The date remains etched in Saeedeh Afshari’s mind as a special day.
It was March 20, 2020, and after five years of diligence and patience working towards a university degree, Afshari was finally eligible to apply for permanent residency in Canada.
The future looked bright for her under the BC Provincial Nominee Program, a way for high-demand foreign workers and experienced entrepreneurs to gain permanent residency in B.C. Her total score in the points-based assessment system, which measures things such as education, language ability and skills transferability, was tallied at a whopping 1,000 points — much higher than the usual minimums, which range around 80 to 120 points.
Afshari was elated and certain she was about to embark on the journey that she and her husband had dreamed of when they left Iran four years earlier in pursuit of a better life.
Yet a year later, her situation remains unchanged and her hope is disintegrating as she waits to receive her permanent residency status.
“I don’t think Canada is a dreamland anymore,” she said.
The 31-year-old computer science student arrived in Metro Vancouver with her husband in 2016, both on study permits. She aimed to pursue a graduate degree at Simon Fraser University to lay the foundation for a career in the tech industry. They both studied at the best universities in Iran and meticulously planned everything along the road to permanent residency, but now find themselves marooned far away from their former home — and their dreams.
“My husband is on a study permit and cannot work more than 20 hours a week unless we have PR [permanent residency],” Afshari said. “We pay higher tuition, because he’s an international student. We cannot get loans or a line of credit from banks because they need PR status. For getting a mortgage for buying a home, you need PR.”
Working from home at her Coquitlam residence, Afshari had plans to build her career. But her temporary work permit leaves her unable to change jobs or switch to working with a desired American company that might provide new opportunies.
“I only can work for Canadian companies that accept my work permit. Some of the big companies like Amazon actually require permanent residency status,” she said. “This is not fair. I’m eligible from 2019 to get this permanent residency and I’m still waiting for it.”
For the last three years, the couple had been planning to buy a house and bring Afshari’s parents here. However, given the present situation, they are struggling to make any plans for the next week, let alone a longer-term future.
Stuck in immigration limbo
Afshari should have received her PR within six months of her application to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada last March. But for the past seven months she has been told repeatedly her application was “under process.” She said she wrote incessantly to IRCC requesting an update and was met with the standard response every time.
Perplexed and powerless, she has written more than 30 emails so far to IRCC, members of Parliament — including Marco Mendicino, the minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship — and other governments.
“Every two weeks, I’m sending emails to everyone and no one has answered me,” she said. “I even reached out to one of the Parliament members in my living area, Nelly Shin, and she followed up with IRCC and they told her the same thing: that it’s under process.”
Afshari isn’t the only one stuck in immigration limbo.
Abdul Hafeez Rasheed submitted his BC Provincial Nominee Program application last August, eager to obtain permanent residency. The 39-year-old hasn’t seen his family in the four years since he left his well-paying job in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates to come to Canada with the hopes of providing a better future for his children.
“I’ve been without my wife and three kids for almost four years. When I left them, they were like two, four and six. They have grown up and don’t know their father,” he said.
Rasheed has tried twice to bring his wife to Canada, but her work permit application has been rejected each time. He worries that there is no other foreseeable way to bring them here unless he receives his permanent residency card, as it will take at least a year-and-a-half to get a stamp from Dubai allowing even a visitor visa for his family.
His voice cracks with despair as he describes yearning to be with his family every day.
“I am a dead man right now, I’m just locked in. I’m caged. I see my kids have grown up and they cry for their dad now. They get emotional, they have tears in their eyes,” he said. “‘Where are you? Why aren’t you coming to us? Why aren’t we coming to you? What’s stopping us?’ they ask. How can I explain to those kids what’s going on?”
The wait has repercussions for his children’s education, too. Though Rasheed earns good money at his IT job in Vancouver, his salary isn’t remotely enough to cover the exorbitant fees of Dubai schools.
Distraught with the delays, Rasheed says the pandemic has added to his despair.
“I feel like I have been isolated. I feel depressed. I’m not excited about anything and just want days to pass by. I just want to be with my family,” Rasheed said. “PR is not a privilege now. This is very much a necessity.”
In those moments of helplessness, Rasheed contemplates leaving everything behind and going back. He quickly reminds himself that all of his sacrifices and dreams of his children being brought up in Canada would be futile. He too has received the standard “under process” response from IRCC with no proposed timelines.
Missing family is the worst thing
Rasheed and Afshari are among 152 people who have so far signed a petition addressed to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Minister Mendicino.
The petition was started by Gurkanwal Singh, who is currently working at a network company in B.C. He submitted his Provincial Nominee Program application on July 13, 2020 and is waiting for a response. He hopes the petition will bring their plight to the IRCC’s attention.
Singh argues that even when their applications have been vetted by the province and they meet all the requirements, applications in streams such as Canadian Experience Class, a program that allows individuals with at least a year of work experience in Canada to immigrate permanently, are being processed faster than theirs. Provincial Nominee Program applications are supposed to be finalized within six months.
“It is unfair to the applicants of Express Entry supported by PNP to face delays due to COVID-19 while other streams like CEC are given a priority over others for fast-track processing,” the petition states in part.
For Singh, it equates to a broken promise. The 24-year-old had been planning for permanent residency even before coming to Canada. He had charted his future of starting a business in this country while he was in India and has dedicated the last six years to that dream.
