Ottawa has vowed to cut the processing times and backlogs for spousal immigration applications by more than half with an expanded annual quota for 2017 and a new simplified application kit available next week.
Starting immediately, most spousal sponsorship applications submitted in and outside Canada will be processed within 12 months, down from the current average of 26 months and 18 months respectively, Immigration Minister John McCallum announced on Wednesday.
“We have listened to Canadians and are delivering results. Bringing families together makes for a stronger Canada. Canadians who marry someone from abroad shouldn’t have to wait for years to have them immigrate or be left with uncertainty in terms of their ability to stay,” McCallum told a news conference in Brampton.
“What we are announcing today is a more efficient, more considerate process to reunite families.”
Complaints by Canadians and their foreign spouses and dependants over long processing times and lengthy separations had fallen on deaf ears under the previous Conservative government.
Although the Liberals had made fixing the backlog a priority during the election campaign, the immigration department had been preoccupied with the ambitious project to resettle tens of thousands of Syrian refugees.
With an additional $25 million allotted to reduce the immigration backlog in it’s 2016 budget, the Immigration Department has managed to reduce the processing times of spousal sponsorship applications by 15 per cent for inland applicants and by more than 10 per cent for those waiting overseas.
The government also raised the annual quota for foreign spouses and dependants this year to 64,000 people from 47,000 in previous years. With limited spots and increasing demands, the backlogs persisted and grew over time.
Immigration officials said they hoped to clear all existing applications by the end of 2017 with the expanded quota, additional staffing resources and a streamlined process.
A new simplified application kit will be available December 15 for new applicants that cuts the current 14 application checklists down to four. All incomplete applications will be returned early in the process to prevent them from clogging the system, the government said.
McCallum said the streamlined processing was the brainchild of a special team of immigration staffers based on lessons learned through the Syrian refugee resettlement experience. The spousal sponsorship program is the first to be simplified and improved, he added.
“This is the single, biggest one we have focused on,” McCallum said. “It is something of a milestone. If there’s one most important campaign commitment on immigration, this is it.”
Although more complex applications will still take more than 12 months, 80 per cent of applications are expected to be processed on target. The department will also extend its pilot program, slated to end this month, for another year to issue open work permits to sponsored spouses within Canada while waiting for their permanent resident status.
Despite the streamlined process and the new time commitment, officials said full criminal, security and medical screening will continue to be in place.
McCallum said he did not expect a return of the backlog once it is cleared.
“We have changed the structure, the way this is done. There’s no way this is not going to be permanent,” he noted.