Shawna and Pierre came to see me in late March, 2014. Like almost all my spousal sponsorship clients, they had met over the internet. In 2010, after a year of online correspondence, they had met in person. Their relationship developed with visits back and forth to each other’s countries, and in July, 2013 they had married.
Shawna and Pierre
Shawna and Pierre decided that they wanted to live together in Canada. Pierre had his own business here, as well as an adult children from a previous relationship whom he wanted to stay close to. Shawna was finishing up her education, and could start her career in Canada.
The two biggest challenges in spousal sponsorships are proving that the relationship is genuine, and dealing with lengthy processing times. For Shawna and Pierre, overcoming the first challenge was my biggest worry.
I always screen prospective spousal sponsorship applicants for “red flags” that could lead to immigration officers questioning the bona fides of the relationship. Shawna and Pierre had one of those “red flags” and it was huge: there was a 33 year age difference between them. The question I had to anticipate was “Why would a young woman, in her early 20’s and fresh out of university, want to marry a man several decades older than her, if not simply for the opportunity to come to Canada?”
I had the advantage of meeting Shawna and Pierre in person. I could see how they interacted and the loving nature of their relationship was readily apparent. In addition, it was clear that they knew each other well. They would defer to each other in answering my questions, and often finished each other’s sentences. But this wasn’t something that the immigration officer would ever see. Instead, I had to prove their relationship was legitimate by way of documents.
We assembled a comprehensive history of their relationship, with photos and screenshots embedded within 50 pages. I had family and friends provide letters of support. We provided money transfer receipts showing that Pierre was financially supporting Shawna as she finished school. We produced extensive telephone records (in addition to Facebook and Skype screenshots) and proof of visits together through airline tickets and receipts for hotels/meals. Shawna and Pierre were very fortunate that Shawna had received a multiple entry visitor visas to Canada, allowing her to visit Pierre several times before the sponsorship application was submitted. This gave us additional proof of visits and time for her to get to know Pierre’s family and neighbours.
And yet, I was worried it wouldn’t be enough. A 33 year age difference is vast. I warned them that Immigration might want to interview them in order to further scrutinize their relationship. I told them that this would increase the processing time.
We submitted the application on October 7, 2014. The first step in processing is the review of Pierre’s application to sponsor Shawna. Immigration would examine his tax returns and letter of employment, to ensure that he would be able to meet his financial obligation to provide for Shawna for three years after she came to Canada. They would also ensure that he had no undischarged financial commitments by way of a previous sponsorship or unpaid child support, that he himself had not been sponsored to Canada within the previous five years, and that he had not been convicted of a domestic violence offence.
At the time of submission, this step was taking about 6 weeks. While it ended up taking a bit longer than that, as processing times increased during this period, by November 28, 2014, Pierre was approved to sponsor Shawna.
Shawna’s file was then transferred to the visa office responsible for processing her permanent residency application. This is where they would review her medical and criminal checks, and most importantly, determine whether their relationship was “genuine and continuing” and “not for the purpose of immigration.” Posted processing times for the visa office were 27 months. I told them to settle in for a long wait.
On April 7, 2015, I turned on my computer and then just about fell out of my chair. There was an email from Immigration, advising Shawna that her application for permanent residency had been approved, along with a request that she provide her passport in order to give her the immigrant visa. Rather than the anticipated 27 months, Shawna was to become a Canadian resident in just over 4 months.
I’d love to be able to tell you that everyone who hires me to assist them with a spousal sponsorship is so lucky. Unfortunately, I can’t. I have other clients whose applications are sitting in the filing cabinets of immigration officers, languishing because Citizenship and Immigration Canada is processing to “levels.”
These are levels of family class applications that the government wants to process, as compared to economic class applications. In 2013 the government planned to accept about 27% of its new immigrants through family class sponsorships. The 2014 government targets had that number down to 26%. For 2015, the percentage dropped a further few points.
Increasing processing times are being justified by reduced targets, but it is the Minister of Immigration himself who sets the levels and publishes them in an annual report to Parliament. Never before in Canadian history have levels been used as a mechanism to control the flow of spousal applications. In contrast, previous ministers from both parties set no finite limit on numbers of spouses and instead imposed a processing standard of 6 months for 80% of applications at all visa posts. That standard was not always met, but many, if not most, visa offices got close.
Due to Minister Alexander's use of levels to limit spousal applications, processing times are now up to 3 years at many posts.
In addition, Citizenship and Immigration Canada recently confirmed that they would continue to prioritize outside-Canada spousal sponsorships over inside-Canada sponsorships, with the rationale that those seeking to reunite should be handled faster than those already residing together in Canada, particularly now that the interim spousal work permit has been put in place for inside-Canada applications.
Unfortunately, these inside-Canada sponsorship applicants’ lives are severely affected. During the processing of their applications, which is currently taking over two years and is the slowest its ever been, they are unable to obtain medical coverage and cannot freely leave and re-enter Canada.
In addition to long processing times, the issue of how immigration officers scrutinize the genuiness of a relationship recently made headlines. A training guide, which was obtained through an Access to Information Request by one of my colleagues, shows that immigration officers are to look for diamond rings and photos of the couple kissing on the lips during their wedding ceremony. Since not all religions and cultures follow such western ideals of the wedding ceremony, the training manual was criticized as being racist. Moreover, poor and often university aged students were also seen as targeted, because small weddings with informal receptions in restaurants were said to be indicators of a “non-genuine marriages.”
Shawna and Pierre were lucky. Their wedding ceremony included many guests with a traditional bridal party, and they could afford a honeymoon. Everyone was smiling in the wedding photos, and yes, there was a diamond ring. They passed the test of a “genuine marriage.”
Applying for permanent residency through a spousal sponsorship is not an easy process. Many people are shocked by how much I charge to assist with these types of applications, but the price quoted reflects the amount of work that must be done. When all is said and done, many of my clients remark that they don’t know how they could have managed it without professional assistance. I wish it wasn’t so difficult. I wish it didn’t take so long. But it does, and until Citizenship and Immigration Canada makes the process easier and faster, couples like Shawna and Pierre will need people like me.