How biometric data-sharing with U.S. is barring Mexican workers from Canada
For years, Mexican seasonal workers were welcomed by Maritime communities. Now, employers are scrambling
A new Canadian immigration biometric screening requirement is worsening a chronic labour shortage at Maritime seafood processing plants, just as the two lucrative fisheries in the Gulf of St. Lawrence are about to open.
CBC News has learned applications from 11 Mexican temporary foreign workers were rejected last month because biometric data indicated they did not disclose that they had been refused U.S. visas in the past.
Approvals for dozens more Mexican applicants have been delayed and a decision is pending.
Since the start of the year, applicants for the work permits from the Americas have been subject to automatic immigration information data-sharing between Canada and the United States.
According to rejection letters obtained by CBC News, the applicants were denied entry for "failure to be honest" on their Canadian application forms.
One person was rejected because they did not disclose they were refused a U.S. visa 13 years ago.
Using temporary foreign workers has become a critical part of operations at many Maritime seafood processing plants. They are needed to keep operations at capacity and guarantee jobs to those Canadians still willing to work in the plants.
Aquashell, a Wallace, N.S., shellfish processor, said it had 10 of 30 Mexican applicants rejected this year for failing to disclose, even though most had been approved in previous years.
"The refusals are linked to visa refusals to the U.S., [and] nothing to do with Canada," CEO Frank deWaard said in a statement to CBC News.
The company had too few workers to process snow crab at its Lismore Seafoods plant last month and will close the facility if it doesn't have temporary foreign workers.
Workers have 'not caused any problems'
Seafood plant owners insist there is a job for any Canadian who wants one, but many have struggled to recruit local labour for the demanding work that only runs seasonally.
Aquashell predicts the loss of the Mexican workforce will lower production at its Wallace plant by up to 30 per cent this year.
"The Mexican workers have not caused any problems while here in Nova Scotia whatsoever," said deWaard.
"Not as much as a driving infraction or anything. To the contrary, they have been accepted by the community and have been welcomed back every year."
Aquashell has now cancelled orders due to the worker shortage and switched to products that take fewer employees to produce.
The company is still waiting to hear what will happen to the six individuals whose applications are pending.
New screening requirement
Victoria Co-op Fisheries in Cape Breton said it had one Mexican applicant rejected. Approval for others was delayed for several weeks as Canadian officials processed a new biometric requirement for those seeking entry to Canada on a work permit.
As of Dec. 31, 2018, nationals from countries in Asia, Asia Pacific and the Americas have given their fingerprints and photo when applying for a visitor visa, study or work permit, or for permanent residency.
That has triggered automatic "biographic and biometric" information data-sharing between Canada and the United States on third-country nationals.
Canada signed the agreement in 2012.
'A real concern' about Canada's approach
Victoria Co-op general manager Osborne Burke considers the rejection and application processing delay a needless impediment, arguing the workers pose no threat to anyone.
He said this isn't about securing Canadian borders, but Canadian sovereignty.
"I do have a real concern if Canada now is following a U.S. lead when the president of the U.S. has made it clear that basically he doesn't want people from Mexico or anywhere else coming into the country," said Burke.
"Why is Canadian immigration seemingly following U.S. refusals? I'd be very concerned that if somebody was refused a U.S. visa just on that basis alone that Canada would refuse them."
What the feds have to say
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada offered no clarity when asked what happens to applicants who disclose a prior U.S. visa refusal.
"Having been refused a visa to another country, including the United States, would not result in the automatic refusal of a visa to enter Canada," spokesperson Nancy Caron said in an email to CBC News.
"Immigration information obtained from the U.S. is one of many resources used by Canadian immigration officials to independently determine admissibility and eligibility of applicants, based on Canadian immigration law."
The department said it's too early to comment on the impact on processing times for nationals from countries in Asia, Asia Pacific and the Americas.
Biometrics became a requirement for applicants from Europe, the Middle East and Africa last August with no "concerning trends," the department said.
Why plants rely on temporary foreign workers
North Nova Seafoods in Caribou, N.S., employs 140 people, 40 of whom are temporary foreign workers mostly from Thailand and the Philippines.
The company is still waiting on Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada to learn the fate of dozens of Mexican workers. The application approvals are already late, said owner Paul Logan.
"If I don't have my temporary foreign workers, it's very detrimental to my local people because without the foreign workers, there won't be any work for the local people because there's not enough of them to make the plant sustainable," he said.
The rejections and processing delays this spring come just as the Gulf of St. Lawrence snow crab and lobster season opens.
Within days, the first landings of millions of kilos of shellfish will hit wharves, producing the seasonal glut that characterizes the industry.
At Westmoreland Fisheries in Cap-Pelé, N.B., manager Nathaniel Richard said approvals for between 30 and 40 temporary foreign workers are also delayed because of the new biometrics requirement. Most applicants are from Mexico.
The company employs about 400 people.
"Shortages are not a new issue for us, but this new problem was not expected and this is very inconvenient," said Richard. "Having these last-minute delays adds stress to an already stressful situation."
MP defends government's approach
In Nova Scotia, two of the shellfish plants affected by a rejection or delayed approval are in the Central Nova riding of Liberal MP Sean Fraser.
Fraser has provided letters of support to Aquashell in a "procedural fairness" appeal, noting some of the rejected applicants "have been living in our communities without incident for up to five years ... are good employees and the community is comfortable having them."
But Fraser defends the increased immigration screening brought in by the Trudeau government last year.
"The issue is that Canadians want to ensure that the immigration system is one of integrity and to have applicants who failed to disclose material information on their form raises red flags," he said.
Fish plants 'thrown under the bus'
The industry estimates that it will need an additional 600 workers a year in Atlantic Canada over the next decade to make up for vacancies, turnover and retirements.
Jerry Amirault of the Lobster Processors Association represents plants in the three Maritime provinces.
He said the visa issue should have nothing to do with the seafood sector.
"Is it Ottawa and Washington trying to come up with some grand scheme on something else and we get thrown under the bus?" asked Amirault.
He said the region's seafood processors employ about 3,000 of the 90,000 temporary foreign workers who enter Canada each year.
The association is lobbying for a separate seasonal temporary foreign worker program that would allow government to tailor the entry requirements to the needs of the seafood industry.
"This is not streaming for the permanent residency program," said Amirault. "It is temporary."