IRCC’s action plan to address the permanent residence application backlog

Edana Robitaille
Published: March 12, 2024

Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) has released the details and deadlines of its action plan to address recommendations made in a report by the Office of the Auditor General (OAG) last October.

The details, released in a recently obtained Access to Information Request, offer an insight into how IRCC will address a backlog of permanent resident applications for newcomers across all lines of business.

The OAG has several functions. Mainly, it holds the federal government accountable for how it handles public funds and conducts audits that provide objective information, advice, and facts for Canada’s parliament. These help parliament to measure how government activities are performing.

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The original OAG report found that throughout 2022, the backlog of permanent residency (PR) applications had far exceeded acceptable levels throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. It noted that refugees had been disproportionally impacted by the backlogs.

The report contained key recommendations for IRCC to improve processing times for permanent resident applications in future.

Timelines and service standards

The first recommendation was that IRCC provide applicants with clear expectations of the timeline for a decision on their application. It said IRCC can do this by reviewing service standards that consider the volume and age of applications already in inventory.

IRCC aims to process 80% of all applications within service standards, or the length of time the department has deemed reasonable to make a final decision on an immigration application. Service standards vary depending on the type of application. For example, service standards for family class sponsorship applications take up to 12 months to process while Express Entry applications take six months.

In response, IRCC says it will establish service standards for programs that do not currently have them, such as federal and regional economic class immigrant, family class sponsorship programs and resettled refugee immigration programs.

The department expects new service standards to be in place by December 31, 2024, and will recommend updated service standards for economic class permanent resident programs, as well as family class sponsorship applications by March 31, 2024.

IRCC also said it will establish a clear method of communicating service standards with immigration applicants and a new methodology will be in place by December 31.

Differential wait times

The OAG report found disparities in the time it takes for IRCC to process applications within any given program.

It noted that this is inconsistent with the Immigration Levels Plan, which sets annual targets for the number of permanent residents that Canada aims to welcome each year. The logic being that if IRCC knows how many PR applications it can expect, there should be sufficient capacity to process them within service standards.

IRCC says that the disparities occur because all applications are reviewed on a case-by-case basis, and some are more complex and require more time. It also says that commitments to specific populations may displace the processing of applications already awaiting a decision.

Further, to determine if processing times are impacted by a candidate's source country or ethnicity, IRCC says it will develop a tool to monitor forward-looking wait times by country of residence. It will also develop a pilot plan to “test methodology and gain insights about the best way to collect, analyze and use race-based and ethnocultural data.”

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 The pilot will launch by October 1, 2024, and the department says it will determine how the findings will “be incorporated into the examination of differential wait times” by April 1, 2025.

Another key recommendation was that IRCC take action to address the backlog caused by “processing delays within in its control- including officer actions and follow up.”

The department explained that most permanent resident programs do not have an intake limit (except Express Entry-managed programs). It says that a prototype for a comprehensive monitoring system that pinpoints activities required on applications within different stages of processing will be developed by April 1, 2024.

Matching workloads to resources

The OAG report found that there was a mismatch between the resources allocated to some IRCC offices. For example, it found that the office in Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) had an assigned workload that was approximately five times larger than the office in Rome (Italy), despite having a comparable number of staff.

IRCC says the disparity is partly due to higher numbers of paper applications in some offices, making it more difficult to accomplish workload sharing. It also said that many applications in these offices were refugee or family class applications, which often require an in-person interview. Many of these interviews were put on hold throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, contributing to the 2022 backlog.

It noted that it is working on the development of a tool to monitor output in relation to inventory and identify the gaps in wait times for applicants. The tool should be developed by April 1, 2024.

IRCC also aims to assign workloads to match available resources. To do so IRCC says it will examine resource allocations based on targeted immigration levels and “continue to staff and allocate resources based on yearly assumption exercises.”

The department noted that a backlog of applications has accumulated for applicants from sub-Saharan Africa due to limited office capacity. By June 30, 2024, IRCC aims to have completed a review of position creation and staffing in the region. It will also complete the prioritization and allocation of temporary duty resources as needed to support refugee processing.

Monitoring the use of AI in decision-making

Finally, the OAG recommended that IRCC “examine differential processing outcomes in processing times related to the implementation of automated decision-making tools” and work to reduce disparities by reallocating enough resources to applications that are directed to manual processing.

IRCC has been increasingly reliant on digitization and the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in several aspects of processing including:

  • Automating positive eligibility determinations
  • Distributing applications between officers based on the characteristics of the application
  • Identifying applications that may require additional verification
  • Workload distribution
  • Creating “annotations” that summarize basic information on each client to reduce officer searches in its Global Case Management System
  • Triaging client emails to enable faster replies, and responding to client enquiries by providing publicly available information
  • Assessing biometrics

This has proven to be successful in expediting processing time for some applications. For example, last June former Immigration Minister Sean Fraser announced that these tools had helped IRCC process 98% of spousal TRV applications.

In response to the recommendation that IRCC reallocate some these resources to improve differential processing times, the department says that it will examine and monitor the processing of PR applications that are currently benefitting from the use of automated decision-making technology.

If IRCC determines that further actions are required to reduce the differential wait times, they will be fully implemented by April 2025.

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