March 25, 2008

Immigration changes unfair, critics charge - Canada

Proposals embedded in budget bill would give minister power to deny or speed applications

Mar 24, 2008 04:30 AM

Immigration/Diversity Reporter

Proposed changes to the Immigration Act may allow the overhaul of Canada's immigration system, but critics fear they could also allow Immigration Minister Diane Finley to ram through changes without parliamentary – and public – oversight.

Legal experts and immigrant advocates made their reservations known after the Conservative government announced plans to change the six-year-old Immigration and Refugee Protection Act by asking Parliament to relinquish its decision-making power on immigration policies to a single person – the minister.

Since Bill 50 was introduced this month, Finley has been touting it as a way to reduce the 800,000-case backlog and cut long waiting times for immigration applications.

But critics, while commending the government's political will to tackle the decade-old backlog, said they were caught off guard by the secrecy surrounding the new provisions.

The bill would allow the minister to discard applications from specific countries, reject applicants who otherwise meet all immigration criteria, and accelerate some applications, allowing queue-jumping.

Worst, applicants couldn't appeal.

Lawyer Lorne Waldman said the approach goes against the points system that was introduced in the late 1960s to make the system non-racist and accountable.

"This new change will undo all of this by allowing the minister to override the established criteria by directing that whole categories be not processed and by giving the minister the power to direct that applications be processed despite them not meeting the objective criteria," Waldman warned.

The bill could also terminate the processing of humanitarian applications from overseas and limit the number and type of applications each person could file.

All these scenarios could happen via "minister's instructions" that circumvent the traditional process of public consultations, parliamentary committee reviews and oversight, critics charge.

"Nothing could be further from the truth," Finley said yesterday on CTV's Question Period. "We have to make it easier to get more people here faster. We have a backlog right now that the previous government ballooned from 50,000 to 800,000. It has since grown to 900,000."

Finley said the changes will help fill jobs that go empty while qualified people wait, as well as provide the option of faster processing for applicants from troubled areas.

The amendment is contained within the 2008 budget implementation bill, which means it would take a confidence vote to defeat the new provisions. That fact alone is alarming, said prominent immigration lawyer Gordon Maynard.

"It doesn't allow proper debate of the content. The opposition parties have to accept it or face an election. It just isn't fair," he said.

"It's a worry. It's a concern because these changes aren't made without reasons. Someone would have thought it out. What targets do they have in mind? They are not seen in the legislation."

The current law obliges the immigration department to consider, process and decide all applications to ensure every foreigner who meets the requirements is entitled to enter Canada. The new provisions give the minister the right to discard applications or retain them permanently – allowing the department to chop the backlog with no legal consequences.

The legal and advocacy community is campaigning against the changes and NDP immigration critic Olivia Chow (Trinity-Spadina) has vowed to introduce a motion to delete the amendment when Parliament resumes this month.

But Gerri MacDonald, president of the Refugee Lawyers' Association of Ontario, isn't hopeful.

"The Conservative government put in all these unwanted provisions in a budget bill knowing that the opposition doesn't want to force an election," she noted.

"It is disturbing."

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