In December 2016, new application forms were introduced for individuals wishing to sponsor spouses or partners. It was part of a package of reforms designed to speed up processing. In June 2017, further improvements were made to the guides and document checklists.
The current version of the document checklist outlines that the following should be submitted as proof of the relationship with the sponsor:
Photos of your wedding, customary celebrations, engagement, and/or outings. Provide a maximum of 20 photographs to support your relationship (taken at different times and places). Please write your name and date of birth on the back of each photo and provide a brief context on the back of each photograph (do not provide CD, DVD, USB key)
When was the last time you printed photographs? I’ll bet some of my younger readers have never actually printed photographs. In today’s age of Facebook, Instagram, and digital photo frames, printed photographs with notes on the back seem like an anachronism.
And yet, photographs are incredibly important to immigration officers who make decisions about the genuine nature of relationships. In his field research for his book, Points of Entry: How Canada’s Immigration Officers Decide Who Get In, sociologist Vic Satzewich observed officers as they reviewed spousal sponsorship applications. He noted the following:
An officer reviewing an application stated, ‘I would like to see more pictures, but you know, this looks real.’
An officer reviewing wedding photos commented on how the applicants were dressed, whether funds appeared to have been spent (as indicated by the food and drink on offer at the reception), how many guests were in attendance, and what the guests were wearing (if they had dressed appropriately for the occasion).
Other officers interviewed for the book commented about photographs they had seen that looked staged, or appeared doctored. However, photographs from the wedding were said to be helpful in confirming how many, and which family members attended.
Most concerningly, an officer reviewing a sponsorship application observed that in the photos taken at the religious ceremony, no one was smiling. He acknowledged that it was a serious occasion (as it occurred in a temple), but was concerned that no one appeared happy. In that case, the officer called in the sponsored spouse for an interview, rather than approving the application immediately.
20 photographs seem insufficient considering the importance officers place on them. Moreover, the list provided does not suggest that any photographs taken with family members or friends, or at home (everyday life photos), should be provided. Surely these are important evidence for the officer.
I had a client come in to see me whose sponsorship was denied. He did not retain a copy of his application prior to sending it, so I completed an Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) request for a copy of the application. The photographs submitted as part of the application were mentioned in the officer’s electronic notes, but were not provided along with the other documents. When I inquired why, I was told:
We confirm that all documents remaining on file were provided to you.
Note that not all records are required to be kept on file for the whole duration of the retention period. Document of lesser value to the department are destroyed to thin out some files.
Apparently, photographs were of ‘lesser value to the department.’ This likely had more to do with the amount of room they took up, and not their actual value. The result for the client is that the original photographs of their wedding, which they had no copies of, were shredded, and there was no evidence of their wedding for their appeal.
Using Photographs to Support your Spousal Sponsorship Application
My solution to the issue of how best to present photographic evidence is to embed it into additional pages attached to the Relationship Information and Sponsorship Evaluation form (IMM 5532). The last question on this form asks, ‘Is there any other information you wish to support your relationship.’ I write ‘see attached pages’ in the text box on the form. Then, I have clients provide further information about their relationship by inserting photographs, screenshots from social media posts, and other illustrative evidence about their relationship into the document. Captions with locations, dates, and identification of the individuals in the photographs are placed underneath each visual item. Photographs can be small, as digital photographs cut and pasted into a document can be made as large or as small as one desires. Thus, several photographs can be interspersed with text on a page. Dozens of photographs can be submitted this way, without unduly increasing the physical size of the application. Since the pages are part of the IMM 5532 form, they cannot be culled to thin out the file.
Another benefit to this strategy is that clients love preparing the pages that set out the history of their relationship. It gives them a chance to go through all the photos taken over the course of their relationship, and to express their story in a meaningful way. I tell people to imagine they are creating a storybook for their future grandchildren. The product is an easy to read, chronological narrative that does not require flipping back and forth between printed photographs, notes on the back of the photographs, and the information on the form. Officers can read all the information they need in just a few minutes, even where there are many pages of additional information provided.
Perhaps Immigration will catch on to this idea, and the next version of the guide/checklist will set out procedure that I’ve been using!