New Brunswick

Newcomers struggle under long waits for citizenship

The first thing Fatima Zeba does every morning is check the status of her citizenship application. She applied in 2019 and what was supposed to be a 12-month process, has now taken two-and-a-half years and counting. 

Growing backlog of applications

Fatima Zeba and her husband Mohsin Raza. (Submitted)

The first thing Fatima Zeba does every morning is check the status of her citizenship application.

She applied in 2019 and what was supposed to be a 12-month process, has now taken two-and-a-half years and counting. 

"I just feel cheated," she said. 

Zeba moved to Canada from India in 2011 to study in Halifax. Then she moved to New Brunswick in 2014 on a work permit. From there, she got her permanent residency.

She's an environmental engineer with a multinational company and said her life has been put on hold waiting for her citizenship. 

She and her husband, Mohsin Raza, a doctor who wasn't able to find work in Canada, lived apart while she waited to get her citizenship and he took a residency in Florida. 

While her application was still being processed, she joined her husband in the U.S.  She's still a permanent resident of Canada but that will expire at the end of April. 

"What really bothers me is if I don't come back my status will expire, my PR is going to expire, I'm going to lose everything that I've worked for," she said.

Zeba and her husband have a young son and they want to have more children, something they put off while living apart. For her, the decision to come back to Canada to keep her permanent residency from expiring is a difficult one.

"At this moment, it's between my citizenship and my family."

Zeba and her husband plan to live in Canada when he finishes his residency. She has had some movement on her citizenship application. She wrote the citizenship test in July 2021. She was told to expect a three to fourth month wait until she would be able to take the oath but she still hasn't heard when that will be. 

"Our future is like in a limbo," she said.

She isn't alone. 

On its website, Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada says the wait is approximately 12 months for citizenship, though many who applied in New Brunswick say they have been waiting several months longer than that. 

An applicant needs to have permanent residency status and has to have lived in the country for three of the previous five years to apply for citizenship. There are three significant phases of the process: the application, the citizenship test and taking the oath. 

Ahmed Mohammed is in a similar situation. Originally from Egypt, he applied for citizenship for his family in October 2020. They lived in Fredericton for five years, but he and his family have since moved to Ottawa. 

Ahmed Mohamed said the wait for citizenship has been frustrating. (Submitted)

While waiting for his citizenship, his permanent residency expired in September 2021. But thinking his citizenship would come through, and considering the delays in applications for permanent residency, he did not reapply for it. 

"There is no guarantee that I will get the PR," he said. 

He said he's sent hundreds of emails and made several phone calls trying to find out what the status of his application is but he hasn't gotten anywhere. 

"It's frustrating because we have been getting a lot of promises," he said.

Ehsan Khan moved with his wife to Canada from Pakistan in 2017 and to Moncton in 2018. He applied for citizenship in July 2020. More than a year later, he was able to write the test in September, 2021. He's been waiting to take the oath since.

Hearing nothing, he reached out to the office of his Member of Parliament, Ginette Petitpas Taylor. 

"They came back with the same thing that, 'OK, you know, you have passed the citizenship test and we know it's just a matter of somebody reviewing the application'."

"But when it will be reviewed," Khan said, "that's the million dollar question nobody's answering." 

Khan said certain job opportunities and his ability to travel are limited while he waits for his citizenship. 

'Alarming' backlog

According to Daniel Bernhard, CEO of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, a national organization that helps newcomers and people seeking citizenship, Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada has a backlog of 1.8 million applications, 400,000 of which are citizenship applications. 

"This is incredibly alarming because these are people who are deciding to commit, quite permanently, to Canada, to be invested here, to make their lives here. It's a multi-generational commitment," said Bernhard.

Bernhard said many people are waiting two years or more for their citizenship. 

"There's a lot of frustration, which is understandable," he said. "There's a lot of real hardship." 

Daniel Bernhard is the CEO of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship. He said there is a backlog of 400,000 citizenship applications. (Henry VanderSpek Photography (ww)

Bernhard said there are people whose permanent residency has run out while they waited on their citizenship, leaving them in the country illegally in some cases. 

"It's a real negative situation. It's having a real negative impact on families in Canada and abroad, and it's one that the government seems interested in dealing with. But they're dealing with it very, very slowly and help just can't come soon enough for people who want to become citizens."

There are a couple reasons for the delay, according to Bernhard. The first is that the number of people who are seeking to come to Canada as immigrants is on the rise. 

"That is a matter of global dynamics, if you like. But it's also a matter of public policy on behalf of the government of Canada that keeps increasing our immigration quota year on year."

In October 2020, the Liberal government promised to bring in 1.2 million immigrants over the next three years, despite hurdles in processing created by the global pandemic. But the bottleneck of applications show cracks in the IRCC's ability to keep up with the demand, said Bernhard. 

"The processing capacity of the ministry has just not kept up, and they've been a very late adopter of digital anything. And there is a lot of frustration on behalf of people who call. These applications just disappear, and there seems to be no recourse to get things sped up or to find out even what the holdups are. So the ministry seems to be dealing with old systems that are just outmatched for the number of applications that are coming in."

Travel restrictions and remote work has had a significant impact on processing times at IRCC, said communications advisor Julie Lafortune. 

"IRCC has been moving towards a more integrated, modernized and centralized working environment in order to help speed up application processing globally," said Lafortune in an email. 

She said 5,000 people are writing their citizenship test online each week and that between 3,500 to 5,000 applicants are being invited to do the citizenship oath virtually each week. 

As of March 2, "there were 3,411 applications from clients in New Brunswick in the current citizenship grant inventory," said Lafortune, "of which 1,111 were more than 12 months old."

And while so many wait, their lives become more complicated. 

Fatima Zeba, 34, has hired a lawyer to look into her case. She said if she doesn't get her oath ceremony before April, she will have to leave her husband and son and come back and live in Canada until she gets it. 

"Because if I don't come back, then my status would expire. And that is really important because I cannot go back to India. I'm not there for 10 years. My son has never been, like he cannot adjust over there. 

"So Canada is the only country I know."