Are Filipino families going to be reunited in their lifetimes?

By , , on February 1, 2014

Canada, going the way of America—at least in immigration—is the fear of most Filipino-Canadians. In America, family reunification is a farce, or at least the 25 years or so of waiting makes the lives of separated families seem like one. Those who leave have to reckon with their guilt; those who are left behind are despondent and desolate. The tarmac bears witness to their goodbyes.

The long immigration lines have started to appear in Canada as the waiting period for family reunification stretched to almost a decade. It would soon be overwhelmed with the growing numbers if nothing was done, so Citizenship and Immigration Canada decided to freeze the lines in 2011. Very recently, however, they announced that the bars are to be lifted as solutions to the backlog have been found.

But at what cost?

Some changes

The old program was completely broken, according to Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney. “We had 170,000 people waiting for 8 years and the backlog was growing every year. We were on track for a backlog of 250,000 people by 2015 for people who would have been waiting for 15 years. So we had to fix this because the American system is so bad that people are waiting for 25 years for a decision on their parents’ application. In other words, they are dying before they can get there. So we’re trying to avoid that, we’re trying to fix this by cutting the backlog so we can speed up the processing times.”

On May 10, Minister Kenney announced the re-opening of the Parent and Grandparent (PGP) program. New applications will be received on January 2, 2014, but the following changes are made in the qualifying criteria:

  • Increase of 30% in the required minimum necessary income (MNI) for sponsoring parents and grandparents: This represents an increase of the MNI to about $55,000 per annum, which, according to Minister Kenney, is “still quite accessible” being “below the average income in Canada but higher than the poverty level”. The increase will ensure sponsors are able to meet the financial needs of their sponsored parents and grandparents, which will reduce the net costs to Canadian taxpayers.
  • Increase from 1 to 3 years of the period for demonstrating the MNI:  Sponsors will be required to demonstrate that they meet the new income threshold for the 3 consecutive tax years prior to submitting the sponsorship application, as opposed to 12 months.
  • Evidence of income: Only Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) notices of assessment will be accepted. This will make for faster review and verification times.
  • Extension of sponsorship undertaking period to 20 years: Sponsors will be required to commit to a lengthened sponsorship undertaking period of 20 years, instead of just 10 years. This means sponsors and co-signers (if applicable) will be responsible for repaying any provincial social assistance benefits paid to the parent and grandparent and their accompanying family members for 20 years.
  • Change in the maximum age of dependents: The maximum age of dependents will be set at 18. Those over the age of 18 can apply to visit or immigrate to Canada independently. There will be an exception for individuals, regardless of age, who are financially dependent on their parents due to a mental or physical disability.

With these changes in place, wait times will be down to 1.5 years from 8 years, according to Minister Kenney.

Abuse of generosity

According to research, 30% of sponsored parents who came to Canada went on welfare after the 10-year sponsorship undertaking. “That’s not in keeping with the spirit of the program. That’s an abuse of our generosity. If people want the privilege of sponsoring their parents, they must assume the responsibility for taking care of them. We’ve changed some of the rules to make sure that the families who do sponsor parents really do have the stable financial means to take care of them and contribute through their taxes and to the healthcare and other benefits that their parents will receive,” said Minister Kenney.

It costs taxpayers $400,000 to provide health benefits to a couple of retired seniors who come at age 65. Add welfare and low-income housing to this and the cost could be staggering. “That’s just not a fair burden to impose on taxpayers especially given that the reason we have immigration to Canada is to help us deal with the aging of our own population.

“We’re changing the program to make sure that  it is sustainable and affordable. But like in any place in the world there are practical limits to our generosity,” said Minister Kenney.

What happens now?

“If I reopen that program without a limit on the number of applications, you know what would happen. We would receive, I estimate, over 200,000 applications and then we’d end up with backlogs again, over a quarter of a million with 15-year wait times. That might be politically popular in the short term but it would be very irresponsible in the long term,” said Minister Kenney.

“So after the first 5,000 completed applications are received when the program re-opens in 2014, we will notify people that the quota is reached and will return applications [in excess of the quota].

“Then we’ll invite those people to apply the next year and the good news is this—as we get that backlog down, we’ll be able to gradually increase the number of new applications that we receive.”

Minister Kenney also announced that the super visa, launched in December 2011, has also become a permanent feature in Canadian Immigration. To date, about 16,000 super visas were issued. “The approval rate has been 86%. It’s actually 99% for those who meet the necessary income threshold and in most countries, the processing times for the super visa are less than 2 months. So if people don’t get their applications in time for their parents, they can always use the super visa as an alternative, which is in fact more flexible,” he said.

Striking the right balance

Minister Kenney, who probably has the toughest job in government says, “Everyone we deal with is a human being, they all have their own aspirations and dreams and frankly, many of them want to bring as many of their families as possible. But as generous as Canada is, there are practical limits as to who we can accept and to how many we could accept.”

He enthuses, “You’ve got to protect Canada, you’ve got to make sure our economy grows, you want to make sure that the newcomers we welcome are younger and talented and will contribute, but you also want to be humanitarian and compassionate at the same time. There’s no easy answers to having a balance but I guess I am just looking at each case and each policy on its own merits and you try to, frankly, pray for wisdom to know how to hit that balance. Not everyone will agree with the way we do it. But I want them to understand that most Canadians are very welcoming , they just don’t want to see their generosity abused. So I think what we’re trying to say is we are open to those who really want to build and will contribute, but we are not open for those who want to abuse our generosity or break our rules.”