Liberals relaunch family reunification lottery despite angry backlash around 'immigration fiasco'

The Liberal government has relaunched a lottery system to reunite immigrant families, despite a backlash from frustrated sponsors who called its random selection process "cruel," "heartless" and a "fiasco."

Government faced flood of emails, letters expressing outrage over new random selection process

The federal government is moving ahead with a lottery system for immigrant family reunification. Sponsors have until Feb. 1 to file an online 'Intent to Sponsor' form. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

The Liberal government has relaunched a lottery system to reunite immigrant families, despite a backlash from frustrated sponsors who called its random selection process "cruel," "heartless" and a "fiasco."

A one-month period opened this week inviting entries to an online draw that gives people a chance at one of 10,000 spots that allow them to apply to sponsor their parents or grandparents.

The lottery system replaced the former first-come, first-served process last year. This year's version includes additional questions after widespread criticism that some people picked in the 2017 pool did not meet financial requirements or other qualifications.

The switch to a lottery drew a flurry of angry emails and letters to Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen, his predecessor John McCallum and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

In hundreds of pages of correspondence that were released through Access to Information and provided to CBC News, potential sponsors expressed anger, heartbreak and disbelief with what they described as a rushed and deeply flawed program that came without public consultation.

'Immigration fiasco'

One email dated April 26, 2017 was fired off to Hussen under the subject line "immigration fiasco," calling the lottery a "shambles of immigration justice."

"This new system is based on unjust and unscientific means — a methodology of gambling with the lives of hard-working Canadians trying to unite with their loved ones," the message reads.

"Previous to this lottery, my wife and I had just completed the whole immigration process file and were approved to begin… when you decided to change the entire system to a Vegas-like circus of random choice."

Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen has received many emails and letters from people expressing frustration over the lottery system. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

"This is a highly unfair system for ones who previously immersed in the process only to be thrown back into a random ocean of applicants, disregarding the queue we were in."

The change to a lottery system was announced Dec. 14, 2016, just weeks before applications were to be accepted under the first-come, first-served system.

The change aimed to make the system more fair and transparent after complaints the process was skewed by geography and an applicant's ability to pay a lawyer or other representative to get to the head of the queue.

Increased intake

It was also intended to avoid building a backlog that had ballooned in past years, as the Liberal government doubled the cap to 10,000 spots from the previous 5,000.

Despite the increased intake target many sponsors condemned the process, with one calling it "a complete mess."

"The benefit of quota increase did not pass to genuine eligible applicants who have been waiting for years to reunite with their families… the entire lottery pool was hijacked by fake, ineligible and multiple entries," the message read.

Under the new lottery system, there are no requirements to prove eligibility on the online "Interest to Sponsor" form because it is not an actual application. But new questions have been added to this year's form to ensure potential sponsors understand requirements and meet them before entering.

Potential sponsors must meet several qualifications, including financial requirements, in order to be eligible to bring their parents or grandparents to Canada. (Mark Blinch/Canadian Press)

In addition to basic information such as birth date, country of origin, address, postal code and email address, the 2018 form includes questions about income and family size and requires the names of the parents or grandparents the person hopes to sponsor.

"This helps ensure that only eligible sponsors are selected to submit a complete application for sponsorship — meaning that available spaces under the 2018 Parent and Grandparent Program will go to those who will truly be able to sponsor their parents and grandparents," said Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) spokesperson Rémi Larivière.

Many begged for the government to revert back to the former system, move to a merit-based selection, or jack up fees to narrow the pool of applicants. Some even asked the prime minister to personally intervene.

Confusion over requirements

Some complaints were lodged about mass confusion around to which years the financial requirements were to be applied.

Others recalled how they were elated to receive an email informing they had been selected, only to get a second one just hours later advising they were actually not in the pool.

Parents and grandparents of Canadian citizens or permanent residents can also apply for a super visa, which allows them to extend a visit for up to two years after the initial entry into Canada.

A 10-year multiple-entry visa allows several visits of up to six months at a time.

Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel accused the Liberals of promising a high target for family reunification during the last election campaign without applying proper resources to deliver.

"I think the government is going to have to rethink it, simply because it's not working and the perception is that it's not fair," she told CBC News.

NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan called the lottery a "colossal disaster," and said family reunification is vital for both the Canadian economy and for family, community and cultural cohesion.

She urged the government to lift, or at least increase, the cap and return it to a first-come, first-served model that expedites the process.

'Based on luck'

"I reject the idea that your application should be based on luck," she said. "The government should remove the cap and allow for the processing of applications and put the resources into it. If we can bring in 50,000 Syrian refugees we can actually process family reunifications for parents and grandparents."

The online form is available until Feb. 1, when IRCC will remove duplicate submissions and randomly select potential sponsors, who will be invited to apply.

In announcing plans to relaunch the lottery system, Hussen recently said the government is committed to family reunification.

"Helping more people reunite with their parents and grandparents in Canada demonstrates the government's commitment to keeping families together, leading to successful integration and stronger ties to Canada," he said in a statement.

About the Author

Kathleen Harris

Senior Writer

Kathleen Harris is a senior writer in the CBC's Parliament Hill bureau. She covers politics, immigration, justice and corrections. Follow her on Twitter @ottawareporter

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