadians seeking to reunite with their families.

The drive for faster processing times 

It is true that under the former Conservative government, processing times for spousal and common-law sponsorship applications were generally slower than they currently are. These slower processing times were in large part due to lower quotas that the Conservatives had for family reunification. Indeed, the Liberals have increased Canada’s target for spousal sponsorship applications by 50 percent.

The slower processing times under the Conservatives also existed because the government did not apply to family reunification programs the rigid application-completeness system it had implemented in economic immigration programs, whereby the department would return as incomplete any applications that contained a technical deficiency.

Because the Conservatives refrained from introducing the triage system into family reunification programs, if a Canadian seeking to sponsor a spouse missed a signature or forgot to include a document, IRCC would send a letter requesting the missing document. While this approach often delayed processing times by months, foreign spouses who were already in Canada were able to continue living here with status and to work if they had a work permit. Ironically, with its relentless drive to boast of reduced processing times, the Liberal government has abandoned the more compassionate approach of the Conservatives.

On December 16, 2016, John McCallum, then the minister of citizenship and immigration, decreed that effective January 31, 2017, Canada’s immigration department would return as incomplete any spousal or common-law sponsorship applications that were missing required signatures or documents. That this step was taken to reduce processing times has been confirmed in internal IRCC documents obtained through an Access to Information Act request. A fact sheet that the Family Class Tiger Team provided to manager-level staff confirms that previously a majority of spousal sponsorship applications were missing documents, which slowed down processing, and that the government wanted to reduce processing times.

Problems with the triage system

The current rigid triage system distorts a fair comparison of processing times. Suppose an individual applies to sponsor a spouse to immigrate to Canada and forgets to include in one of the forms the city where a non-accompanying brother was born. Previously, processing might have been delayed by two to three months while IRCC contacted the family, informed them of the mistake and requested they provide the information. Now, IRCC would instead return the application one to two months after it is submitted, and the family would have to resubmit. If some supporting documents have expired, they may have to reobtain them, and the process can easily take several months. Under the previous system, this delay would have added two to three months to the processing time. Under the Liberals’ triage system, technically there is no delay because processing doesn’t start until the application is resubmitted. So while the government can boast of reduced processing times, applicants are frequently worse off, and the time that it takes IRCC to approve their immigration applications is lengthened.

More importantly, an application being returned for incompleteness has implications beyond the annoyance of having to resubmit. Since January 31, 2017, foreign spouses already working in Canada have frequently lost the ability to work because their immigration application was returned, and they’ve found themselves now to be in Canada “illegally,” because their valid status hinged on their immigration application being in processing. Depending on the province, access to health care for a spouse could be delayed or jeopardized. In British Columbia, for example, the foreign-national visitor spouse of a Canadian citizen or permanent resident only becomes eligible to access that province’s public health system three months after IRCC accepts their application into processing. Every time IRCC returns an application for incompleteness, it delays those people’s access to health care.

Some Canadians may wonder why sympathy should be shown to people who submit incomplete applications. But the ability to be reunited on a permanent basis with a spouse should not depend on a person’s sophistication when it comes to completing paperwork — unless, of course, the government wants to push families into the hands of immigration lawyers and consultants.

Furthermore, an application can be incomplete for many reasons beyond simply missing forms and documents. The reasons that IRCC can return applications include using outdated versions of the forms (even though the old forms are often still available on the IRCC website), incorrectly stating which programs are being applied to even if the supporting documentation makes it obvious, an insufficient written explanation for why an individual cannot provide a supporting document at the time of submission (like a divorce certificate or police certificate that is in processing), photo specifications that are not met and errors in completing the forms.

An alternative approach

Given that processing times are easily measured, it is understandable that the government wants to reduce them. Indeed, it is hard to go a few days without reading a media story about a family upset with how long their immigration application is taking. Perhaps in exchange for immigration stakeholders not complaining to the media every time processing times increase, Canada’s immigration department could stop applying such a strict approach to accepting an application into processing. Can we not all agree to this?

A solution to longer processing times is readily apparent. IRCC does not currently let people complete their immigration medical exams until after several months into processing. Given that IRCC sends these requests for medical exams after processing has already started, it seems reasonable that a request for any missing information could be sent at the same time. Such an approach might cause a small increase in processing times, but it will ultimately benefit Canadians seeking to sponsor their spouses and common-law partners.