Sweeping changes proposed in a new immigration bill would give new powers to the minister of immigration, including the ability to deny entry to visitors for public policy reasons and to override the rules to let otherwise inadmissible people come to Canada.

Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney tabled legislation in the House Wednesday that would make it easier for the government to deport refugees, permanent residents and visitors for "serious criminality," crimes where the punishment is six months or more in jail.

Kenney is selling the bill based on the changes proposed to allow automatic deportation for any non-Canadian sentenced to more than six months in jail.

"I think you can call them dangerous, you can call them serious, we don't want them in Canada anymore, and that's the bottom line," Kenney told Chris Hall on CBC News Network's Power & Politics.

"If you are a foreign national and you want the privilege of staying in Canada, don't commit a serious crime.… I don't think that's too much to ask people."

But there's far more to the bill, including a measure that would allow the immigration minister to decide who can enter the country. One measure would give him the power to deny someone entry or temporary resident status for up to three years on the basis of public policy considerations.

Another measure would let him override the rules to allow entry to someone the minister wants to be allowed in. The example provided in a background document is for a head of state who satisfies the minister that the visit isn't contrary to the national interest but who would otherwise not be allowed in.

"Sometimes we have foreigners who do not have a criminal conviction and are therefore not strictly inadmissible to Canada under our current law, but who, for example, may have a long track record of promoting violence or hatred against vulnerable groups," Kenney said, giving the example of an imam who calls for the execution of gays and lesbians, justifies domestic abuse and makes anti-Semitic remarks.

Tool to be used 'sparingly'

"We have no legal tool to keep him out right now because he hasn't committed a crime in, say, Saudi Arabia. He might be committing hate crimes in Canada," Kenney said.

"We would use it sparingly, probably only a handful of cases a year, really for those folks for which there is no other legal grounds to keep them out of the country."

Jinny Sims, the NDP's immigration critic, says she has serious concerns about the bill because of the power it gives to the minister and because the House immigration committee is studying the issue now, but won't finish the study until the fall.

"We have concerns about the growing centralization of power and control into the hands of the minister," Sims said.

"We raised concerns about that in C-31 [the refugee reform bill], and those concerns are now accentuated as we see more power being given to the minister."

The proposed law would also take away humanitarian and compassionate grounds as factors in appealing a decision that someone is inadmissible to Canada and would mean the public safety minister would be able to consider only national security and public safety in deciding whether someone can become Canadian.

A spokesman for Kenney said there are 2,747 people with convictions appealing to the Immigration Appeal Division to be able to stay in Canada.

Other proposed changes under the act include:

  • A rule that would deny an appeal to those with foreign convictions for crimes that would carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in Canada.
  • A rule that would deny entry to Canada to those with a family member inadmissible for security and human rights reasons or organized crime connections, even if that family member isn't travelling with them.
  • A five-year inadmissibility period for lying on immigration applications.
  • Mandatory CSIS interviews if requested.
  • Reporting conditions for those under deportation orders.
  • Automatic inadmissibility for non-Canadians and permanent residents for acts of espionage or acts against Canada's interests.

Kenney suggested one of the reasons for the changes is that judges sometimes sentence people to two years less a day to allow them to keep their immigration appeals. The current law allows an appeal for those sentenced to less than two years.

"If you commit a serious crime in Canada, we are going to send you packing as quickly as we can," Kenney said.

In their election campaign platform last year, the Conservatives promised to streamline deportations of "foreign criminals" from Canada.

"It often takes years to deport even dangerous foreign criminals from Canada. In some cases, foreign criminals and terrorists here have evaded removal from Canada for over a decade as they exploit endless appeals and loopholes. Canadians expect that foreign criminals will get due process before being removed, but not an endless abuse of our generosity," campaign literature said.

No review of circumstances

Immigration lawyer Lorne Waldman criticized the decision to remove the right of appeal for people sentenced to more than six months in prison.

"[The change] means that there will be no review of all of the circumstances and how the deportation order might affect children or spouses, family, etc.," Waldman said in an email to CBC News. "It means deportation regardless of how long the person is in Canada."

"The whole point of the appeal and review [process] was to ensure that people who have committed minor offences and who have lived all their life here or who have children who will be affected, that these matters get considered so that there is a balancing done before the person is deported."

Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae said Wednesday the government is trying to "change the channel" by introducing legislation a day before the House is expected to adjourn for the summer. 

"The [Prime Minister's Office] is troubled," Rae told reporters on Parliament Hill.

"Every time they get into trouble with their agenda, they say let's go back to law and order.… We'll be studying it carefully but I think we have to understand the political game that's being played here. You don't bring in legislation at the very end of June with a view that this is something that you're going to get done. It's a view that you want to get some publicity and you want to get a headline."

The legislation is the latest in a series of changes to Canada's immigration and refugee system, including:

  • Bill C-31, which targets human smuggling and gives the immigration minister sole authority to decide which groups of refugee claimants are "mass arrivals." The bill has passed the House of Commons and is being considered by the Senate.
  • Amendments to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act contained in the omnibus budget bill, which passed the House this week, that will wipe out a backlog of 280,000 applications under the Federal Skilled Worker Program. Applications made before 2008 would be deleted and the application fee refunded.
  • A new policy that comes into effect June 30 will cut back on the services offered to refugees under the Interim Federal Health Program, which gives temporary health-care coverage to approximately 128,000 refugees.
  • A decision by Kenney last year to freeze applications from foreign parents and grandparents to join their children in Canada, while raising the annual number of applicants allowed in to the country, in a bid to clear a backlog of 180,000 applications. He also introduced a new "super-visa" that allows family members to visit Canada for up to 10 years provided they have a minimum annual income and arrange their own health insurance.