When Djordje Momcilovic’s father died in Croatia in 2007, the Mississauga man invited his widowed mother to visit and applied to sponsor her to live with him here.
Seven years later, Nevenka Momcilovic, now 76, is still waiting for a decision on her permanent residency application. Meanwhile, she must renew her visitor visa every year to stay in Canada.
In December, the elderly woman received a letter from Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) telling her she would have to leave Canada by Jan. 15 because her family had unknowingly paid only the old $75 visa renewal fee, which had been raised to $200 a year ago.
“I thought that this was an honest mistake and oversight and that reasonable people would review Nevenka’s case and at the very least extend her stay for a few months,” said Edwin Frank, a neighbour who is helping the family sort out the immigration problem.
Instead, Frank, whose own family came from Lithuania, was lectured by immigration officials that Momcilovic should have read the fine print and was told that the decision denying the woman’s visitor visa was final.
“I was ashamed, as a first-generation Canadian, that a federal government department can have such an insensitive and incompetent attitude and process that apparently can’t easily be appealed,” said Frank, an IT consultant.
“I wonder how many other families have experienced the insensitive and seemingly inhuman approach of CIC. These are families that are being torn apart. I feel that Canadians deserve to know what is occurring at CIC.”
While the Conservative government has invested resources in expediting the processing of skilled immigrants, investors, refugees and people slated for deportation, wait times keep growing for family reunification programs.
Currently, it takes nearly four years (47 months) simply to assess a sponsor’s eligibility to bring in parents and grandparents. The aging would-be immigrants then have to wait years for their own assessment at visa posts abroad.
To sponsor a husband or wife already living in Canada takes 27 months. To renew a permanent resident card, it’s a minimum of 67 days; for citizenship, at least two and up to three years; and for eligible live-in caregivers to receive permanent status (so their spouses and kids can finally join them here), 44 months.
“I’m a proud Canadian and grateful for the opportunities this country has given me,” said Djordje Momcilovic, 48, an occupational health and safety consultant. “But I’m not proud that the Canadian government is promoting family values and reunion but in fact it is keeping and tearing families apart.” Momcilovic sought help from his local MP to temporarily delay his mother’s removal.
Immigration Minister Chris Alexander’s office said Canada will admit about 70,000 people as permanent residents under the family class in 2015.
“Anecdotal accounts are not necessarily more broadly representative or, unfortunately, even factual in some cases,” said Alexander’s spokesperson, Kevin Menard. “Certainly, each case is unique, and each is assessed on its merits based on the information applicants provide to officials.
“We are working to eliminate backlogs and reduce processing times of all kinds … Our government is committed to reuniting as many spouses and partners as possible, as quickly as possible, while ensuring permanent resident targets are met for all immigration streams.”
After learning how long she’d have to wait (then 90 days) to get her permanent resident card renewed, Toronto resident Kerstin Mulfinger submitted her application last July. She figured that was enough time to provide a cushion before her ID card expired at the end of the year.
The 44-year-old German immigrant wants to become a citizen, but she’s been waiting for that application to make its way through the system for two-and-a-half years. She had to renew the permanent resident card so she could travel for work as a trade-fair project manager.
“It’s extremely frustrating, dealing with immigration,” said Mulfinger, who first came here in 2003 through a young worker exchange program and got her permanent resident status in 2009, under the Canadian Experience Class. “You try to talk to someone, but no one can give you proper information.
“They just have this sense of indifference and arrogance. I just feel criminalized, as if I’d done something wrong.”
As her next travel assignment in early February drew closer and the new card still hadn’t arrived, Mulfinger contacted the Star, MP Peggy Nash and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander out of desperation. Finally, in late January, she received an email from Alexander’s office that her new permanent resident card had been approved and issued.
Hazel Penullar came to Canada from the Philippines in 2007 as a live-in caregiver and applied for permanent resident status in July 2010, as soon as she met the employment requirement. Today, the mother is still waiting to get her papers and be joined by her daughter, Denise, 17, and son, Jabez, 9.
“I do call the immigration call centre to follow up on our application, but get the same answer all the time: ‘Wait,’” said Penullar, 40, who now runs a bagel shop in Toronto. “Four-and-a half years are not enough for them to process our papers. How could that be so complicated?
“I don’t know what to do anymore, and I don’t know where to go. This situation of ours and the feeling of waiting are killing me softly.”
Due to the long delays, her husband has had to undergo two medical exams required for the application, at $240 a pop, because the results were considered outdated.
“If only the immigration employees and Minister Alexander (were to) experience the same status that we are experiencing right now, they will for sure also be furious and sad about what has been happening.”
Toronto immigration lawyer Guidy Mamann said the work culture at the department has become more rigid and inflexible since the Conservatives came to power in 2006.
“The government has changed the rules to chip away the discretionary power of the officers for them to do the right thing,” said Mamann, a former immigration officer.
“Immigration officers used to sign their letters, but now they may only put their initials there. Everything is centralized. There is more disconnect and less accountability between our clients and decision-makers these days.”
Andrew Cash, the NDP’s multiculturalism critic, said MPs’ constituency offices are inundated with requests for help in dealing with immigration problems day in, day out.
“We see all manner of stories that really break your heart and are costly for Canada,” said Cash. “This government has failed to deal with the backlogs, and it is wreaking havoc in people’s lives.
“Right now, our bureaucracy is in a very tough time. We are seeing it not just at (Citizenship and Immigration Canada) but in other departments and ministries, where more and more power and control is concentrated at the minister’s office.”
Toronto’s Nadia Bongelli, 26, and her American husband, Julian Doiron, 24, know first-hand what it’s like to deal with the seemingly uncaring immigration bureaucracy.
The two met in 2011 and were married in 2013. Doiron moved to Canada last February and applied for permanent residency under the inland spousal sponsorship program. The wait time to assess his wife’s eligibility to sponsor him, originally stated as six to eight months, has grown to 17 months.
Last June, Doiron suffered a collapsed lung and had to undergo emergency surgery to put in a chest tube. The care cost the couple $25,000 because of the delays in their sponsorship application.
“It is so hard to plan your life,” said Doiron, who has an undergraduate degree in art education from the University of Arizona. “It’s like a dead spot. None of us wants to be a burden. My wife is here. Her family is here. This is my new home. I want to make progress here.
“We are not numbers. We are people who come in different shapes and sizes. They need to recognize the humanity behind it all.”