Sunday, January 18, 2015

Canadian couple in limbo demand audit of spousal sponsorship program

Stephen Hinton of Edmonton and his Finnish wife, Helena.
Torstar News Service
Canadians caught up in Ottawa’s backlog in processing in-country spousal sponsorships are calling for an audit of the troubled program.

Processing times have tripled recently. Thousands of Canadians are now having to wait more than two years to acquire permanent resident status for their foreign spouses already living in Canada. That means living in limbo for the foreign partner, including not being allowed to take a job or access health care coverage.

A national online group called Canada Inland Spousal Sponsorship Petitioners says Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) must immediately establish “service delivery standards,” as recommended by the Office of the Auditor General in a scathing report in 2010.

“As a Canadian who has lived, worked and paid taxes here for 25 years, I just feel like a second-rate citizen,” said Malcolm White of Oshawa, who married wife Anne in 2011. The Birmingham, England, resident joined him here two years later and filed an application for permanent resident status in December 2013.

“There is no transparency or accountability with the system. Canadians’ spouses should have the first priority to live in this country,” White said.

Canadians have the option to sponsor a foreign wife or husband either from abroad or within Canada; many prefer to do it here, so they don’t have to be apart during the processing.

A spousal sponsorship is a two-stage process: the sponsor has to be assessed and approved before the foreign spouse can be screened for medical clearance, background checks and other verification.

Currently, inland applicants must wait 17 months — up from six months in 2013 — for stage one, and eight months longer for stage two.

Jean-François Fortin of Quebec City sponsored his Peruvian wife, Silvia Dominguez, a microbiologist, last February after the two met in graduate school in Rutgers University in 2006 and later worked in California and Geneva. They have a 3-year-old son born in the United States.

“If I had not been a Canadian, my wife would have got her work permit in a month from Paris. Now her career is stalled. It is really frustrating,” said Fortin, who teaches physics in a university.

“We planned to have another child. She is pregnant now but she is not covered by (provincial) health care. Her private insurance plan doesn’t cover pregnancy . . . Immigration is the worst place to be. It’s like a black box. You can’t get any answer and have no clue what’s happening.”

Although Ottawa launched a pilot program before Christmas to issue work permits to some of these foreign spouses still in the queue for stage one, the lobbying group complains its members are treated worse than foreign workers and international students, whose spouses can get their work permits and health coverage a lot faster.

“It just doesn’t make sense,” said Stephen Hinton of Edmonton, who married his Finnish wife, Helena, last May and applied under the inland sponsorship program in October. “They are just trying to divert attention with the pilot program, to keep us quiet” in a federal election year, he said.

It is not known how many couples are caught up in the inland sponsorship backlog, but more than 8,000 new in-Canada applications — one-fifth of all spousal cases — are processed each year.

The wait time began ballooning last February, when CIC moved processing of the inland spousal cases from its centre in Vegreville, Alta., to Mississauga.

It worsened after August, when officials introduced a new application form and decided to mail back some of the applications to applicants even if they had been submitted before the form change.

Many of the foreign spouses in the backlog, like Tiago Negreiros, are not eligible for the pilot program because they were out of status when applications were made. Negreiros’ visitor visa had expired when his Toronto husband, David Hiiback, applied to sponsor him last fall.

“We have to pay $1,040 for the sponsorship application and another $155 for the work permit. They are not free. We pay for the processing service,” said Negreiros, a former journalist from Brazil.

Mandeep Singh arrived in Canada in 2007 as an international student and met his wife, Chanpreet Reakhi, an accounting clerk, in 2012 after he got his degree in information technology at the University of Alberta and was later hired by Telus on a work permit.

His application was submitted in November 2013. Hiccups in the sponsorship process forced him to quit his job because he was then without a work permit.

“I have been suffering from stress and depression, with hair and weight loss. Being out of status and unemployed, I cannot afford health coverage,” said Singh. “I’ve been forced to stay home, day in, day out for the past 14 months, being a burden on my wife and her family.”

The Conservative government has blamed the previous Liberal government for creating the backlog and said officials have to be vigilant against marriage fraud.

“As foreigners, it is not your place in society to protest, but we all have reasonable expectations from this government,” said Irish citizen Ronan McDermott, who met his Canadian wife, Alicia Renkas, from Calgary, while he was working in the oilsands on a work-holiday visa.

“The government owes us an answer why it takes 25 months to render a decision on our applications.”

The inland sponsorship group’s online petition has already collected signatures from more than 540 couples. It hopes to submit the petition to the Office of Auditor General on Monday.

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