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Canada's investor-immigrant program -- once criticized for allowing in individuals involved in money-laundering and organized crime -- is now so cumbersome that some applicants wait as long as five years to have their files processed.

It's no surprise, then, that the number of investor and entrepreneur immigrant applications dropped dramatically from 6,851 in 2000 to 1,961 in the first eight months of 2004. Lawyers say the numbers suggest that well-heeled foreigners are heading elsewhere.

Inordinately long waiting times -- ranging from 14 months in Canada's Singapore mission to 48 months in Moscow and 57 months in Damascus -- are among many problems facing the beleaguered immigration system.

Immigration Minister Judy Sgro remains under a cloud for the so-called "strippergate" scandal. Opposition critics believe the immigration system cannot be fixed until Ms. Sgro is gone, and have spent much of the past month calling for her ouster.

Critics' complaints range from economic migrants abusing the refugee system to a lack of merit-based appeal for failed refugee claimants, and claims that the country is not utilizing the skills of the qualified, professional immigrants who are here.

Mohamed Majeed, a prosperous textile importer from Karachi, Pakistan, and two of his relatives applied to come to Canada as investor immigrants in 1998. Five years later, they were still awaiting approval and withdrew their application in disgust.

He and his brothers believe they became caught up in a seemingly endless bureaucratic quagmire that involved flying to Singapore and Damascus for interviews, and providing reams of documents to officials from two levels of government to prove they had acquired their funds legally.

"We wanted to immigrate to Canada because we were sick of the bureaucracy in Pakistan. But after five years trying to get our paperwork done, we thought we might as well stay in Pakistan," said Mr. Majeed in an interview from Karachi. "Since then, we've been approached by Australia. They process investor immigrants in six months."

Citizenship and Immigration Canada is looking at ways to more efficiently manage the system, spokeswoman Maria Iadinardi said. She pointed out that the target for 2005 for all business immigrants has increased to 9,500-10,500, up from 6,000 last year. The processing time for investor immigrants improved this year and is now 22 months on average, she added. Moreover, while business-class applications had fallen off in recent years, the numbers increased in the most recent quarter.

Lobbying for a better immigration system is not a popular cause at the best of times, given that non-citizens have little currency in Ottawa. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, much of the government's emphasis has been directed at enforcement -- not at easing entry to Canada.

"Letting people into the country is not something Canadians really care about," said Audrey Macklin, a University of Toronto law professor specializing in immigration. "Although, ironically, the No. 1 constituency activity for all MPs is immigration. When it comes to their own specific cases, people are very committed, but they may not support immigration initiatives in general."

Immigration lawyers argue that Ottawa should make investor immigrants a priority because they bring at least $200-million in capital into the country every year.

"For an officer to pick up the file, go through it and make a decision takes a few hours. But it shouldn't take five years," said Max Berger, who acted for the Majeeds.

In Karachi, Mr. Majeed says Canada is "getting a bad reputation" among Pakistani investors who are no longer willing to accept the painstakingly slow process.

To qualify as investor immigrants, applicants must have a net worth of at least $800,000 and agree to invest $400,000. To qualify as an entrepreneur, they must have a net worth of at least $300,000, and operate a business that will create at least two full-time jobs.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada introduced more rigorous checks on the source of immigrant investors' funds after a review panel found in 1998 that the program was vulnerable to "questionable financial arrangements, money-laundering, the involvement of organized crime and funds from illegitimate business activities."

Now, applicants must submit items such as business licences and property deeds, payroll lists, bank statements, sales tax records, corporate and personal income-tax returns for the last five years and minutes of meetings with shareholders.

The Majeeds flew to Damascus for their first interview with Canadian officials and directed $92,000 each to the Desjardin Trust in Quebec, the first instalment of the $400,000-a-person total requirement. Three years later, they were told they had to fly to Singapore for a second interview because Ottawa wanted to take another look at their net worth and determine whether it was legally obtained.

It looked like one government department was repeating the work of another, Mr. Majeed said.

Yousef Jabour, an Arab-Israeli businessman who applied to come to Canada as an entrepreneur immigrant in 2002, is also left wondering if he should go elsewhere.

"He bought two businesses here and generated employment for 10 people. We just want to know the status of his application," said his brother Nemeh Jabour, who runs a Hasty Market in Oakville, Ont. "If they turn him down, he'll have to sell his businesses. You would think Canada would welcome people who contribute to our economy."

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