The federal government is considering extraordinary measures to reduce its backlog of immigration applications, including waiving eligibility requirements for nearly half a million visitor visas, according to a policy memo reviewed by The Globe and Mail.
A draft document from December reveals that Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) is trying to significantly reduce or eliminate its inventory of visitor visa applications by February and is willing to use “aggressive measures” to do so. There were more than 700,000 temporary resident visa (TRV) applications in the system as of early December, a portion of the overall sum.
In total, there were more than two million immigration applications to be processed as of late last year, including from those seeking work and study permits, along with those who applied for permanent residence. IRCC is concerned that the stockpile is “eroding the public’s trust” in the department, the memo reads.
To reduce the number of visitor visa applications, IRCC was deliberating on two options, according to the memo. In the first, the department would process an estimated 195,000 applications in bulk. This could include a large number of tourists from countries that require a visa to visit Canada.
Under the second option, Immigration Minister Sean Fraser would waive certain eligibility requirements for roughly 450,000 applications. Because other efforts are under way to reduce the TRV backlog, this decision would apply to all remaining applications.
By waiving eligibility rules, foreign nationals would not need to establish that they will leave Canada when their visa expires.
Visitors would still be subjected to admissibility checks. This ensures, for example, that applicants are not a known threat to national security.
Two sources within IRCC said the government has chosen the second option and that an announcement could be made within days. The Globe and Mail is not identifying the sources because they are not allowed to discuss departmental policies publicly.
This would be a temporary measure to reduce inventories, and the final version of the policy could differ from what’s proposed in the document.
As a result of the change, one of the sources said, immigration officers would not assess whether visitors have sufficient funds for their stays in Canada.
In a statement, Mr. Fraser did not address questions related to the policy memo or the changes under consideration.
“Canada is now processing visitor visa applications faster than it did even prior to the pandemic,” he said. More than 260,000 visitor visas were processed in November, he said, compared with a monthly average of about 180,000 in 2019.
“Despite the progress we’ve seen, there is still much more to do in order to achieve prepandemic processing timelines,” Mr. Fraser added.
The memo raised the possibility of keeping these measures a secret, saying that neither would need to be communicated to the public.
However, immigration consultants would likely notice “large volumes of high approval rates,” while the measures would wind up being disclosed in access-to-information requests.
IRCC is under considerable pressure to reduce the inventory of applications. As of Nov. 30, there were roughly 2.1 million applications in the system, more than half of which were in backlog – meaning, they had been there longer than service standards for processing.
There has been improvement of late: Two months earlier than that, there were 2.6 million applications in the system.
Prospective visitors and immigrants have been extremely frustrated by the processing delays. This has led to reputational damage for IRCC and a flurry of legal cases against it. Some PR applicants have waited years for a decision, for example, while others are nearing the end of their work permits, but have yet to hear whether they can stay in the country and continue their employment.
IRCC says it has invested millions of dollars in its processing capacity and hired hundreds of new employees to speed up decision-making.
“We’re actually moving cases out of our system faster than they’re coming in, which gives me faith that we’re getting back on track,” Mr. Fraser said at a news conference in December.
Even so, the inventories are significantly larger than before the pandemic, and with the federal government pursuing record levels of immigration, a hefty volume of applications continue to flow in.
Mr. Fraser could use his authority under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act to waive eligibility requirements. This was recently done to expedite processing of visas for attendees of the United Nations Biodiversity Conference (COP15) in Montreal.
The memo outlines various pros and cons to this approach. On the plus side, it would help to reduce the inventory of applications, resulting in better processing times for incoming files.
However, the document says that not all applicants would be “genuine visitors.” This could lead to an estimated 8,600 asylum claims, otherwise known as refugee claims. The memo notes that India and Nigeria are the two largest sources of TRV applications, and both countries rank in the top 10 for asylum claimants in Canada.
The uptick in claims would subsequently put more pressure on all aspects of the refugee system, according to the document.
In addition, IRCC would be approving eligibility for people with past refusals and “derogatory information,” the memo said.
The two sources in the Immigration department characterized this as a rash decision that will lead to less scrutiny of applications. They said many employees in the department were dismayed with the approach.
The sources also questioned how effective this method will be in quickly reducing the backlog, given that immigration officers would still have to perform admissibility checks on the applications.