Hundreds of Iranians in limbo as security screenings delay immigration applications
'I have the highest level of education possible. What else do I need?' asks PhD student
Amir Abdi comes from Isfahan, Iran, has a doctorate in dental surgery and is completing a PhD in electrical and computer engineering at the University of British Columbia.
Abdi, 30, is also a recipient of the Vanier scholarship, among the most prestigious doctorate scholarships in Canada. In February 2017, he was awarded one of Canada's top research awards, which was presented to him at Rideau Hall by Governor General David Johnston and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
But Abdi's future in Canada is uncertain.
He said his application for permanent residency in Canada, which he was told would take roughly six months to process, has still not been completed a year later. Permanent residency is the step immigrants to Canada pass through before they can apply for full citizenship.
If Abdi doesn't become a permanent resident in the next three days, he won't be able to accept a spot at one of Canada's top research centres.
Abdi is one of more than 300 Iranian graduate and postdoctoral students who say they've faced unreasonable wait times as their permanent residency applications are processed.
The estimated wait time given on the government of Canada's website is six months. But many students say they've waited several years, with many of them told that their applications are undergoing security screenings.
The delays with their immigration status have forced them to put their academic and professional lives on hold, they say.
Because they lack permanent resident status, students say they've missed attending international conferences, have had to decline job offers, and feel like they're unable to set up their lives in Canada.
Waiting to hear about their status is a source of stress and anxiety. And they say Ottawa has not told them why the security screening process has been delayed.
"We recognize security is an essential part of the immigration process, but we just want to know why it's taking so long," said Abdi.
I missed my brother's wedding, I missed the day when my niece was born. I couldn't attend my grandfather's funeral. It is my basic right to have all of these. 😞<a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/DelayedIranianApplications?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#DelayedIranianApplications</a>—@flora_safaei
He said he doesn't understand why security screenings should take so long for people who have already been vetted by Canada when they initially applied as students, and have lived in the country for many years.
Lawyers and members of parliament who are now working with the students say the delays make Canada look hypocritical, since the government has already invested in their academic careers.
Ehsassi said he understands that security screenings are needed, but it appears these students have been singled out.
"When you compare all the evidence, it suggests we're talking about undue delays for many applicants that are of Iranian origin."
Abdi is not alone.
Mali Meibod is a postdoctoral fellow in the department of Kinesiology at UBC.
Originally trained as a microbiologist, Meibod researches how to improve the lives of people with spinal cord injuries.
She first applied for permanent residency in February 2017, and has yet to hear back. Since then, she's missed attending a major international conference because she could not leave Canada.
"Sometimes I feel like — aren't I worth [having] permanency residency in Canada? I have the highest level of education possible. What else do I need?" she said.
Through her grants and scholarships, Canada has invested nearly half a million dollars in her education since she first arrived.
"I don't know where the priorities of Canada fit but if I was a policymaker I'd think, I want to keep these skilled people that I spent so much money on."
Dozens more, including Maryam Merrikhpour, a PhD in industrial engineering, and Pooya Mirzabeygi, who has a master's in mechanical engineering, also wrote to CBC News with their stories. A Facebook group of Iranian students in Canada has more than 300 members.
I was thinking that I already spent 13% of my life in limbo and waiting for a decision on my Canadian PR application. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/DelayedIranianApplications?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#DelayedIranianApplications</a>—@Saminehpisces1
Vincent Valai, a Montreal-based attorney who represents Abdi, was also approached by a group of Iranian students in Quebec who said they've faced lengthy wait times.
Valai said many of the individuals represent top talent, which Canada should recruit. He said living in limbo has caused them psychological strain.
"Lots of them are suffering while waiting — some of them are experiencing depression and anxiety due to the delays," he said.
Joyce Murray, Liberal MP for Vancouver Quadra, said she's met with a number of Iranian students, some of them "on the edge of tears."
"The government has identified international students as a positive and preferred set of candidates for permanent residency. We want them here, and there's no reason why the students shouldn't have a response in a timely way," she said.
Murray said she's raised the issue with Immigration Minister Ahmed Hessen and Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale.
Hussen's office did not respond to a CBC's request for an interview.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said security screenings are "part of the normal procedures of processing an application for permanent residence, regardless of an applicant's country of origin."
It said screenings are done by outside agencies such as the RCMP, Canadian Security Intelligence Service, and the Canada Border Services Agency.