Now, Singh faces a quandary — wait for the permanent residency application to churn through the bureaucracy and hope it’s approved before his post-graduate work permit expires in June, or apply for a bridging open work permit. He wants to take his mortgage consultancy licensing exam and advance in his career, but wants to await a decision on the permanent residency front before making a final call.
He also finds it unfair to be facing an additional cost of applying for the bridging work permit while having already paid approximately $3,000 for his and his partner’s permanent residency applications.
The fact that only a few months remain on his work permit makes it impossible to switch careers, he said, or even start working part time as a mortgage consultant. Singh said that if he doesn’t get permanent residency in a few weeks, he will have to apply for the bridging open work permit, since he needs to have an at least six-months validity on his work permit to maintain his legal status.
Like Rasheed, Singh regrets missing family milestones.
“In the past five-and-a-half years, I have only focused on building up my profile strong enough that I don’t feel difficulties at a later stage, but which I’m still facing now,” he said. “I’ve only visited my family twice and that was only for a week or so. I have a younger brother who is just 11, and I’ve missed all these years that I could have spent with him. That to me is very valuable. Missing out on family is the worst that can ever happen to someone.”
He hasn’t received any proposed timelines from IRCC regarding his application. The last communication he had was on Feb. 15 stating that a criminal background check was still “under process.” Every time Singh asks for an update, nothing happens.
“After having done so much and put in five-and-a-half years of time, it’s still not enough. That endless wait that comes without a timeline is causing the relentlessness and restlessness,” he said.
Constantly checking for updates
Such a long wait comes with an additional cost for many applicants in their home countries living through precarious situations.
For Singh, it amounts to many sleepless nights spent worrying and constantly checking the IRCC application portal. The routine has become normal for Afshari, too, who has a WhatsApp group with other applicants like her, including Rasheed and Singh.
“Every day I wake up and we chat in that group. ‘Anybody got any update?’ And they will say, ‘No, nothing happened for us.’ And this is a conversation all of us have every day,” Afshari said. “In the last six months, no one has got any update. We are all viewing the same status.”
Through Global Case Management System notes, a tool used by IRCC to process information which contains all the communications between the applicant and IRCC, Afshari found that her file is still “under process” at the Etobicoke, Ont., immigration office. So are Rasheed’s and Singh’s cases. Afshari even reached out to that IRCC office requesting for a transfer of her file, but didn’t receive any response.
The trio are part of a group of 50 people whose files are at the Etobicoke office, many apparently untouched for more than six months, who have sent a letter to IRCC requesting a clarification.
“They have clearly mentioned in the GCMS notes that this file has been assigned to this office due to workload distribution,” said Rasheed.
In an email response to The Tyee, IRCC explained that while it can’t provide updated processing times, it has been implementing priority processing — especially for vulnerable people and family members seeking to reunite.
“We’ve improved technology and digitized more of our operations, and increased the amount of processing happening virtually. This includes our permanent resident landings process, which has now actually reduced the amount of time it takes to land a permanent resident compared to the pre-pandemic process,” the email stated. “As of Feb. 19 2021, IRCC welcomed more permanent residents for this year than for the same period in 2020, before the pandemic.”
For the month of January, IRCC has admitted 24,665 permanent residents and processed 25,657 permanent residency applications. As of the end of January, a total of 255,277 permanent residency applications in different immigration categories were still in the processing queue.
With the federal government recently issuing more than 27,000 invitations to skilled immigrants to apply for permanent residence under the Express Entry system, Afshari is worried that existing applications might be put on a back burner.
“IRCC has invited 27,000 people to apply for permanent residency and my fear is that this number of people are ahead of me if they process newer applications,” she said.
Will Tao, a Burnaby-based immigration lawyer, says it’s a valid worry.
“One of the mixed messages that the government has sent is taking on 27,000 new applications into the stream and inviting them when there’s so many more still being processed. It has real life consequences,” Tao said. “On a human scale, where these applicants have been waiting for more than a year-and-a-half to get acknowledged or received, and suddenly you find out that 27,000-plus individuals are all rushing for the same things that you need.... People are right to be concerned.”
Tao works with many clients who are facing delays on permanent residency applications and finds himself in a difficult position, with COVID-19 exacerbating the already existing processing delays. He finds channels of communication with IRCC are also experiencing the slowdown.
“Even the web form that applicants [use to] submit their inquiries can take several weeks. For many people, it will take three months before they even get their GCMS notes,” he said. “That is a big part of the problem: how does immigration create a system that allows clients to actually communicate with them directly?”
He finds the new trend of applicants reaching out to MPs for assistance on their files is a sign “of a very ineffective and highly problematic system” that could be better resolved through modern-day communication and transparency.
With paper-based applications, Tao is seeing longer wait times, with many of the files sitting untouched in a processing office in Sydney, N.S. Paper-based applications are being scanned and digitized so that they can be processed remotely by IRCC employees across their global network.
IRCC extended some submission deadlines for applicants who are facing delays due to COVID-19 restrictions, which has affected application processing times, it said.
“Service disruptions and increased flexibility around submission of supporting documents — have all had an impact on processing times. Because there are so many different variables involved, we are unable to provide specific timelines at this time,” IRCC wrote to The Tyee.
While the IRCC works on streamlining its processes and ramping systems back up, the long wait and lack of information on when applications will be processed continues to cloud the dreams of many.
Rashed says his life is completely out of balance.
“My wife is just waiting to join me here and [my family] can’t come here and I can’t go,” said Rasheed. “Our life is going nowhere.”