Internal government reviews have identified a “high error rate” in immigration processing, from permanent resident applications to refugee work permits, prompting fears over the system’s integrity.
The human errors — staff failing to use correct form letters, address missing documents and provide accurate timelines, among other shortcomings — could not only cost individual applicants a chance to live and work in Canada but affect the “efficiency of the system” and create unnecessary backlogs.
“An important area of concerns resides with the letters. The number of request letters not sent, sent incomplete or unclear at initial stage and later on create a negative impact on both clients and the Case Processing Centre (in Vegreville, Alta.),” said an evaluation of operations at Vegreville. It was one of three internal reports obtained under an access to information request.
“It delays the processing, causes more waiting times for clients and increases the work for staff. It also increases the amount of whitemail received at (Vegreville) when clients reply to unnecessary requests or seek clarification. The number of same request letters sent over time also creates unfairness for clients whose applications got refused after one request.”
Immigration applicants have complained about inconsistencies and a lack of fairness in the application processing — and sometimes the decision-making — by Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) officials.
The three so-called “quality management” reviews obtained by the Star focused on applications in three areas: permanent residence, refugee work permits and Canadian Experience Class.
The reviews give the public a rare glimpse into the extent of these official errors, which authorities have never admitted to.
While the rank and file of the immigration department blames the errors on the rising number of “casual employees” hired to replace well-trained permanent staff, the government insists that has not compromised the integrity of these programs.
“Since the (Stephen) Harper government came into power, Citizenship and Immigration has seen too many cuts and lost many qualified employees,” said Steve McCuaig, national president of the Canada Employment and Immigration Union.
“You have casual employees brought in within a short time with little training while qualified people are shown the door, and the public is left with people who are not on top of their job,” he said.
According to the union, casual employees make up half the workforce responsible for the reviews of permanent residence applications. These employees, mostly students, are given three days of training on the department’s global case management system (GCMS) and rotate on three shifts.
Immigration department spokeswoman Sonia Lesage insisted the system’s integrity was not compromised and officials regularly carry out quality monitoring exercises to evaluate programs and review procedures.
“As a result, the department is able to improve programs and provide faster and better services. CIC is focused on making our application processes and our correspondence with clients simpler and clearer,” she wrote in an email.
“We have moved to a system of ensuring perfected applications are handed in at the beginning of the process. With this practice, we have been able to identify missing or invalid information, earlier.”
However, the union’s McCuaig said the casual employees are not up to the task and some of the mistakes “are not fixable,” leaving applicants’ lives in limbo.
“The government keeps changing its policies. It is a challenge to keep up with all the changes that come every other week,” he said. “And you have to meet the quota and process X number of applications during your 7.5-hour shift.
“This is not like working in a bank and you either give or deny a loan. We are dealing with people’s lives and dreams here.”
According to the review of 996 files handled between Nov. 1 and Dec. 6, 2014, at the Vegreville operation, which deals with permanent residence applications, the quality management team found these shortcomings in the 617 request letters sent:
• 13 per cent did not address all missing items.
• 23 per cent had no timeline or an incomplete one or did not mention the consequences of failing to reply.
• 6 per cent were either “not professional” or chose the incorrect template form.
Of 426 files that received a second review during the five weeks, decisions were pending for 149 owing to errors made by decision-makers at an earlier stage.
While the 2013 review of the Canadian Experience Class — a pathway for those with Canadian work experience and education to obtain permanent residence — found 23 per cent of the decisions had “significant” eligibility concerns, the evaluation of refugee permit applications identified 113 errors in 88 files.
Toronto resident Bashar Kassir said he was not surprised by the many errors identified within the immigration system. His sponsorship for his parents in war-torn Syria was denied in August because officials said he failed to respond to letters the family claimed it never received.
“When mistakes are made, they need to recognize it and have recourse to address them,” said Bassir, whose file was finally reopened after his story appeared in the Toronto Star in October. “They should not force people to go to endless appeals for their mistakes.”
His parents received their permanent resident visas in December — more than three years after Bassir submitted his sponsorship application.