Federal government has 'failed' to reunite families, Canadian women with foreign spouses say

A group of Canadian women have written to the federal government saying their families are facing unfair treatment from the immigration department as their spousal reunification applications are processed.
Laura Silver, Lori Hicks and Alissa Sauder have been waiting for years to be reunited with their foreign spouses in Canada. Immigration application delays continue to stall a decision on their files. (CBC)

A group of Canadian women have written to the federal government saying their families are facing unfair treatment from the immigration department as their spousal reunification applications are processed.

Eight women from across the country sent a letter to the minister of immigration, the prime minister and the high commission in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, asking them to address the departmental issues causing "unreasonable" delays to their husbands' permanent residency applications. They say the government is a barrier to their families being reunited in Canada as they wait for years for interviews with immigration officials. 

"We assert that the Minister of Immigration's failure to direct a solution to provide ongoing and efficient immigration interviews for our spouses is above and beyond a reasonable delay and thus has created undue hardship. The IRCC [Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada] has failed to render the services for which we have paid," the letter reads. 

Each couple is at the penultimate step of an interview with an immigration officer before their PR applications are either approved or denied.

The federal government says its goal is to process most spousal sponsorship applications in 12 months. The women, each married to a man from the Caribbean region (most from Cuba), have been waiting for two to three years to be reunited with their spouses. 

Some of the women have given birth without their partner, taken extended leave from work because of stress, raised children alone and experienced deaths of loved ones without their spouse present for support. 

"We look at the time that's passed and we feel robbed," Laura Silver, who lives in Calgary, said. 

Silver and her husband had their third wedding anniversary on Sunday. They've been waiting 27 months for him to be given status in Canada. Their interview appointment has been cancelled and rescheduled several times in the last 18 months. She says her 10-year-old son asks daily when "dad is coming home."

Lori Wicks was given notice in August 2019 that her Cuban husband needed an interview. That appointment has been cancelled multiple times during the 30 months his application has been in limbo. They'll celebrate their fourth anniversary virtually next week. 

"It's unreasonable to be asking us to live like this," Wicks, from Ottawa, said. 

Alissa Sauder from Cambridge, Ont., and her husband of three years, submitted his permanent residency application two years ago and have yet to be contacted for an interview or provided with next steps. 

"It's so draining, I don't know where to go, I don't know what to do," she said through tears.

Immigration and visa applications in Cuba have been stalled for two years, ever since staffing was reduced at the embassy because of odd health problems. Canadian and U.S. diplomats posted to Havana began complaining of unexplained dizziness, headaches and nausea in the spring of 2017.  While some visa processing services have resumed, spousal interviews are still being conducted out of Port of Spain.

The three women met through this shared struggle and are now pushing the government for solutions. Each couple says they have spent thousands of dollars on application fees, medical examinations, criminal record checks and the cost of flights between Canada, Cuba and Trinidad and Tobago. 

"The unwillingness of the IRCC to find a creative solution to the backlog of pending interviews seems unfairly targeted against Canadian women, causing hardship, mental and emotional stress," the letter continues. 

They are asking that the federal government waive the required interviews for foreign spouses with applications older than 18 months or establish secure ways to conduct the interviews via video conference. They also suggested that spouses could be provided conditional permanent residence and be required to attend an interview upon arrival in Canada, arguing that immigration pathways have been opened during the pandemic for students, temporary workers and others.

They penned the letter on Jan. 25, and have yet to receive a response. CBC News has reached out to the department for comment. 

An immigration lawyer says while COVID-19 has presented extreme challenges for the immigration department, the extended delays on these cases seem unreasonable. 

"It's actually quite shocking that they're being asked to wait three or more years," Michael Greene, a partner at the Sherritt Greene Immigration Law Centre and the past chair of the Canadian Bar Association's immigration section, said.

"Hopefully compassionate minds in the government will find some solutions to this because just postponing indefinitely is cruel and unusual treatment." 

Greene added that he couldn't think of a reason why interviewing a permanent resident applicant couldn't occur over video conferencing, seeing as courts have been swearing affidavits virtually during the pandemic.

The women have exhausted most of their avenues to escalate the concerns. The final option is to go to a federal court for an order of mandamus that could force the immigration department to complete the processing of their applications faster, Greene said. 

Each of the three doesn't know what the next step is for their families.