Immigration ‘fast track’ not so fast: More than half of Haitian families rejected for reunification

Posted by admin on Feb 10th, 2011

By Kelly Patterson, Ottawa Citizen, Feb. 10 2011

Federal officials have rejected almost half the applications they received under the government’s much-publicized fast-track program to reunite Haitian families affected by the earthquake with relatives in Canada, Immigration Department figures show. Launched last January, the Haiti Special Measures program was heralded as a key part of the federal government’s response to the massive earthquake that tore through the Caribbean nation, killing more than 220,000 and leaving at least a million people homeless.

The cornerstone of the program was its promise to expedite the permanent-residence applications of Haitians affected by the earthquake who want to join immediate family in Canada through so-called “family-class” applications.

But officials have rejected 49 per cent of those applications, say the Immigration Department’s statistics.

About 4,800 Haitians applied to join immediate family members as permanent residents in Canada under the program, which closed Aug. 31. While official results have not been released, ministry staff told the Citizen final rulings had been made on almost 94 per cent of the applications by Feb. 3.

Of those, only 51 per cent were approved — significantly less than the approval rate for families from other countries who applied under standard procedures. For example, statistics on the department’s website show that the average approval rate for families from all countries was 83 per cent in 2009-2010; the rate for Europe-based applicants was 88 per cent for that period. (Figures do not include applications for the dependants of refugees).

The program also promised to expedite temporary visas for Haitians coming to Canada. On its website, the ministry notes that it had issued more than 3,100 temporary visas and permits to Haitians in 2010. Asked how that compared with 2009, the ministry said the number was down from 4,400 that year, explaining that its commitment to family reunification after the earthquake bumped temporary visas to “a secondary priority.”

In dealing with the permanent-residency applications for families, agents ruled about 31 per cent ineligible, and “withdrew” a further 18 per cent because the applicants did not supply the required documents in time or “comply with (department) requests, such as submitting to medical or DNA testing within the requested timeline,” the department explained in an email.

Fabienne Lozis of the Union des Haitiens de l’Outaouais says the contrast between the special-measures program and another federal earthquake-relief program, Operation Stork, is making many Haitian-Canadians “angry and confused.”

Operation Stork fast-tracked ongoing applications by Canadian parents to adopt Haitian children. In a matter of weeks, officials had united 203 children with their adoptive parents.

“People are asking, ‘How can you possibly give this opportunity to people who are not Haitian, and not give … the same chance to biological parents who want their own children to come to Canada?’ ”

While the Union itself does not have a position on this question, “some people are saying it’s just racist,” says Lozis.

Marjorie Villefranche, of the Montreal-based Maison d’Haiti, says the rejection rate is high because federal officials make few concessions to the situation in Haiti: “They have been acting as if there had been no earthquake at all. … There has been a real lack of humanity” in the way the program has been administered, she charges.

For example, she says officials still insist on seeing documents such as birth certificates and marriage licences, despite the fact that many records were destroyed, along with the government buildings that issue them, in the earthquake.

In some cases, federal agents demand school transcripts going back 10 years, and reject documents, many of which were drawn up by hand even before the earthquake, for simple typos, she says.

By contrast, the separate “special measures” program launched last year by Quebec permits alternative methods, such as affidavits by relatives and fimaly photos, to be used in support of an application where identity papers are impossible to obtain.

Immigration Department spokesman Remi Lariviere said staff have a duty to protect Canadians from potential threats. “We cannot allow criminals to come in, or people who pose a health risk or security risk.”

The conditions in Haiti have made this important task more difficult, he points out: “In Haiti we had to assess things more carefully” because so many public records were destroyed.

Staff have been “doing the best job they could” under difficult circumstances, he says.

The ministry website says that as of Dec. 31, more than 2,500 Haitian families had been reunited since the earthquake, more than three times the number in 2009. However, that figure includes applications filed after the special-measures prorgam expired in August. On average, applications were processed withn four months as of Dec. 31, the site said.

Officials strive to be flexible, says Immigration spokeswoman Kelli Fraser: “They will request all documents, but if only some are available, or the person only has copies, the person will review those,” and may request and interview or DNA test for verification.

Villefranche concedes that “you have to be sure that people are who they say they are,” but says there has also been a lack of common sense: Haitians applying under the special-measures program were already being vouched for by a spouse, child, parent or grandparent in Canada. “These are not strangers,” she points out, “but officials doubt that it’s your wife or your kid, and they ask for a DNA test and if you don’t do it quickly the close the case.”

At about $1,000, DNA tests are far too costly for many Haitians, observers say. “if you have three children and need DNA tests for all of them, thats $3,000,” says Peter Showler, a University of Ottawa professor who specializes in refugee and immigration law.

NDP immigration critic Olivia Chow says the federal program was an empty promise: “It looked good on paper, but no change was made in any of the regulations,” or even in most of the hefty fees famillies face to apply.

A Canadian citizen wanting to bring a spouse and two minor children here would pay $850 in fees to apply under the special-measures program, not counting the “right of permanent residence” fee of $490 per adult.

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