Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced new criteria for sponsoring parents and grandparents to come to Canada today that are aimed at ensuring elderly immigrants don't end up on welfare or in social housing.

The changes are part of "phase 2" of the government's overhaul of the family reunification category of immigration. New applications for the program have been on hold since 2011 in order to cut down on a massive backlog that resulted in wait times of eight years. 

Kenney said applications will resume Jan. 1, 2014, and will be limited to 5,000 per year. The applications will still take years to process because of the ongoing backlog. By the end of the year, the backlog is estimated to be around 80,000 applications.

Kenney said that about 25,000 parents and grandparents will be admitted as permanent residents in 2013 and he expects that level to continue in coming years.

Kenney said the number of older immigrants allowed into Canada must be limited because of the burden they place on the health-care system and other social resources. A set of grandparents could cost the system $400,000, he noted.

"We want to permit a responsible degree of family reunification at the amount we can afford," he said.

Sponsored seniors going on welfare

Aside from health-care costs, Kenney said a growing number of sponsored seniors are ending up on welfare and this is a concern to the government. The sponsoring family must cover income support costs for the first 10 years of residency, but after that, Kenney says more than 25 per cent are receiving welfare benefits.

"That's just not right. That's an abuse of Canada's generosity," Kenney said. 

'If you think your parents may need to go on welfare in Canada, please don't sponsor them.' —Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney

He said he's been hearing from municipal housing authorities who say they are seeing a growing number of seniors moving into subsidized public housing.

"If this was about family reunification, what's going on? It seems to me that that sort of thing constitutes an abuse of Canada's generosity."

To address these concerns, the government is introducing new criteria for sponsoring a parent or grandparent:

  • The minimum necessary income level is going up by 30 per cent.
  • Proof of the new income threshold for a minimum of three years instead of one.
  • Only Canada Revenue Agency notices of assessment will be accepted as proof of income.
  • Sponsorship commitment period is going from 10 to 20 years.
  • The maximum age of dependents will now be set at 18 and under.

Kenney said the increase in income needed to sponsor parents is modest and reasonable and helps ensure that people do not become a burden on Canadian taxpayers. He said his department knows of cases where applicants have enough money in their bank account the year they apply, "and then they suddenly go back to being poor again."

Previously, applicants could demonstrate their income with any kind of documentation which made it difficult to detect fraud and is why now only CRA documents will be accepted.

"Let me be blunt: we want to see that people are paying their taxes to help us, as taxpayers, fund the cost of mom and dad's health care," he said. "This is one way that we can deal with some of the abuse of our generosity in the program."

Super visa made permanent

The doubling of the sponsorship period to 20 years is another move designed to prevent welfare benefits from going to sponsored elderly immigrants.

"If you think your parents may need to go on welfare in Canada, please don't sponsor them. We're not looking for more people on welfare, we're not looking to add people as a social burden to Canada. If their expectation is that they need the support of the state then they should stay in their country of origin, not come to Canada," Kenney said.

Currently people are allowed to sponsor siblings under the family reunification class and Kenney said that has meant adults in their 20s and 30s, if enrolled in a post-secondary program, are eligible to come to Canada. The minister said these people shouldn't be classified as dependent children because they're not children anymore and should take responsibility for themselves.

They're welcome to apply for immigration under other categories but they shouldn't "pretend to be a dependent child in your late 20s or 30s" he said.

Kenney also announced that the "super visa" program will now be a permanent option for family members. It allows parents and grandparents to come for multiple extended visits over a period of 10 years. More than 15,000 super visas have been issued since that program was introduced in 2011.

Kenney said the government is committed to having a fast system for processing applications and that the changes announced Friday reflect practical limits on Canada's generosity.

The NDP slammed the rule changes, saying they will make it harder and more expensive for families to reunite."The Conservatives think family reunification should be a luxury only for those who can afford it," the party's deputy immigration critic Sadia Groguhé said in a statement.