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Ottawa to create new system to tackle delays in processing immigration applications

Last Updated May 8, 2021 at 3:03 am PDT

Travellers, who are not affected by new quarantine rules, arrive at Terminal 3 at Pearson Airport in Toronto early Monday, February 22, 2021. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that all travellers entering Canada by air would have to quarantine in a hotel for three days at their own expense starting later today. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

Ottawa says it will create a new digital platform to help process immigration applications more quickly after the COVID-19 pandemic underscored the need for a faster shift to a new system.

The federal government pledged in the 2021 budget to spend $428.9 million over the next five years to deliver the platform that would gradually replace the existing case management system.

The new platform will launch in 2023 to improve application processing and provide more support for applicants, the government said.

Alexander Cohen, a spokesman for Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino, said the new system is part of a wider shift towards digital platforms across the department and government.

“(This new) platform will ensure that our immigration system can efficiently handle the increasing number of cases,” he said. “It will reduce the use of paper applications and be simpler and easier for applicants.”

Robert Falconer, a researcher at the University of Calgary School of Public Policy, said the processing rate of permanent residency applications has been declining over the last six years.

Falconer said an analysis of government data shows that the number of received permanent residency applications was 34 per cent higher than the number of finalized applications last year.

In 2019, he said, that figure was 21 per cent.

Cohen said intake of applications has significantly increased over the past few years.

“There are just more applications than ever before and so we’re only going to process as many applications as there are spaces for in the (immigration) plan.”

The department has launched an online application portal that allows some permanent residency applicants to apply digitally, Cohen said.

While the portal will eventually expand to all permanent residency programs, it is now available to a random selection of applicants in seven programs, he said.

Falconer said there are around 120 immigration programs in Canada and close to half of them require applicants to fill out paper-based applications.

COVID-19 restrictions probably made it more challenging for immigration officers to process applications, especially paper-based applications, he said.

He said officers would have to travel to a central receiving location to pick up the applications or find a way to have them mailed securely to their homes.

Falconer added the government has recently created several new programs under the economic immigration class, including one to allow Hong Kong residents to immigrate to Canada and another to enable temporary residents including international students to apply for permanent status.

“Using the economic class as a catch-all, when there’s already a lot of paper-based applicants, I think, can put a lot more stress and confusion and complexity on economic class immigration officers,” he said.

“Each new public policy, there are going to be specific requirements there, and the more requirements we have for officers, the slower it means the applications will (be processed).”

Improving the integration between the federal immigration system with the provincial nomination systems should also be a priority, Falconer said.

“We have 10 different provinces, each with their own paper-based application processes or electronic systems,” he said.

“Alberta for a long time — my home province here — their provincial nomination system was purely paper-based. But then, in the past couple years, they decided to integrate their provincial nominee system with the Canadian federal government system.”

He said almost half of all immigrants who arrive in Canada under economic class programs come through sub-provincial programs.

“The actual larger issue here, I would say, is actually federalism, and maybe to align the provincial and federal governments on the issue of immigration,” he said.

Andrew Griffith, a former director of citizenship and multiculturalism at the Immigration Department, said it has tried to simplify the process recently by allowing more online transmission of documents.

“These changes are not that easy to implement overnight,” he said.

Griffith said Ottawa’s promise to spend close to a half billion dollars to put in place a new immigration application processing system will be an interesting one to watch because implementing big IT projects presents challenges for the government.

The department should find ways to get rid of any duplication and overlap that may exist in the current immigration system, he said.

“Do we need all those steps? Can some of these steps be automated? Can we use (artificial intelligence) to make determinations?”

Cohen said the immigration department launched in 2018 two pilot projects using computer analytics to help immigration officers triage some online visa applications.

“This computer analytics technology analyzes data and recognizes patterns in applications to help identify routine and complex cases,” he said. 

“The goal is to help officers to identify applications that are routine and straightforward for thorough but faster processing, and to triage files that are more complex for a more extensive review.”

He said all decisions on every application are made by a visa officer in all cases and the department’s artificial intelligence tools are not used to render decisions.

“We’re always looking to leverage technology to improve the process for Canadians and those who wish to come here.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 8, 2021.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Maan Alhmidi, The Canadian Press