Focus: MPs push for direct access to representatives

MPs inundated with immigration inquiries from constituents could significantly cut their workload by allowing authorized representatives direct access to officials within Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, lawyers in the field say.

For almost a decade, an IRCC hotline has provided elected politicians and their staff members with a route to case-specific information about the status of immigration files.

But that has made MPs a magnet for frustrated applicants unable to get answers from any other channels, including the IRCC call centre, about cases that have strayed beyond normal processing times, according to Scarborough Centre MP Salma Zahid. She told a recent meeting of the House of Commons’ Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration that when cases fall through the cracks, they tend to land at her feet and those of her colleagues.   

“Very many of the requests that my office receives — and the same applies to all MPs’ offices — are simple requests for information on the status of their cases. They would like to know what stage their case is at. These requests are simple but very time-consuming,” Zahid said during the Dec. 13 session, adding that she would rather offload some of the work to leave her free to focus on “more complicated cases where specific issues have arisen.”

Mark Holthe, an immigration lawyer based in Lethbridge, Alta., says one solution would be to give lawyers like him, as well as regulated immigration consultants, access to the same phone numbers that MPs use to tackle inquiries.    

“MPs are like the new call centre agents,” Holthe says. “If they don’t want to take that responsibility, lawyers are willing to handle it. If we could have direct lines to program managers at inland offices and visa offices overseas, then a lot of these issues will disappear. I’m surprised more MPs haven’t got onboard with this idea, since for some of them, immigration requests probably account for more than 75 per cent of their constituency work.”

Richard Kurland, an immigration lawyer with Kurland Tobe, says it makes no sense to deny lawyers case-specific details when they are so readily available to MPs.

“With access to information, the professionals can do their job. It’s as if you’re asking medical professionals to diagnose and treat by only allowing them access to their patient from the waist up,” Kurland says. “Why deny access to the information when the professionals can help the process, not hinder it?”

Holthe says sending clients to their local MP has always been a last resort. However, it’s becoming a more and more popular route as traditional sources of information dry up, he says.

In days gone by, Holthe says, clients could have visited a walk-up counter at one of IRCC’s inland immigration centres to find out more about their file. After they all closed, Holthe says, he could still call up contacts inside the department to clarify applicants’ status, but communications crackdowns under the last federal government have left many immigration officers unwilling or unable to speak.

“I had colleagues I worked with who I could just call and ask to look up a file and see what’s in the system. Then I could get on the phone with a program manager and, if there was a mistake, we could get it resolved,” Holthe says. “Those times are long gone. Periodically, a lawyer will get a direct number and we will share them around, but there are so many barriers to prevent it. Now, you’re more likely to have to file an appeal in Federal Court or make a mandamus application to force them to process a stalled-out application.

With call centres dolling out generic advice, Holthe says that, in many cases, the only real option for clients who want to see what’s going on with their case is to file a freedom of information request that could take 30 days to fulfil.

“Everything seems designed to make it impossible to speak to a live officer,” Holthe says. “When you need an answer quick, the prospect of a 30-day wait is way too long. The only place people can turn is to an MP because they have to be answered. MPs can get the same information with a three-day turnaround.”

Toronto immigration lawyer Ron Poulton says MPs are particularly useful for clients with problems at visa posts outside Canada, since those tend to be the most closed to external communications. However, sometimes, he says, the information they get back can exacerbate the prospective immigrant’s anxiety about their application.  

“The problem with MPs and their staff is that they are not immigration experts, which can create more problems. They can sometimes come back, despite their best intentions, with misleading information. Or they may have assumed what the visa officer said was correct when someone with more experience would have challenged them,” Poulton says.

In one case, a client of Poulton’s was informed by his MP that his years-old file didn’t exist as far as IRCC was concerned.

“Of course, it does exist; it turned out there was a mistake when they transmitted the file number, but in the meantime, the client went crazy,” he says.  

Still, Poulton says, talking with MPs is usually a better option for clients than simply staying in the dark, even if the process can sometimes resemble a game of broken telephone.

“The client comes back and tells me what the MP has been able to find out about what’s happening, and then I can try to analyze what it all means,” Poulton says.

In a recent submission to the federal government, the Canadian Bar Association’s national immigration law section urged IRCC to improve its client service delivery by working with lawyers.

“Developing policies and methods to enhance communications with immigration lawyers on applications to avoid unnecessary delays, errors and appeals will also improve efficiency and client satisfaction,” the submission reads.

In a statement to Law Times, IRCC spokeswoman Nathalie Schofield said MPs are among the stakeholders being consulted by the ministry as part of its service improvement initiative.

“Recently, we have made changes to the call centre interactive voice response options to better serve callers with inquiries related to their Family Class application,” she said. “As we determine which approaches work well, we will implement changes across our other lines of business as appropriate.”

Poulton says he has already seen improvements in the level of openness with government officials since Justin Trudeau’s government took office in late 2015.

“Under Stephen Harper, a lot of doors shut, and it became impossible. I was told by officers I’d known personally for years that they couldn’t speak to me anymore. There was a lot of fear in the department and an attitude of mistrust of lawyers,” he says. “It’s getting better, but [it’s] far from perfect. If there was complete openness, it would be a much better system with a lot less litigation and more consensual decision-making.”

He says a recent case of his was a perfect example of the value of a more open IRCC. Poulton’s client lived for years in Canada without status, but she filed a humanitarian application to stay in the country legally with her autistic daughter. The immigration officer handling the file then reached out directly to Poulton to let him know she had come across information that could potentially damage her case.   

That gave Poulton a chance to respond and correct the officer, ultimately resulting in the approval of his client’s application.

“Under the previous government, the application would have been denied and we would have had two years of litigation to maybe get to the same result,” Poulton says. “It’s more efficient and more just.”

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