Politics

Federal government could face new lawsuit over family reunification program

The federal government is facing an angry backlash and the prospect of more legal action from immigrants trying to bring their parents or grandparents to Canada.

Applicants outraged by government's secret settlement with 70 people sponsoring parents, grandparents

The federal government is facing the prospect of new legal action over its application process for people to sponsor their parents and grandparents as immigrants. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

The federal government is facing an angry backlash and the prospect of more legal action by Canadians trying to bring their parents or grandparents into the country.

Outraged applicants are considering their next steps after learning the government made a secret settlement with more than 70 litigants and granted them coveted spots to apply to sponsor their family members.

CBC News reported on the lawsuit resolution this week, which included a confidentiality clause barring the parties from publicly disclosing details. Legal actions were launched in Toronto and Vancouver after the new online application process went live on Jan. 28 — a process that left tens of thousands of people frustrated and furious because they couldn't access the form or fill it out fast enough.

Shishir Shivhare, who has been trying unsuccessfully to sponsor his parents in India for seven years, is one of those now considering legal action. He said this year's application process came down to how fast someone could type.

He said he thought that process was unfair — but he called the government's move to quietly settle with some applicants "outrageous."

"What I felt personally was shock," he told CBC News. "Happy ... for those people, but I felt it's unfair and it felt like a third world country, where things can be manipulated and deals can be reached on something which was a government process.

"In a way, they invalidated their own January process, because if they're reaching a deal with someone that means they admitted there was a flaw to it."

This year, the federal government offered 20,000 spots for sponsoring parents or grandparents, and confirmed that more than 100,000 had attempted to access an online form to express interest. The online form opened Jan. 28 at noon ET, and closed less than nine minutes later.

Erind Shkurti, who has been trying to sponsor his mother from Albania for three years, was among those who lost out. He's also considering legal action — not to "undo" the spots the 70 or so litigants received from the settlement, but to challenge what he called "conflicting and contradictory messaging and rationale" from the government.

He has written to his local MP,  Liberal Omar Alghabra, expressing concern about the settlement — noting the irony in the fact that the changes to the application process were designed to ensure people weren't disadvantaged because of their geographic location, or because they couldn't afford courier fees.

Frustration over 'secrecy'

"It seems to me that what our government has done with this settlement is just state that being able to pay a few hundred dollars for a lawsuit can actually get you a spot in the program," he wrote. "This is very frustrating to hear, especially with all the intended secrecy and justification behind it."

NDP MP and immigration critic Jenny Kwan said her office has been on the phone non-stop recently with people outraged by the settlement. She said the fact the government offered a "side deal" proves its system is inherently flawed and unfair.

"With this side deal, the minister is effectively telling Canadians that you have to take the Liberal government to court to be treated fairly," she said. " And it shouldn't have come to this. All the families want to do is be reunited with their loved ones. They should have a process available to them that is fair, and people should not have to go through such pain and anguish."

Kwan said some people bought new computers or upgraded their internet connections to take their best shot at filling out the online form. They're now angry the government tried to keep its "fix" under wraps.

'Inappropriate, troubling'

Kwan said the government should lift the cap on the spots for family reunification. She said it's a myth that parents and grandparents are a drain on the economy, since many bring financial assets and the ability to help with child care.

Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel said the legal settlement is an admission the process was flawed and criticized the government for using entry to Canada as a legal bargaining chip.

"It's not a prize to be given away. It's not a settlement, and I find this very inappropriate and very troubling," she said.

A government official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the case, said the government opted to settle the legal challenges because the number of applicants was relatively small, because they included plaintiffs with disabilities and because a court proceeding could have suspended the entire set of applications.

Plagued with problems

The parent and grandparent sponsorship program has been plagued with problems for years.

The Liberal government moved to a first-come, first-served online application system this year after scrapping a controversial lottery system for reuniting immigrant families. The lottery system was contentious, with critics claiming it essentially gambled with peoples' lives.

The lottery process had replaced another first-in system which itself was unpopular because it led to a "mad rush" every January, with people lining up overnight at the doors of processing centres or paying placeholders to stand in line and deliver applications prepared by consultants or lawyers.

Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen's office said the government is committed to family reunification and will continue to listen to a variety of stakeholders to ensure it moves forward with the program in "a thoughtful and responsive way."

"Any specific comment on the litigation would be inappropriate at this time," reads a statement from Hussen's office.

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