Immigration in the Time of COVID-19: Issues and Challenges

It was an honour to contribute to the study by the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration (CIMM) on the impact of COVID-19 on the immigration system.

The final report can be found here; Download Immigration in the time of COVID-19 Report of the Standing Committee.

There has been massive disruption to our immigration system. Disruption very often leads to change; it seems clear that IRCC and the other stakeholders within the immigration system will have to embrace the greater use of technology from application to adjudication. Chantal Desloges and I both touched upon the possibility of technology as an aid to both adjudication and administrative efficiency.

Numerous witnesses support IRCC’s digitizing processing streams and use of virtual interviews and ceremonies, and support the IRB’s use of virtual hearings. They advocated keeping these innovations in place after the pandemic is finished.[13] Raj Sharma, Managing Partner, Stewart Sharma Harsanyi, commented on the IRB beginning to use remote refugee hearings and appeals after having delayed all cases:

At the beginning of this pandemic, eligibility determinations, refugee hearings and appeals were cancelled and delayed … which added to the grief and anxiety of those affected by the pandemic. However, hearings have resumed, with health and safety protocols, at the refugee protection division, and most appeals at the immigration appeal division will be done remotely. … Eliminating in-person attendance could lead to a cascade of savings and increase access to justice.[14]

While the IRB brought in remote hearings to allow refugee hearings and appeals during the pandemic, these same measures could increase savings and increase access to hearings in non-pandemic times. As Mr. Sharma stated more generally, “[c]rises can reveal not only existing shortcomings but also opportunities to accelerate change already in progress.”[15]

As Chantal rightly points out, if the IRB can hold virtual hearings, there is no reason why the visa office cannot conduct remote interviews.

While witnesses acknowledged security and trackability concerns, they stated that these can be mitigated. Indeed, the government accepts greater security risks in other, more sensitive domains. As Chantal Desloges, Senior Partner, Desloges Law Group, noted:

If the Refugee Board can hold a refugee hearing online, it is beyond me why a visa officer cannot also interview a spousal sponsorship applicant or a visa applicant online. This technology is out there. It’s available to everyone. It’s as secure as it could possibly be. … I think the government just has to accept that there’s going to be a little bit of a risk that will have to be taken in order to bring the system into the 21st century.[19]

Frankly, given what I’ve heard over the years, conducting remote interviews (that can and should be recorded) will not only allow permit increased efficiency and flexibility, it will also ensure that interviews are conducted fairly.

“Nothing discloses real character like the use of power. It is easy for the weak to be gentle. Most people can bear adversity. But if you wish to know what a man really is, give him power. This is the supreme test…” -Robert Ingersoll

Transparency and oversight are necessary given the significant power we accord overseas visa officers mandated to determine the future of a couple/a family.

There are numerous other recommendations within the Report, and one can only hope that IRCC continues to improve, even incrementally, the various means by which individuals come to visit, study, work, seek protection, and live in this country.