The Harper Government introduced changes to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act in March; through the support of the Liberals, Bill C-50 was approved by Parliament in June.
My earlier and more complete thoughts about these changes are here and here. If you're considering emigrating to Canada - or if you want to discuss the issue here - please do read those older posts. In this post, I wanted to re-visit the issue, link to the older entries and file the whole thing under "advice".
These changes in immigration are being blamed on the Conservatives, but as a minority government, the Tories couldn't have done it without the Liberals propping them up. The Conservatives shrewdly (and deviously, since there was no need for it) attached the immigration bill to a budget, daring the Liberals to trigger an election.
The spineless Liberals "weren't ready" for an election. And because the Dion Liberals apparently stand for nothing except election readiness, the budget passed. The Liberals did an excellent imitation of the Democrats: they made a small fuss, then voted yes.
Thus, any application submitted after February 27, 2008 is now on hold.
Those who submitted an application before February 27, 2008 — the day after the federal budget, of which these changes are a part — will continue to be processed under the old system. But the backlog will stop growing and finally start coming down.
Going forward, anyone will still be able to apply, but CIC will no longer be required to process all new applications submitted on or after February 27, 2008. Applications not processed in a given year can be held for future consideration or returned with a full refund to the applicant, who will be welcome to reapply at another time.
One of the Conservatives' stated goals is to reduce the backlog of immigration applications, but it's difficult to see how one reduces a backlog by creating a larger backlog.
The Conservatives' changes will supposedly bring immigration more in line with the labour market. That in itself is not a bad idea. However, no one knows how this goal will be accomplished, since CIC Minister Diane Finley isn't saying.
The one thing we do know is that the system will become more subjective - that is, more political - and less objective.
The Minister will have the authority to issue instructions to immigration officers on the processing of applications, including with regard to jobs available in Canada, so that people with those skills and experience can be brought to Canada more quickly.
As we speak, Minister Finley is engaged in a cross-Canada consultation tour, supposedly gathering information from the provinces about what industries and fields need immigrants. In typical Harper fashion, the consultation process is not open to the media or the public. The locations within each province aren't even announced!
This secrecy is both typical and disturbing. This very good story in the Embassy explains.
The immigration system could be opened up to lobbying and be swayed by groups, organizations and businesses that have access to the minister if proposed changes to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act are approved, legal experts are warning.
If the legislation passes, the amendments will mean the immigration minister can choose which applicants should be fast-tracked for citizenship through direct instruction to visa officers. The minister will also choose which applicants need not be processed because they do not support the immigration goals established by the government.
"The processing of applications and requests is to be conducted in a manner that, in the opinion of the Minister, will best support the attainment of the immigration goals established by the Government of Canada," the proposed legislation states.
But just how this ministerial opinion will be reached remains a cause for concern.
"It opens the minister to a tremendous amount of lobbying and it's all done behind closed doors," said Stephen Green, a Toronto immigration lawyer. "Who has access to the minister will have the access with respect to the forthcoming instructions because it's all behind closed doors."
According to a Citizenship and Immigration news release dated April 8, the priority occupations will be identified based on input from provinces and territories, the Bank of Canada, Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, employers and organized labour.
CIC spokeswoman Karen Shadd-Evelyn said such consultations will not take place until after the legislation has passed, and that the department has not determined exactly how they will be conducted.
"The amendments have to pass before we undertake the consultations on the nature of the instructions, and in anticipation of that we're developing a consultation plan in co-ordination with the provinces and territories," Ms. Shadd-Evelyn said.
Questions about whether the consultation process would be on the public record and why the guiding principles are not stipulated within the legislation were not addressed.
Over the last several weeks, Immigration Minister Diane Finley has said the proposed process will be transparent because the instructions will be published in the government's newspaper, the Canada Gazette, as well as on the department's website and in its annual report to parliament.
But because the instructions are made public after the fact, Mr. Green said, this interrupts the parliamentary process.
"What we're saying is, let it be open, and if the Standing Committee [on Citizenship and Immigration] decides that this should be, then no problem, that's the parliamentary process," Mr. Green said. "[But the instructions] will only be provided after they've done this backdoor lobbying, it will be gazetted, but by then it's too late."
Robin Seligman, a Toronto immigration lawyer and former chair of the national immigration law section for the Canadian Bar Association, said that while the immigration system does need improvements, the proposed changes risk politicizing it and leaving it open to interest groups and third-party agendas.
"If it goes ahead, the system is totally open to lobbying," Ms. Seligman said. "It's open season for whatever groups feel like lobbying and saying 'We have a need, we have a pressure, please give us a priority.'"
Liberal Immigration critic Maurizio Bevilacqua said the bill has been a nightmare for all those who want to be involved in the process, and nobody knows what the next step is going to be or how they will be able to participate.
He said he has asked that the Commons' immigration committee study the immigration system as a whole and provide the minister with an alternative to the legislation she has proposed.
Mr. Bevilacqua said the government should want to avoid a situation where certain individuals will have access, and others will be shut out.
"That is the reason why I advocated and promoted the idea of having a open process where the citizenship and immigration committee will actually hear from people and offer a plan for the minister to follow that will actually reduce, largely reduce, the ability of specific groups to directly lobby the minister because she would be responding to our plan," Mr. Bevilacqua said.
In mid-May, the committee submitted a letter to the finance committee, which is studying the bill, recommending that the IRPA amendments be withdrawn entirely.
NDP Immigration critic Olivia Chow said the process introduced around the instructions is terrible.
"There's no set consultation period or process because when the Canada Gazette comes out, it's too late," she said. "So all consultations are done behind closed doors and not in public. Whatever the minister says could be changed in a drop of a dime."
If you've been effected by these changes, bear in mind that the Conservatives won't form the Government forever. I don't think they'll make it past an election this fall. Of course, that doesn't mean the Liberals will make undoing this immigration "reform" a priority. It could easily become the new normal.
One thing in our favour is that new Canadians vote. The Conservatives can appeal to the anti-immigrant crowd, but Liberals can appeal to immigrants themselves.