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Rights + Justice
Federal Politics

One Family’s Struggle Through the Pandemic Immigration System

Aiming for Vancouver, the McDougalds spent eight months in limbo. They’re luckier than many others.

Michael John Lo 5 Aug 2021 |

Michael John Lo is a journalist at Focus Magazine and a final year student at the University of Victoria. You can find him complaining about university life and democracy on Twitter at @overloaded_writ.

The McDougalds were at the Air Canada check-in counter in Hong Kong, 11 bags in hand and their two young children in tow, when they were asked to make an impossible decision.

The family was finally headed to Vancouver on the last day of April 2021, eight months after Steven McDougald was due to start his new job as the youth minister at St. John’s Anglican Church.

After almost a year of trying to get to Canada, they thought everything had finally been resolved. The airport officials at check-in told Steven and his wife Dorcas they were free to board.

But the children would have to be left behind.

The McDougalds’ immigration consultant had missed a crucial travel exemption document for the children. It was a new requirement, part of the constantly shifting regulations brought on by the pandemic.

Coren was two, Maryanne barely four months old.

“The airport was the most acute pain — just standing there with all of the kids, with [Dorcas’ parents], the luggage and our visas in hand,” Steven said. “Really thinking it was the day that we were going to go. Then just getting the rug pulled out from us, after all of the process of waiting.”

So the family, after months of uncertainty and instability, would spend another week without a home, shuffling between hotels and waiting for the final forms to come from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.

“We had no place, we had nothing. We just had our luggage — that was it.”

The family eventually made it into Canada, a success story in a time when the pandemic has disrupted and delayed most immigration plans. But the McDougalds had to lean tremendously on their own resources and the resources of those supporting them. Not everyone is as lucky.

In August 2020, Steven was hired as the next youth minister at St. John’s Anglican Church. A 90-year-old Vancouver institution near the Cambie Street and West 41st Avenue intersection, the church has a robust youth program that serves multiple congregations in the city. Steven had been looking at opportunities in the Anglican church globally and eventually chose Vancouver.

It appealed for a few reasons: Dorcas had fond memories of the city from her time as an exchange student, and the couple had married at a different St. John’s Anglican Church in Hong Kong.

The McDougald family was prepared to move as soon as the job offer was confirmed, but they didn’t have the required visa and the pandemic had created delays in the immigration system. “That kind of threw everything into a tailspin,” said Steven.

And Dorcas was pregnant. They wanted to have the baby in Vancouver, but as the due date neared and the documents were still processing, they began planning for a birth in Hong Kong.

The next eight months would be an exercise in patience for everyone involved.

Dan Gifford, vicar at St. John’s Vancouver, said the church had to adapt to the unexpected delay. It hired an immigration consultant for the family and shuffled staff to cover Stevens responsibilities during those months.

“We’re prepared to wait, because we think you are a great candidate and the right person for this job,” Gifford told Steven. “This job will be waiting for you whenever you can get here.”

Steven is American and holds a master’s degree in theological studies. He’s worked in the field in Hong Kong since 2017.

St. John’s Church has sponsored international employees to work at the church before, but this was its longest and most complicated effort yet, Gifford said. He attributes some of the difficulties to COVID-19.

“There are special medical tests that were required. It was much more difficult to get these visas,” said Gifford. “You just never knew from week to week what would change.”

While waiting in Hong Kong, grandparents helped out the family. Steven learned how to cook. Both he and Dorcas had quit their Hong Kong jobs in anticipation of the move and were largely unemployed during their wait.

“It’s really hard to find a church job that will want to hire you for six months,” Steven said.

He picked up the occasional tutoring job teaching English to elementary students, but Steven said almost no money was coming into the family. He estimates the eight-month immigration delay cost them $36,000, eating away at their savings.

“We didn’t know if we were really going to get it or when it was going to come,” said Steven. “You just submit everything, and you wait.”

The family’s final week in Hong Kong was full of miraculous twists and turns before they boarded their plane on May 6. Some last-minute COVID-19 test slots opened up. An application cleared within 12 hours instead of the normal two weeks. The family received the letters that allowed the children into Canada one day before the last flight of the week was scheduled to leave. St. John’s covered the family’s hotel stay to help out.

“It’s amazing how God answered prayer,” said Gifford. Steven thinks that someone in the office must have seen their application and had compassion for their plight.

851px version of McDougaldsHKGAirportMay.jpg
The McDougald family on May 6, one day after receiving travel exemption letters for their children. Leaving on such a short notice made saying goodbye to family harder. Photo submitted.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada acknowledges the pandemic has brought delays for would-be immigrants.

“From widespread travel restrictions to constraints on our settlement partners to employees working remotely, it has had a significant impact on Canada’s immigration system and affected processing times,” said communications officer Jeffrey MacDonald in a statement.

A report by the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration submitted in May on immigration during the pandemic says that all applicants have faced longer processing times, poor transparency and communication and problems getting needed documents to support their applications.

In some cases, the report says, the pandemic has amplified “individual, racial, administrative and legal differences that predate the pandemic.”

For example, it noted that applicants without reliable internet access or tech skills have a harder time completing the new online immigration processes, especially foreign nationals who live in rural Canada and need to deal with the system.

The immigration process has been partially digitized, but some streams can still be delayed due to the pandemic. In-person interviews are still required for spousal sponsorship applicants, and multiple streams of entry still require paper filing and actual signatures. And Canada only restarted resettling refugees and other protected persons in September 2020, four months later than other immigration streams and six months after international borders were closed to almost everyone except Canadian citizens and permanent residents.

The differences can also be geographical: the report notes that French-speaking international students bound for Quebec from francophone Africa faced “disproportionate delays” due to a lack of services in the region.

Richmond-based immigration consultant Ken Tin Lok Wong said that visa delays like the McDougald’s aren’t uncommon. It’s also hard to determine whether the delay was the result of an IRCC backlog, caused by understaffing or a lack of funding, or just an inherently long process, he said.

Wong said processing the applications of families with dependents and multiple work permits is especially tricky, and the pandemic doesn’t make it any easier.

Papers are often stuck in overseas immigration offices, restrictions can change suddenly in the name of public health, and expected processing times have gone out the window. He thinks that Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada could allocate more resources towards complex cases like family sponsorship.

The federal department says it’s currently prioritizing applications for foreign nationals who are exempt from travel restrictions and are able to come to Canada.

“Ongoing international travel restrictions, border restrictions, limited operational capacity overseas and the inability on the part of clients to obtain documentation due to the effects of COVID-19 have created barriers within the processing continuum,” said the department’s MacDonald, who says these delays are out of the department’s control. That makes it impossible to provide specific timelines for applications, his statement said.

Cherie Wong, the executive director of Alliance Canada Hong Kong, said immigrants from the city, like the McDougalds, have an advantage because of the pathway has been established over the years. The challenges get to be even greater for people from other regions.

“For someone who has considerable status, that technically gives them a leg up in immigration if they are struggling to get to Canada,” said Wong, “It’s clear that the playing field is uneven.”

The McDougalds are still adjusting to their new life in Canada. But they are finally here to stay. Steven says he feels blessed and is glad to be supported by an understanding employer.

“I know there was another Anglican minister who never could come [from Hong Kong] even though everything was set,” said Steven. “Praise God that we did get through.”  [Tyee]

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