Immigration minister faces challenges beyond Syrian refugees

While much of the political oxygen has been sucked up by the government's promise to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees by Dec. 31, Immigration Minister John McCallum faces myriad other challenges, according to those who work with immigrants and refugees.

Fixes for Express Entry, family reunification, refugee removals top John McCallum's to-do list

Immigration Minister John McCallum is a lead minister on the Syrian refugee file, but his new mandate from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau assigns him several other urgent priorities. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Much political oxygen has been sucked up by the government's promise to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees by Dec. 31. Indeed, it's the top issue in a mandate letter released Friday from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to his new immigration minister, John McCallum.

But the letter touches on other hot-button topics that many experts say need to be fixed. 

Express Entry flawed

The Express Entry program introduced by the Tories selects immigrants to fast track based on a revamped point system. But numerous technical glitches have blocked qualified candidates. 

"Express Entry has been a bit of a disappointment," says Reis Pagtakhan, a Winnipeg immigration lawyer, who says the system is hard to navigate and the web site often shuts down. 

If they're participating in the economy … why would you say they have to leave?— Immigration lawyer  Reis Pagtakhan  

"It doesn't allow people to put together the information they need, and then they run out of time because the response time you have to do it with the government is very quick."

But there are bigger problems with the point system's treatment of student applicants and temporary foreign workers who are already in Canada.

Pagtakhan says many students and most low-skilled foreign workers aren't invited to apply because they aren't given credit for studies or work in Canada.

"There should be a way to recognize [work experience] in the system by assigning more points to individuals who are working here and studying here," he said. "That's where Express Entry is failing."

Lower skilled temporary foreign workers who have been in Canada some time have no pathway to permanent residency, he says, even when employers, usually in remote regions, can demonstrate year after year there are no Canadians to take the jobs. 

"If they're participating in the economy, paying taxes and helping a business sustain or grow, why would you say they have to leave?" Pagtakhan asked.

McCallum's mandate letter doesn't mention these concerns, however, and only refers to changing Express Entry to "give additional points ... to provide more opportunities for applicants who have Canadian siblings."

Spouses want to work 

Spousal status and family reunification need attention too, says Ottawa-based immigration lawyer Betsy Kane.

The Conservatives gave conditional two-year residency to spouses and common-law partners, though they were forbidden from working until their applications for permanent residency were processed. While this was ostensibly done to address the issue of marriage fraud, Kane says it's created an unfair roadblock for spouses who are willing and able to enter the Canadian employment system. 

"So you have an able-bodied spouse in Canada who can't work for 27 months potentially, and people are exhausting their resources for somebody who is eventually going to be integrated into the labour market," she said. "It would seem like a waste, especially when this person could be a taxpayer."

During the election campaign, the Liberals promised to grant immediate permanent residency to spouses of immigrants. 

McCallum's mandate letter directs him to "bring forward a proposal regarding permanent residency for new spouses entering Canada." It also directs him to raise the age of dependent children who can be sponsored by parents back to 22 from 19, something Kane agrees with.

Parents, grandparents need more help

The Liberals also promised to double the number of parents and grandparents processed as permanent residents each year to 10,000.

But Pagtakhan says the government needs to be more clear about how it will pay for the health-care costs that come with adding more seniors to the population. 

"There has to be some discussion as to what's the government going to kick in to make sure the provinces and the territories are able to foot the bill for the health-care costs," he said. 

McCallum's mandate letter includes the promise to boost intake of parents and grandparents, but doesn't mention more funding to process the increased number of applications, or to pay health-care expenses.

Refugee removals

Experts also warn mistakes are being made following Conservative changes to the refugee determination system. Billed as making the system "faster and fairer," the changes introduced an appeal process at the Immigration and Refugee Board.

People who are [legitimate] refugees are being removed from Canada.— Peter Showler, University of Ottawa

But it also barred several different categories of claimants from the right to an appeal, including those from a government list of certain countries. 

"It's urgent. They need to do a full review [of the changes]," says Peter Showler, a former chair of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada and an expert in refugee law at the University of Ottawa.

"Every week in Canada people who are [legitimate] refugees are being removed from Canada because they did not receive fair hearings."

Showler says the review needs to look at whether changes that sped up the processing times for claims have left many refugees unable to meet deadlines.

He called on McCallum to ask Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, responsible for Canada Border Services Agency, to suspend any removals until a review can determine "whether mistakes have been made on some of these cases."

McCallum's mandate letter partly addresses these issues by directing the him to establish an expert human rights panel, perhaps to rethink the list of countries.

It also directs him to fully restore refugee health care, the cancellation of which had been a rallying point for refugee advocates.

Showler also says the resettlement process needs to be better funded. Liberals promised to inject $100 million into refugee resettlement services, but that funding is not mentioned in McCallum's letter.


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