How can Canada avoid major immigration backlogs in the future?

Kareem El-Assal
Published: May 20, 2022

Earlier this month the Canadian Parliament's Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration (CIMM) began a study on IRCC's application processing times and backlogs.

The purpose of CIMM is to provide oversight of the immigration system and release studies that contain recommendations for improvement. CIMM invited me to Ottawa to participate in this study, which I did on May 5th. I would like to use this article as an opportunity to elaborate on my recommendations.

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The backlog has doubled since the start of the pandemic to 2.1 million people. This includes applicants for permanent residence, temporary residence, and citizenship. Needless to say, the backlog is hurting Canada's economy, keeping families apart, and undermining Canada's ability to provide humanitarian assistance to those in need.

There is no doubt the pandemic has been a major contributor to the backlog. At the start of the pandemic, Canadian government employees needed to work remotely which limited their ability to process applications. However, the pandemic is not the only reason for the backlog, and at the very least, the pandemic cannot explain why Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) has delivered such poor customer service for over two years now.

The following are six steps I feel can help improve the state of Canadian immigration operations.

1) Treat applicants with greater respect

The first step Canada needs to take to avoid backlogs from getting out of control again in the future is by treating all of its immigration applicants with far more respect. When we discuss backlogs, we often think about the number of files in the queue, and sometimes we forget about the number of human lives that are being negatively affected.

Taking a more human-centric approach to our immigration system is a necessary step towards progress. There is no justification for IRCC going months or even years on end without responding to enquiries from its clients. The lack of urgency to provide updates also explains why there has been a lack of urgency to process applications.

For some reason, we do not see immigration applicants as worthy enough of getting quality customer service, even though IRCC has a legal mandate to process applications. It is only fair that applicants get quality service given they are required to pay IRCC a fee for their papers to be processed. Imagine how upset you would be if you paid a postal company to deliver a parcel, only to discover they have yet to ship it and are not responding to any of your calls or emails.

Just like companies putting customers front and center of everything they do, so too should IRCC. Every decision the department makes should be through the lens of providing the best customer experience possible.

2) Align intake with processing capacity

The second step is for Canada to do a better job of aligning its intake with its processing capacity. We already do this with various programs such as IRCC's economic class pilots, the Parents and Grandparents Program (PGP), the Provincial Nominee Program (PNP), among others. Federal and provincial governments work within the confines of the allocation for a given program and ensure they do not solicit more applications than they are capable of processing within the allocation. This is not a perfect model and often leads to disappointment, as is the case with the PGP, but at the same time it helps us limit the potential for excessive processing times.

IRCC made several major mistakes at the start of the pandemic which has made the backlog much worse. It continued to solicit applications even when its processing capacity was slowed, meaning that it had a huge mountain to climb once its processing capacity began to return to normal.

For instance, Express Entry was launched in 2015 to help avoid backlogs by only inviting candidates that IRCC wanted to process. Nonetheless, we saw our Express Entry backlog skyrocket since IRCC continued to invite candidates throughout 2020, before realizing it needed to implement two major pauses in December 2020 and then in September 2021 to manage its Express Entry inventory. This could have been avoided altogether if IRCC simply reduced its Express Entry invitations in 2020 until its operations got back on track.

Unfortunately, IRCC made the same mistake in 2021 by first, continuing to issue very high levels of Express Entry invitations, and then second, by welcoming 90,000 additional applications under the Temporary Residence to Permanent Residence ("TR2PR") Program. According to the Immigration Levels Plan 2022-2024, it will now take IRCC two more years to catch up on all those applications before it can bring its economic class programming back to normal by 2024. Moving forward, IRCC should be more careful and ensure it has the capacity to process incoming applications within a timely manner.

3) Expedite technological transformation

The third step is for Canada to expedite the badly-needed technological transformation of its immigration system. Much of the immigration system remains paper-based, which slows things down. Moreover, it makes it difficult for staff to process applications remotely and to transfer files to other offices. IRCC should strive for all applications to be online within the near future, while at the same time providing accommodations for those who have disabilities, the elderly, among others who may need to submit paper-based applications. Technology is a major asset to the immigration system, and can expedite many processes. At some point we should strive to complete as many immigration processes online, such as changing visas status for those in Canada, and citizenship ceremonies.

4) Be more transparent

The fourth is for Canada to be more transparent on the state of immigration policies and operations. IRCC has kept us in the dark for much of the pandemic rather than fulfilling its obligation to inform the public on its policy priorities and state of operations. For instance, it went between December 2020 and April 2022 before telling Federal Skilled Worker Program (FSWP) candidates when they would be invited under Express Entry again. It did the same for Canadian Experience Class (CEC) candidates between September 2021 and April 2022. Moving forward, IRCC should provide regular public updates, preferably on a monthly basis, outlining what its current policy priorities are, and the state of its backlogs. This will allow all stakeholders including applicants themselves, employers, post-secondary institutions, and more, to be able to plan accordingly.

5) Conduct an independent study

The fifth step is for Canada to be more accountable about its immigration system shortcomings during the pandemic. An independent study should be commissioned to evaluate what IRCC did right, what it did wrong, and what it can do better. While the pandemic is a valid excuse, it is not the only explanation why the backlog has ballooned over the past two years.

An independent study can shed light on the policy and operational causes of the backlog and provide recommendations so the mistakes do not happen again. Being more accountable will also help to restore trust in Canada's immigration system. Many stakeholders have had a bad experience during the pandemic which has hurt the reputation of our immigration system. Showing the public that the Canadian government is capable of acknowledging its mistakes and rectifying them will likely result in more applicants viewing Canada in a positive light.

6) Form a National Advisory Council on Immigration

Sixth, the Canadian government needs to collaborate more with Canadian immigration experts. Canada has a large immigration ecosystem full of experts from many different industries such as law, business, the settlement sector, research, academia, governments, post-secondary institutions, and more. Yet, there have been few meaningful immigration consultations during the pandemic, leading to avoidable consequences.

Forming a National Advisory Council on Immigration (NACI) would be a positive step towards harnessing all this expertise so Canada can make the best immigration decisions possible. These sorts of expert councils exist among other Canadian government departments. Forming one on immigration would be a major asset for IRCC.

Looking ahead

Looking ahead, we should feel optimistic that Canada's immigration system will eventually get back on track. Immigration is far too important to Canada's prosperity for the system to remain disrupted for much longer.

The technological investments Canada is making, plus the hiring of more IRCC staff, and increased public scrutiny from the likes of the media, CIMM, employers, post-secondary institutions, and applicants themselves will hopefully lead to Canada delivering a much better experience to immigration applicants in the years ahead.

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