Immigrants say their lives are in limbo as pandemic blocks their path to citizenship
Immigrants call on government to hold online or physically distanced citizenship tests
Six months after the federal government cancelled citizenship tests due to COVID-19, many immigrants say they fear a growing backlog in the citizenship queue will delay indefinitely their goal of becoming Canadians.
Before the pandemic hit, the entire citizenship process took an average of 12 months. Now, applicants say they have no idea when in-person tests will resume — and they're calling on the federal government to hold online or physically distanced exams.
Myrann Abainza came to Canada from the Philippines as a live-in caregiver in 2009 and was joined by her husband and two daughters six years later.
Her family was on track to obtain citizenship when COVID-19 struck. Frustrated by the delay and a lack of information from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), she said the government should find a way of holding in-person tests that respect public health guidelines.
"If schools are reopening, why not?" she said.
"It is very important for me because I've been waiting for this for a very long time. It's my dream. It's my dream to become a Canadian citizen."
IRCC's website states that as of March 14, all citizenship tests, re-tests, hearings and interviews are cancelled due to the pandemic. Citizenship ceremonies were also halted at that time but have resumed since as virtual events.
IRCC told CBC News it is looking at alternatives to provide citizenship tests but offered no timeframe.
Immigration department 'considering options'
"The department is reviewing operations and considering options for resumption of services, which could include online citizenship tests," said department spokesperson Beatrice Fenelon.
Tests and interviews are critical steps that must be completed before someone can become a Canadian citizen. Citizenship allows a newcomer the right to vote and obtain a passport, and also gives many a sense of security and permanent belonging.
Basel Masri, who arrived in Canada as a refugee from Turkey after fleeing conflict in his home country of Syria, is one of those whose path to citizenship has been stalled by the pandemic.
Like many of the citizenship applicants CBC contacted for this story, Masri checks the status of his application through an online portal every day — only to learn that his file is still "in process."
Masri said much of his anxiety is due to a lack of information coming from IRCC.
"Is it going to be for two years now, the processing time? Nobody knows," he said.
"All the time you think about your application, you think about your passports, you think about your citizenship, you think about so many things. You think about your family."
A push for online tests
Now that IRCC has started virtual oath-taking ceremonies, Masri said it should be able to securely administer online citizenship tests.
According to figures provided by IRCC, nearly 7,000 online oath ceremonies have been conducted since the pandemic struck, with more than 17,500 people being sworn in as new citizens.
The department is now ramping the number of oath ceremonies and allowing multiple participants in each event, to reach a target of 2,000 new citizens per week. In 2019, an average of 4,738 new citizens were sworn in every week at in-person ceremonies, according to IRCC.
Vancouver-based immigration lawyer Zool Suleman said the global pandemic has slowed down immigration processing times across the board.
While in-person citizenship tests might be possible, he said, officials would have to take precautions to keep the test-takers and the staff administering the tests safe and comfortable.
But delivering a virtual test would be even more challenging, since IRCC would have to verify the identity of the person taking the test and ensure that the answers aren't being provided by a third party.
Many people have argued that if schools and universities can operate virtually, citizenship tests could also be held online. But Suleman said the stakes are particularly high with the citizenship test.
Risks with virtual tests
"I think an online test would be considered risky for Canada immigration because it leads to a very important right for people when they become citizens," he said. "So there would be some concern that there would be an abuse of any kind of non-secure process."
Ottawa-based immigration lawyer Julie Taub said the technology is there to conduct virtual tests, but agreed that IRCC would need to take steps to ensure the integrity of the process.
"It's hard to find a foolproof way if you do it online to ensure they're not cheating," she said.
Taub said many of the delays in the immigration process are caused by staff working from home due to the pandemic. She said that's led to much frustration among immigrants attempting to access services.
Olga Lenchenko has been in Canada for six years. She arrived from Ukraine when her husband accepted a job as an accountant.
Their citizenship test was scheduled for the end of March, then cancelled due to COVID-19.
She said she has mixed feelings about the situation. She said she understands the health threat posed by the coronavirus but she feels the lack of movement on testing is unfair.
"It's been six months and we haven't received any updates. It is very hard emotionally to be in limbo," she said.
"We've been dreaming about the day we become citizens. Now, all the thrill is gone."