Politics

Liberals speed up foreign spouse reunions, tackle application backlog

Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen marks Valentine's Day with progress update on spousal sponsorship program

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Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen is announcing progress on speeding up processing times to reunite spouses. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

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The Liberal government has cut back the wait times for foreign spouses looking to reunite with their loved ones in Canada and has made considerable headway on a big backlog of applications.

The average wait is now one year in about 80 per cent of cases, down from the previous two-year wait, according to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.

Immigration officials also have made a significant dent in what had become a vast backlog of files, bringing it from roughly 75,000 files down to about 15,000 in just over a year.

Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen told CBC News it was the "humane" thing to do.

"We wanted to make sure families were not unnecessarily kept apart and family reunification is a very key priority for our government," he said in an interview. "And that is why spousal sponsorship was, is and will continue to be a key part of our immigration system."

Hussen said the results were achieved by deploying a "tiger team" of staff to tackle the backlog, and by simplifying the application process to avoid delays and duplication.

He said the government took no shortcuts on the rigorous screening process, even though most claims are from what he called "bona fide" couples.

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The Liberal government has streamlined the application process for Canadian citizens and permanent residents to sponsor their spouses. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

The minister formally announced details of progress made on the file to date, along with changes to the application process meant to boost efficiency, at a dessert shop in Mississauga, Ont.

'Significant improvement'

The decision to make the announcement with couples in attendance who have benefited from quicker processing times — and to do it on Valentine's Day — was meant to underscore how immigration policies affect real lives, Hussen said.

"To each person, it means the world to them to make sure that application is processed quickly and that they're reunited with their family members," he said.

Hussen says wait times for foreign spouses have been cut in half 1:45

The plan to speed up spousal sponsorship processing was announced in December 2016 by then-immigration minister John McCallum. At the same time, the family reunification guide was cut from 180 pages to a 75-page document, and the application form was rewritten to incorporate plain language.

During a news conference Wednesday, Hussen said speeding up the benefits helps society at large.

"The bottom line here is that we want newcomers to integrate well into their new communities and succeed, and speeding up family reunification helps us to do just that," he said.

Vancouver-based immigration lawyer Zool Suleman said his clients with proper documentation have seen a "significant improvement" in the system since then.

Political advantage

"If I was to choose one of the two or three areas where there's been tremendous success for this government, this particular change has, I think, been one of their key successes," he said.

Suleman said the government scores political points with reuniting couples by speeding up the process — but society also benefits because the applicants are less stressed and more productive at work.

"These applications end up being, sometimes, at the core of a great deal of stress between couples," he said. "Whatever you can do to expedite and make the positive decision to be made, or the negative decision to be made, the better."

Toronto immigration lawyer Lorne Waldman said he's seen some cases processed "surprisingly quickly" in the last year — but that's not the experience for everyone.

"I think it depends on the visa office. I think it depends a little bit on luck," he said. "It would say it's uneven. There have been some improvements and we've seen some cases processed extremely quickly, but we still see people waiting a long time to be reunited with their family members."

Some offices that have been notoriously slow in past continue to be slow, Waldman said.

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