Approved permanent residents still blocked from coming to Canada
Fadi Ghaoui and his family did not expect to still be in Lebanon on August 4, when the Port of Beirut explosions happened less than three kilometres away from where they were squatting at his parents' house.
Ghaoui is among thousands of other approved permanent residents who are unable to travel to Canada even though they are exempt from travel restrictions. He was issued a Confirmation of Permanent Residence (COPR) on January 7, 2020. This document is issued to people who have passed every step of the Canadian immigration process and who just have to make their landing in Canada.
However, the COPR has an expiry date, and in Ghaoui's case he had six months to make all the preparations to come to Canada. He quit his job as a cybersecurity analyst and the family sold all their furniture. Just three months in, the pandemic grounded flights all over the world including flights out of Lebanon. His flight for May 22 was cancelled and his COPR expired two weeks later, meaning he could no longer travel to Canada.
"I left my job, I don't have a house, our bags are packed there's no place in my parents house to [put] my belongings," Ghaoui told CIC News. "I don't know what to do. I am stuck in limbo."
Following the Beirut explosion, Canada had also introduced facilitative measures for people who had been affected by the explosions, and waived fees for certain documents. Ghaoui was in the Bourj Hammoud area at the time, which sustained a high severity of damage.
"It was very traumatic for myself and my daughter," Ghaoui said, "[We saw the] explosion with the shock waves coming towards us."
Despite these measures, Ghaoui has not received anything from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) that would allow him to travel to Canada, though he has been contacting the department about his case since March.
Even before the pandemic, people with expired COPRs were not allowed to travel to Canada. But, since many of these documents became expired as a result of COVID-19 travel restrictions, IRCC launched a webform in July to deal with expired COPRs in a way they had never done before. Expired COPR holders could fill out the new webform and they were told they would receive an authorization letter that would allow them to travel. Priority would be given to those who had confirmed travel plans, the government webpage said.
The immigration department did not start issuing authorization letters until September, IRCC officials told Canadian members of parliament. Public servants from IRCC as well as Canada's immigration minister, Marco Mendicino, were invited to contribute to a study on the impact of the pandemic on Canada's immigration system on November 25 and December 2.
As of November 30, there were about 500 letters issued to principal applicants to extend their expired COPRs, which represents a total of 840 people, according to an IRCC spokesperson.
Daniel Mills, IRCC's assistant deputy minister of operations, said that since the fall, IRCC contacted 6,000 expired-COPR holders and there were 4,000 people left to contact. Of those who received authorization letters, 675 have landed in Canada, Mills said.
Catrina Tapley, IRCC's deputy minister, had said that expired-COPR holders were being issued authorization letters in order from when they expired, and not on an individual basis. The first letters went to family class applicants and now IRCC is processing economic-class applicants, Tapley said.
But still, economic class immigration includes family members of principal applicants. Parth Dhingra and his family have been separated since February as a result of not receiving a travel authorization for his expired COPR. Parth had listed his wife, Neha, and now six-year-old daughter, Rhea, as dependents on his application for permanent residence. He came to Canada in February to start building their new life while Neha stayed in India to take care of Rhea as she finished the school year. They were supposed to join him in April. Now, he is a permanent resident working in the Greater Toronto Area, and Neha is stuck in India with their daughter, and unable to work as they wait on news from IRCC.
Even though immediate family of Canadian permanent residents are exempt from travel restrictions, since Neha and Rhea are listed as approved permanent residents they cannot be issued a temporary residence visa at the same time. Even if that approved permanent residency is now an expired document.
"Right now it's a very depressing state," Neha told CIC News. "Every moment we can't think of anything just, 'when will the letter come?'"
She said she would have preferred to be given a timeline for when she and her daughter would get to travel. Even if IRCC would have told her in March that they would get it "next year," she said she might not have discontinued her business, sold their house, or taken Rhea out of school.
The feeling was shared by another expired COPR holder, Harleen Kaur. She said she and her husband were the heights of their careers when they decided to move to Canada with their kids about three years ago. Their excitement and enthusiasm to move to a new country was spoiled when their April 5 flights out of India were cancelled.
Now, nine months after travel restrictions went into effect, Kaur says she feels "cheated and disgraced" waiting for her authorization to travel with no end in sight. But she says retracting her family's decision to move is not an option.
"After all this humiliation I feel helpless," Kaur said, "I have given two or three years of my life to this Canadian dream, and now I cannot step back."
Advocating for change from around the globe
What happens when highly skilled, educated people feel stranded by the government that approved them to become Canadian permanent residents?
They advocate for themselves. Aditya Madan is one of four founders of an advocacy group of expired COPR holders, who use social media to raise awareness about their cause, and communicate with the Canadian government, as well as each other.
Madan was approved for permanent residence just one week before Canada's travel restrictions went into place, and his COPR was valid for 28 days. He has been in contact with IRCC since April. At the beginning of October, he notified the department that he would be ready to travel within in 60 days, and even after those two months passed he still has not been allowed to travel to Canada. During this time, he had two job offers fall through, because he was still stuck in India waiting for his documents.
The group started in April on Telegram, a cloud-based messenger app, and it has since grown to 1,199 members. Expired COPR holders around the world use this group to communicate with each other on any momentum on their files, and lift each other's spirits during hard times.
"We have sailed together through these nine dreadful months and plan to stay connected even after all this is over," Madan told CIC News.
After weeks of silence on their files, the group started organizing social media campaigns such as Twitter storms, YouTube videos, and reaching out to Canadian members of parliament, including members of the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration.
On November 25, they sent an open letter to the government with 355 signatures. Among other calls to action, the asked for a blanket extension on all affected files so that they may finally travel to Canada.
"We have not 'chosen' not to travel. We did not have an option," Madan said. "[Our flights] were grounded, and while that was happening our documents expired. That's absolutely no fault of ours."
When CIC News asked IRCC why they could not give an automatic extension, a spokesperson replied: "We cannot simply extend to everyone given the health and safety risks... [The] validity of the COPR is linked to the validity of the passport and the validity of the medical results. Those elements need to be confirmed before we extend COPRs."
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