Spousal sponsorship applicants highlight delays worsened by COVID-19

An online support group has gained thousands of members in just over two months as they work together to advocate for the federal government to introduce a special temporary resident visa while processing spousal sponsorship applications.

'All holidays, all birthdays, all funerals — everything is hard'

A small group of demonstrators gathered Saturday near Canada Place to raise awareness of the immigration delays some families are facing. (Tricia Kindleman (CBC))

Counting down until their next visit used to keep Allysia Haiste and Mohamed Eltahan positive while living more than 10,000 miles apart. Now with the pandemic there is no telling when they may be reunited again. 

Spousal sponsorship applications can be a hectic and lengthy process for Canadians wishing to bring home their partners from foreign countries. But the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the struggles of families and spouses even further as many applications sit in limbo with no end in sight of being completed. 

To get the government's attention, frustrated spousal sponsorship applicants in Canada banded together across the country on Saturday afternoon to demand their partners be reunited with them. They are all members of an online support group called Canada Spousal Sponsorship Applicants Affected by COVID-19.

The rallies took place in Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Vancouver and here in Edmonton. 

The small Edmonton rally of around a dozen people was led by Haiste at Canada Place in downtown Edmonton. The members of the group sent letters to politicians and tried to create what they call Twitter storms to raise awareness for their cause.

The government's website currently states that due to the impacts of the coronavirus it is unable to process applications normally or provide accurate processing times. It adds that applications from Canadians trying to return to Canada, vulnerable persons or essential workers are being given priority and if documents or other necessary information is delayed it will extend the deadline for applicants by 90 days. 

Anyone whose application has been processed and was approved before March 18, 2020, is exempt from current travel restrictions that ban all non-essential travel but they are required to have a 14-day quarantine plan in place even if they have no symptoms. 

Haiste and her husband Mohamed were married Aug. 11, 2018, in Egypt, where he still resides. For the second year in a row the couple will be unable to celebrate their upcoming wedding anniversary together. 

"All holidays, all birthdays, all funerals — everything is hard," Haiste said. "We were told in the beginning that it should be about 12 months. So, that's what we expected."

Allysia Haiste and her husband Mohamed Eltahan. (Allysia Haiste)

"He should have been here before COVID-19, so [its] not an excuse for this delay. With the pandemic thousands of people have started speaking up saying this has been happening to them too."

But now, it has been 19 months since their application was submitted.

Initially, they applied for a visitor visa for Eltahan in December 2018 which "was quickly rejected," according to Haiste.

"That's a problem that everyone here is facing today — their visitor visas have been denied because they are married."

She believes the government is worried that spouses may be more likely to overstay their visitor visas. 

"There were a lot of factors indicating that he was not going to stay," she said. "There was no way that we wanted to break the law or cause trouble in our relationship by overstaying a visitor visa."

They did then submit the sponsorship application in January 2019 and expected to complete the process by 2020.

"He finished 99 per cent of what needs to be done for his application in June of last year and it's been dead silent since then," she said. 

"This problem has been going on long before COVID-19."

A video shared by the group features a number of different Canadians who have been separated from spouses for months, including one man who hasn't seen his wife and children in more than 16 months.

According to the federal government website, immediate family members are exempt from travel restrictions that are currently in place if they are travelling for "the purpose of family reunification." 

Jenny Kwan, the NDP Critic for Immigration, sent an open letter to the Federal Immigration Minister, Marco Mendicino, highlighting the delays in the system. She also asked the minister to allow spouses to obtain temporary visas as part of the application process as well as the creation of special temporary resident visas. Temporary visas could allow spouses to reunite while their application is being finalized, provided that certain criteria are met.

Haiste says the online campaign is the only thing that is still giving her hope.

"Every week we send letters to the government and so I'm counting down the days to Monday so I can send my next letter."