Sunday, April 20, 2008

Immigration Reform: A Matter of Time (Updated)

If I understand the supposed “reforms” proposed by Immigration Minister Diane Finley that are contained in the budget bill known as C-50 correctly, this will give the minister discretionary power to sometimes whimsically adjudicate cases and, according to official sources, “streamline the processing of the current backlog of immigrant applications” or some such thing. Well, that all sounds quite fine. The Liberals oppose this because… well, that’s what they do — oppose things; also, they contend that such changes will give too much unwarranted discretionary authority to the minister while doing little to make a serious dent in the enormous waiting lists that are currently pending, which they have to take a good deal of responsibility for having helped to create in the first place through their bungling and mismanagement of this portfolio over the years...

As a matter of fact, the “Conservatives” have proudly, and quite rightly, boasted of their “aggressive immigration policy” that’s resulted in the number of immigrants hitting record levels. This may actually be something that doesn’t entirely please many of their more xenophobic supporters if they were aware of it, but as Harper pointed out the other night at a Canada-India Foundation gala dinner in Toronto “We are bringing in more immigrants than any previous government. You can see this has been an upward trend in the past four decades. The Mulroney government had higher immigration levels than (the previous) Trudeau government… Since we were elected in 2006, actual immigration across categories has risen yet again. Including I might add 56,000 new immigrants from India alone.” As well, the “Conservatives” have been quietly funneling tens of millions of dollars into a number of key cities to bolster various support programs for new immigrants.

But let’s concentrate on the matter at hand, which is the assertion that “reforms” contained in the proposed legislation will help clear the appalling backlog (the largest in the world, according to Harper). The most contentious parts of the bill seem to center on allowing the Immigration Minister to establish categories (or otherwise) by which applications will be determined, to prioritize those categories, to set the number of applications that will be processed and to intervene at any time “for the disposition of applications and requests.” Critics contend this is an “executive power grab” but that just sounds like a lot of bollocks to me. Perhaps I’m missing something here, but the proposals don’t really sound terribly unreasonable at all. I rather doubt that they’ll make much difference in the end and don’t seem to amount to much more than a bit of administrative tinkering, so what’s all the fuss and bother about? Apparently, I seem to missing something.

Just as a matter of amusement however, I wonder how long it would take the Minister to clear the backlog with her new-found powers if they were given full reign. On an individual basis, allotting five minutes per case, it would take 75,000 hours, or 3,125 days, or 8.6 years… this, of course presuming that each case was decided every five minutes without stop 24/7 over that period of time. But let’s say, she makes categories for the claimants… and this will help, how exactly? Will they just get rubber-stamped now based on being categorized and/or prioritized? Surely, there must still be some individual review of each application involved, so it’s a little difficult to see how these proposed “reforms” are really going to make any sort of difference whatsoever to the backlog of applicants. But again, maybe I’m just not “getting it” when it comes to what’s so egregiously awful about the proposed reforms.

Update: It seems I’ve been duped and that the “Conservatives” have actually cooked the books in order to support their claims of increased immigration. I really should know better than to take this government at its word or think for a moment that they’d ever be truthful about anything. Consider me chastened.

Furthermore, thanks to Rob for setting me straight and pointing out the following article entitled “Tory bill stifles debate” by Guidy Mamann of the immigration law firm Mamann & Associates.

The Harper government is promoting its controversial immigration bill by promising that it will reduce our backlog, produce faster processing times, and make our system more responsive to Canada’s labour market needs.

The Conservatives propose to accomplish this by giving our immigration minister, Diane Finley, unprecedented new powers.

If I believed this, I would easily support this initiative.

In an interview last week with CTV’s Mike Duffy, Finley confirmed that our backlog now stands at about 925,000 applications. The government maintains that the Minister needs these powers to cherry pick applicants who are needed here on a priority basis. She was asked by Duffy, if under the present system, the department was able to fast track, say a welder who was desperately needed in Fort McMurray. Finley answered “The way the law stands now we have to process the oldest application first. If that person is number 600,000 in line we’ve got a lot of applications to get through before that”.

This is simply not true.

Our current legislation states that the federal cabinet “may make any regulation ... relating to classes of permanent residents or foreign nationals” including “selection criteria, the weight, if any to be given to all or some of those criteria, the procedures to be followed in evaluating all or some of those criteria… the number of applications to be processed or approved in a year” etc.

In fact, in the case of Vaziri v. The Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, the Federal Court held in September 2006 that our current legislation “authorize[s] the Minister to set target levels and to prioritize certain classes of PR applicants” without even a regulation being passed. Accordingly, Finley has more than enough power under our current legislation to make virtually any changes that she wants subject to the Charter.

So why should we care if this bill passes?

Simply, because we already have far too little debate on the kind of immigration program this country needs. Often when I explain some aspect of our immigration law I am asked “who came up with that?” This proposal will push policy-making deeper into the backrooms. The proposal, which really belongs in an immigration bill, is tucked into a budget bill. It can only be defeated if Stéphane Dion were willing to defeat the bill and force an election which could easily cost him his job. If successful, Finley would be free to govern by decree, virtually eliminating the need for any legislative debate on immigration policy. The publication of the minister’s “instructions” in the Canada Gazette would be no substitute for an open discussion.

The Minister pledged “I can stand hand on heart and say this is good for immigrants, good for business ... and ... good for the country”

I say that the best way to eliminate the backlog and speed up the immigration process is by dedicating more resources to them, increasing our levels, and/or by simplifying the process. If we need people here quickly, the minister can simply issue work permits to those in line with job offers. This bill does none of that and the transfer of power from the cabinet to the minister will accomplish nothing. Hand on heart!