Family reunification visas top list of concerns for many ethnic voters

Posted by admin on Apr 13th, 2011

By Anca Gurzu, Published April 13, 2011

With Immigration Minister Jason Kenney sitting across from him, Harjinder Thind fielded call after call from irritated Indo-Canadians. The minister was there as a special guest for Mr. Thind’s popular Vancouver-based program on radio station Red FM, and had intended to talk about the Conservatives’ plan to tackle human smuggling. But earlier in the year, Vancouver immigration lawyer Richard Kurland had obtained documents that showed the Harper government was planning to halve the number of parents and grandparents allowed from India under the family reunification category. The documents also showed the government was going to more than double the number of Chinese allowed into Canada.

“I was getting call after call and people were very angry,” Mr. Thind says. “People wanted to know if he would reverse it.”

As a result, Mr. Kenney was put in the rare position of having to defend himself and his party’s policies over anger from a coveted ethnic voting block and didn’t really a chance to talk about the Conservatives’ anti-human smuggling campaign.

While federal political parties have been addressing various immigration issues in their attempt to reach out to Canadian newcomers during this election campaign, the example above makes some observers wonder whether politicians are tuning in to the real concerns of ethnic groups.

Since the beginning of the federal election campaign at the end of March, Conservative Party candidates have been very vocal about their continued commitment to bring in stronger laws to fight human smuggling as well as tougher penalties for migrants who arrive at Canada’s shores by boat in large groups.

The goal is to connect with the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who spent their time in queues and followed other set procedures to come to Canada, and argue that it isn’t fair that others are trying to skirt the system.

“It is not acceptable when there are organized operations to smuggle boatloads of people into the country to bypass all the legitimate channels that the vast, vast majority of immigrants are willing to go through,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in a speech in Markham, Ont., on April 6 attended by numerous immigrants and new Canadians.

“That’s not fair to the country, it’s not fair to those hundreds of thousands of immigrants who respect the rules, and it’s important that we have laws to deal with that problem.”

Speaking in Quebec a day earlier, Mr. Harper had made a similar point: “The Bloc and Liberal want to transform our border into a real sieve, which shows a total lack of respect for the immigrants who respect the

The Conservatives have also put the human smuggling message in an advertisement that is being broadcast regularly on television. The ad shows clips of the MV Sun Sea that arrived at the end of August with hundreds of Tamil asylum seekers on board, while the narrator says Prime Minister Stephen Harper has taken action to protect Canada’s borders against human smugglers, who take advantage of Canada’s generosity.

But Mr. Harper has also been touching on the issue of foreign credentials recognition, which is something many newcomers to Canada struggle with. If re-elected, he said his government would introduce a new program for loans to help recent immigrants pay for training to have their credentials recognized in Canada.

“We think this small investment in the future of new Canadians will strengthen the future of our economy for all Canadians,” he said.

These initiatives are important for the immigrant communities, but Mr. Kenney’s decision “with one stroke of his pen” to reduce the number of people allowed in under the family reunification category has become the
overriding concern, Mr. Thind says.

Besides the changes to Chinese and Indian applicants under this category, the government cut the overall number of family reunification visas it will issue to 11,000, down from 16,000. Since waiting times are on average around 13 years, this reduction means some applicants’ parents will die before being allowed to come to Canada, Mr. Thind says.

“It doesn’t matter they are throwing some money to human smuggling or to foreign credentials,” he says. “Family reunification is very close to their hearts and this has angered them like crazy.”

Jenna Hennebry, associate director at Wilfrid Laurier University’s International Migration Research Centre, says she is not surprised family reunification is so important to ethnic groups.

“Family sponsorship is very important to immigrants because it’s part of feeling they achieved what they hoped to achieve from emigrating to Canada, having the family members close,” she says. “It’s about being
able to say they succeeded.”

The Liberals and NDP, who are against the Conservatives’ proposed anti-human smuggling measures, have been attacking the Tories for its changes to the family reunification class, with the issue quickly becoming part of all opposition party platforms.

“Why do we think family reunification is so important? Because families stick together. Families help each other,” Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff told an audience in Oakville, Ont., on March 29. “That’s how we get better integration into our society. So we’re going to reverse that attack on family class and family reunification.”

While foreign credentials recognition is a legitimate issue, Ms, Hennebry said the Tories’ human smuggling message is a risky one if officials are targeting the immigrant vote, because she says people in those groups cannot really relate to the criminal element of the message.

However, she says the message is not risky if the Tories want to target those who want to hear about tighter border controls�which would fit with many of their traditional voters.

Meanwhile, despite the efforts by all parties to use immigration policy to attract voters, new Canadians also care about general election issues, says Binoy Thomas, editor of the Weekly Voice, a South Asian newspaper in the Greater Toronto Area. Mr. Thomas says he recently participated in a roundtable with the ethnic media with Mr. Harper, but people did not ask many immigration-specific questions.

Mr. Thomas says family reunification only matters to those specific families that are waiting for their application to be processed, but there are also others in the immigrant community that “are not excited about getting thousands of old people in the country.”

In fact, he says the Tories’ anti-human smuggling message might indeed touch a sensitive chord with newcomers.

“These kind of issues irritate immigrants,” he says. “To wait five, six years to process your documents to come here and then read that some people come just like that they don’t have patience for that.”

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