December 24, 2019

Artificial Intelligence in Canadian Immigration Law and Practice – What’s Happening?

Posted by Mario Bellissimo - Bellissimo Law Group PC


I have been speaking throughout Canada on the use of artificial intelligence in the world of immigration law.  Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) has been quietly investigating and expanding its use of “artificial intelligence solutions” (AI) since as early as 2014 in the processing of permanent and temporary migrant applications. There is great interest in AI, a shiny new tool with great promise, as to its scope, potential and how it may change the world of Canadian immigration.

Quietly, AI has already become part of Canadian immigration processing, altering the manner in which applications will and are being assessed while presenting both new opportunities and challenges for immigrant applicants. The implications are enormous.  So I thought I would write a few blogs on this topic.  Let’s first begin, though, by trying to understand what is AI and where is it being used to date in the areas of immigration law and processing.

You may not recognize AI but AI recognizes you . . .

Have you ordered an Uber using your smartphone recently? Looked up directions on an app before driving to an interview? Asked Siri to tell you a joke? For many Canadians, the use of smartphones has become commonplace; we stay connected, check in on our friends, check up on our kids, and allow our AI-driven-pocket-data-collectors to continuously monitor our locations, track our habits, and process scores of information streams. And if you find the process of unlocking your phone using face-recognition software somewhat novel and snappy, consider this: the number of processes which run “inside” your newly unboxed smartphone could be around five-trillion… per second.

No big deal. Or is it? 

According to a recently released study from Deloitte’s Omnia AI program, over three-quarters of Canadians use smartphones each day, and yet, a third of study respondents report never having used AI technology. The same report ventures a guess as to why: only 4% of Canadians surveyed could confidently articulate what AI is, or how it works. Everyday people carry around, interact with, and rely on AI technology that most do not even know exists.  The future is here!

 What is “AI”?

There is no singular strict definition of AI. Perhaps the simplest explanation is that AI is an “activity devoted to making machines intelligent” which “enables an entity to function appropriately and with foresight in its environment”. Data is the raw material that powers the “machine” intelligence.

Application in the Immigration Context to Date

How has AI been incorporated into the Canadian immigration context to date? The information available is piecemeal, given out in public statements, a Request for Information (RFI) and a stakeholder presentation in April 2019 given by members of that organization. There is no record or notice, though, announcing IRCC’s official use of AI technology. In fact, the authors of what is the most comprehensive study currently available on the use of AI in the Canadian immigration context, Petra Molnar and Lex Gill, both lawyers and research fellows at the University of Toronto’s CitizenLab, submitted 27 separate Access to Information requests in an attempt to obtain information on use of AI technology that have (at least so far) gone unfulfilled.  We have made a number of requests ourselves.

IRCC has made some public statements on its intentions to use AI. Beginning in 2014 IRCC announced a project focused on the development of tools using predictive analytics capable of completing tasks performed by immigration officials. Plans for these tools included that they be used to sort low, medium and high-risk applications. This new technology would also purportedly be used to “identify the merits of an immigration application, spot potential red flags for fraud and weigh all these factors to recommend whether an applicant should be accepted or refused”. What this means, though, is not easily discernible.

The first confirmed instance of the use of “machine learning technology” in practice, though, did not come until April 2018 when a pilot project was initiated by IRCC for processing on-line temporary resident applications from China specifically. A similar project was announced in August of that same year, but for processing of temporary resident applications from India. So AI has been introduced to the world of immigration law and in turn to how people’s applications will be processed moving forward.  In the next blog, I will discuss some of the concerns with the expanding use and what it may mean to the processing of applications.

Thank you for reading.