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'A waiting game': Families wonder why immigration applications in limbo with influx of asylum seekers

Some families are wondering why it's taking so long to process immigration applications as the influx of asylum seekers walking into Canada grows.

Sympathetic to refugees, but 'what about processing the files that are already in the pipeline?'

Since the start of the year, about 130 asylum seekers have crossed into Manitoba near Emerson, often walking through fields of waist-deep snow. (CBC)

With a steady stream of asylum seekers sneaking across the border, some families are wondering why it's taking so long to process immigration applications to get their family members to Canada.

Parmeet Shaw, 43, applied through Manitoba's provincial nominee program to bring her parents to Winnipeg from India six years ago. That application is still being processed.

"I have all the sympathy for all the refugees and everyone who wants to come Canada because Canada is definitely a better place," Shaw told CBC News. "But what about processing the files that are already in the pipeline?"

Since January, about 130 asylum seekers have walked into Manitoba near Emerson.

Winnipeg immigration lawyer Ken Zaifman said refugee claims and sponsorship applications fall under completely separate immigration streams and the processing of one does not impact the other.

But Shaw is concerned the provincial and federal governments are not allocating enough resources to deal with the current backlog of immigration applications.

"It's just a waiting game every time we try and contact them. The phone lines are constantly busy or it throws you in a loop so you can never ever talk to a person," she said, adding the last update on their application came in August 2015 when her parents were required to complete medical evaluations.

Shaw said the long wait time and lack of communication is taking its toll.

"My parents couldn't be here for even my wedding. They have missed most of our life events," she said. 

Delays, challenges to every program

Zaifman agreed that application times in some cases are too long.

The challenge before the federal and provincial governments is to manage the optics and immigration expectations as the flow of refugees across border continues, he said.

"People are frustrated because they see someone who is here now, by walking across the border, as opposed to their parents, who have been waiting in the home country for years, waiting to be processed," Zaifman said.

"It's a difficult, challenging issue for the government to deal with.... They have to manage expectations and they have to deliver on processing timelines that are reasonable."

Asylum seekers are processed under the refugee determination system in Canada, whereas those immigrating are applying through various federal and provincial programs.

Each program has different criteria, different processing times and varying volumes of applicants.

"You're dealing with different applicants from all over the world and they all come to the table with different documentation and different backgrounds and there are challenges to determining eligibility, so we just have to make a determination: where do we want these resources allocated and how timely should they be processed?"

In Canada, those applying to bring their spouses to the country can expect processing times of about six months, while applications for parents and grandparents to immigrate can exceed three years, he said. 

Refugee claims made within Canada are heard by the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada within 60 days.

"Some people have advocated that those applications should be processed extremely quickly, that the first hearing should be held within 30 days, decisions should be made again within 30 days, so that those people who are found not to be refugees will be removed from Canada in a timely way," he said, adding this could diminish the flow. "Although there is divided opinion on that."

Petition government

Zaifman said government officials are bound by resources and caps on the number of visas they can issue. 

His advice for those waiting years for applications to be processed is to get out and lobby their local politicians.

"We can see with an extraordinary commitment that we could process 20,000 Syrian refugees in a very short period of time. So if you allocate the resources, you can process cases faster," he said. 

"I think people should continue to contact their members of Parliament.… I think there is a common interest among all political parties. It's just a question of how do we deliver."

Last fall, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister committed to eliminating the backlog of applications to the provincial nominee program by April 2017.

In an email, a spokesperson for the province said they're on track to eliminate the backlog by the end of March. 

"Program improvements will ensure all applicants receive a higher standard of service, including better information sharing and processing times of less than six months," the spokesperson said.  

Shaw filed an access to information request to better understand where her parents' application is hung up. It yielded little and they continue to wait, she said.

"It would be so sad if, God forbid, something was to happen with my parents and I have had no time to live with them," she said. "I have been separated from them for the past 15 years. This is very difficult. I just want them here. That's all."