When Panita Chumchantha decided to tie the knot this past September, she wanted her Thai roots represented at her Canadian wedding.
The 31-year-old, who was adopted by a Canadian family years ago, longed to have her biological sister fly over from Thailand for her special day. But the wish went unfulfilled: her sister was denied a visitor visa by Canadian officials in Bangkok.
“They just said she was not a member of my family anymore,” Chumchantha said. “I just wanted her to come for my ceremony, and then they refused it.”
Shocked and frustrated, Chumchantha and her fiance pressed on with the wedding despite the bride’s Thai side being noticeably absent. “I’m really upset about it,” she said. “It’s just one day in my life.”
Such emotional anecdotes are why NDP immigration critic Olivia Chow is pushing Ottawa to put in place an appeals process for those who feel wronged by Canada’s visitor visa system.
“There’s a lot of unfair stories,” said Chow, the MP for the Toronto riding of Trinity-Spadina, who has heard countless tales of family members unable to attend weddings, funerals or births in Canada because a temporary resident visa, or visitor visa, was denied, with no opportunity for recourse.
“For families that cannot come together for those special moments, I think that’s exceedingly cruel.”
Figures from Citizenship and Immigration Canada show about 200,000 applications for temporary resident visas are turned down every year, but there’s no mechanism in place to allow applicants to appeal those decisions – something Chow said she considers an injustice.
She has asked the House of Commons committee on citizenship and immigration to study the issue, and has a private member’s bill in the works which, if passed, would establish an appeals process. She also plans to “continue to apply the pressure on (Citizenship and Immigration Minister) Jason Kenney.”
That push, however, comes at a time when the federal government is aggressively tightening up its refugee system and restricting the number of people seeking asylum in Canada after using temporary visas to enter the country.
“It’s more than just the visitors visa, I think,” said Jeffrey Reitz, a professor at the University of Toronto who specializes in immigration studies.
A proposal like Chow’s, it could be argued, has the potential to open the door to more refugee claims, which may be made once a temporary visa holder lands on Canadian soil, he said.
“It makes sense to me that this should be put forward,” Reitz said. “I don’t know what chance it has of succeeding.”
Would-be refugees whose visa applications are turned down have little recourse beyond resubmitting their application or seeking leave from the Federal Court of Canada for a judicial review – a costly and time-consuming process that few have the means to pursue.
In July, Ottawa imposed visa requirements on Mexico in response to a surge in the number of Mexican immigrants claiming refugee status on Canadian soil, which had nearly tripled since 2005. Similar restrictions were also imposed on travellers from the Czech Republic.
At the time, Kenney said more than half the Czech claims were being prematurely abandoned or withdrawn – an indication that many may be making false claims – while only 11 per cent of Mexican claims processed in 2008 were accepted.
The surge in the latter is attributed in part to a bloody drug war that has been raging for years in Mexico.
Canadians wishing to express their support for Chow’s campaign have been doing so by way of Facebook, logging on to the social networking site and urging Ottawa to take action in a group called “Calling for Visitor Visa Fairness.”
Each application is judged on its own merits, said Citizenship and Immigration Canada spokesman Nicolas Fortier. “The onus is really on the applicant to satisfy the visa officer that they’re coming to Canada for temporary purposes.”
Kenney refused to discuss Chow’s proposal for the purposes of this story, but when asked about it during committee hearings last month, he indicated that he’s confident in the ability of those who evaluate visa applications to make accurate assessments.
“People sometimes have a hard time understanding the decisions of visa officers,” he said, “but they often don’t know the particulars of the case in hand.”
Anyone who pays the $75 fee to apply for a visitor visa is entitled to know why they are being turned down, and to appeal the decision, Chow said.
Geography seemed to make a difference, she added. European countries, for instance, have a visitor visa approval rate of about 84 per cent, compared with just 43 per cent for the north Indian city of Chandigarh.
“The refusal rate is very, very uneven.”
Kenney, on the other hand, has insisted repeatedly that no geographic bias exists at Citizenship and Immigration Canada. Instead, he said, high levels of fraud and unscrupulous consultants recommending ways to sneak into the country drive down visa approval rates in certain areas.
Chow’s proposed appeals system would be modelled after systems that exist in the United Kingdom and Australia. In the U.K., applicants can appeal to an independent judicial body at no charge and have their case processed in 28 days.
Chow is also calling for a more transparent process that would require the ministry to provide detailed reasons when visitor visas are rejected.
It all sounds good, but would likely pose some practical challenges to a system that’s already heavily burdened with applications, experts say.
“It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do this, but it would require a significant increase in resources,” said Christopher Worswick, a professor who studies immigration issues at Carleton University in Ottawa.
Worswick recommended an appeal fee that could be refunded if an applicant won their case.
An appeals process would also send the message to officials in embassies overseas that there is an oversight mechanism in place, thus addressing concerns applicants have brought up about biased visa officers operating in certain countries, he added.
“There should be a way to construct a system that’s fair.”