In a previous Perspectives article I criticized the Liberal Government of Canada’s decision to establish a rigid intake procedure that returned applications in Canada’s family reunification programs for incompleteness. While doing so enabled the government to boast about overall processing times that were technically reduced, for many the consequences were actually lengthier separations and loss of status in Canada.

At the same time, I recognized that it was understandable that the Liberals adopted this strict intake system.  I wrote:

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.

It is of course understandable that applicants and their family members who are directly impacted by Canada’s immigration system would emotionally express frustration.  It can also be a useful strategy to obtain results, as media pressure can sometimes persuade Canadian immigration officials to take certain actions.

However, the level of condensation often hurled at individual officers, and Canada’s immigration bureaucracy as a whole, is extremely counter productive.  It also does not reflect well on those partaking in the condescension.  Indeed, one sometimes gets the impression that immigration representatives (as just one example) who typically manage offices of less than ten people think that they could do a better job of managing Canada’s immigration programs than career civil servants.

The Sheer Scale of Canadian Immigration 

Let’s start with what should be obvious.  An unreasonable refusal, a procedurally unfair decision or a policy that needs reform is not indicative of a broken system.

It is sometimes easy to forget the number of people involved in the administration of Canadian immigration law and the number of applications that must be processed.

In 2017 the Canada Border Services Agency (“CBSA”) employed 13,707 people. They were responsible for administering, in part, more than ninety pieces of federal legislation.  They CBSA that year processed the over 20-million people who visited Canada as tourists.  This was in addition to the hundreds of thousands of people who arrived as students, workers and immigrants.  The CBSA had to do this in a year when resources were diverted towards dealing with an unprecedented influx of irregular migration across the Canada – United States border.

In 2017, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada employed 6,465 people. That year they processed 2,879,737 applications for temporary entry and received 351,332 applications for permanent residence. The Department also processed over 20,000 citizenship applications, 200,000 Permanent Resident Card renewal applications and over 1.25-million passport applications.  An immigration lawyer once told me that it was inexcusable that the IRCC call centre was so difficult to get through to, and that the Department’s Case Specific Enquiry response time always should be under 48 hours.  When I look at the numbers above I am amazed at how anyone at IRCC keeps up.

And finally in 2017 the Immigration and Refugee Board, which typically receives about 20,000 asylum claims each year, received more than double the average in 2017, with 50,445 claims.  Each one of those claimants is entitled to a hearing.  The IRB had to manage that influx while at the same time adjudicating thousands of immigration appeals, removal appeals and admissibility hearings.

The Pressures Involved 

It is not just the volume of applications and individuals that makes administering Canada’s immigration system difficult.

The government departments that administer Canada’s immigration program, and the individual officers rendering decisions, all do so under tremendous and often inconsistent public pressure.

Policy makers have to deal with the fact that while most people like the individual immigrants, asylum claimants and foreign workers that they interact with, and support the efforts of those they know to stay in Canada, polls seem to somewhat consistently suggest that roughly half of Canadians think that Canada admits too many immigrants each year, let alone temporary foreign workers.

The media reflect this inconsistency.  For example, the Department of Employment and Social Development Canada and IRCC frequently have to deal with a see-saw of media stories in which one day the problem is that temporary foreign workers are displacing Canadian workers and driving down wages and the next day the problem is that industry is suffering because companies can’t find labour.

At the processing level the expectations of the public are even trickier to manage.  While everyone complains about long border lineups on weekends, it seems that every auditor general report laments the fact that the CBSA is not doing enough to stop inadmissible people from slipping through the cracks and entering Canada.

Even more ironic is that prospective immigrants, and when applicable their Canadian sponsors, are often indignant when their applications receive close scrutiny for possible marriage fraud, yet can’t believe that some other person’s fraud went undetected.

How to Follow Media Coverage on Immigration

Canada’s immigration regime is by no means perfect, but given the number of applications and actors involved, as well as the myriad of pressures on the system, it works remarkably well.  The next time one reads a media report in which an individual issue, refusal or delay is portrayed as emblematic of a dysfunctional system, remember that there are a myriad of interests at stake, literally millions of individuals interacting with the system, and that most programs and policies have been crafted to strike a balance between competing interests and needs.