Nova Scotia

'Held hostage': Halifax woman's immigration application stuck in Sydney

A Halifax woman who is applying to become a permanent resident of Canada says the federal immigration system is keeping her and many others in limbo waiting for a decision. 

Citizen of China has asked how to move case forward but she's still told to wait

Skyler Li applied to become a permanent resident of Canada in 2018. (Shaina Luck/CBC)

A Halifax woman applying to become a permanent resident of Canada says the federal immigration system is keeping her and many others in limbo waiting for a decision. 

Skyler Li has repeatedly asked for more information about her case from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, offering to supply anything agents need to give her an answer. But she said she is always told to wait.

"I only need a decision," she said from her Halifax home. "I'm not saying approved, the decision doesn't mean approved. I just need to know what I should do next."

Li is a citizen of China and came to Nova Scotia as an international student at Cape Breton University.

After graduation, she qualified to stay in the country on a three-year work visa. She applied to become a permanent resident of Canada in July 2018.

The province of Nova Scotia recommended her to the federal government for fast-track processing under the "express entry" program. In 2017-2018, IRCC processed 76 per cent of these types of applications within six months. 

Li has been waiting nine months and her work visa will expire in 2020.

She said she wants to move on with her life and apply to study geology at a Canadian college or university. Being a permanent resident would qualify her for the same tuition fees that domestic students pay, which are thousands of dollars lower than those international students must pay.

Li looks out her window towards a nearby park. (CBC)

However, it's not clear to Li whether her work visa permits her to study at university and she's afraid to do anything that might jeopardize her permanent residency application. 

"We understand it's frustrating": IRCC

IRCC told CBC that Li's application is taking longer than usual because it "requires further review by an IRCC officer." The officer must review whether Li qualifies for the "minimum entry criteria." 

It also emphasized the processing time listed on the department's website is "average."

"We understand it's frustrating for anyone hoping to immigrate when their application takes longer than expected," wrote spokesperson Peter Liang. "Every application is handled on a case-by-case basis and there's no one simple explanation for how long it takes." 

In late 2018, Li used access to information laws to get copies of her case notes. Those revealed there has been no activity on her application since September. 

They also suggested some of her job duties were unclear and an officer doubted whether she had a full 12 months of work experience.

Li said she can prove she does, and uploaded a new reference letter from her employer. She did not hear anything back. 

More traffic than system can handle

Halifax immigration lawyer Lee Cohen said he's heard a version of Li's story many times before. He concedes IRCC has made some efficiencies and improved processing times in some categories.

"But the reality is still the reality, and that is that far too many people in the immigration system are being held hostage by the system, because it's taking the system so long to process paper and for people to get results," he said. 

"People's lives are put on hold."

Lee Cohen is an immigration lawyer in Halifax. (CBC)

Cohen said he sees the federal and provincial governments strongly encouraging people to apply to immigrate, but the processing system is not equipped to handle the traffic it is inviting. 

According to IRCC's 2018 annual report to Parliament, Canada's target for 2019 is to admit 330,800 permanent residents. Of those, 61,000 will be from provincial nominee programs such as the one Li used.

All of those provincial nominee applicants send their paperwork to IRCC's intake office in Sydney, N.S.

The Sydney office handles many other types of applications as well. According to IRCC, approximately 250-300 people work in that office. 

Cohen said he thinks IRCC is underpowered. 

"I believe people who work in the system, in the immigration departments, would in an honest moment tell you the same thing: that they're grossly understaffed." 

For now, Li is working six days a week at two jobs, hosting in a restaurant and working as a heritage interpreter at Pier 21. She said she pays Canadian taxes on these earnings and she respects the Canadian system but believes it is not treating her with transparency.

Pier 21 in Halifax is Canada's national museum of immigration. (CBC)

Her work at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax has taught her about the history of the Canadian immigration system.

She said she understands her application may not be successful and she will move on with her life if she is denied. But being kept without any answer is difficult for her. 

As part of her work at Pier 21 she tells visitors how Canada welcomed immigrants.

"And I think I am not a welcomed person in Canada right now," she said.


Shaina Luck


Shaina Luck is an investigative reporter with CBC Nova Scotia. She has worked with local and network programs including The National and The Fifth Estate. Email:


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