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Immigration applicants upset at Ottawa’s plan to wipe out backlog

By Nicholas Keung

Toronto Star

Little Songqiao Xu was only a year old when his parents applied to come to Canada in 2006.

Today, Songqiao is almost 8 — and his mother and father are still waiting for their immigration visas to be approved.

Their wait, in an immigration backlog that today includes 300,000 other skilled workers and their families, will soon be over. But the outcome is not what they had hoped.

The door to Canada will soon be shut for them with the Conservative government’s recent announcement it plans to return all skilled worker applications received before 2008 and wipe out the lengthy backlog.

“It is absolutely unfair,” said Songqiao’s mother Yan Xu, a high school English teacher in Suzhou, China. “What we lost is not only money, but our youth, our life and our dreams.”

The applicants, many from China, India and the Philippines, wonder why those who patiently followed the rules and queued up for their rightful turn to come to Canada are now being unfairly punished.

Ottawa says they can re-apply under the new skilled immigration program implemented after Feb. 27, 2008, where new regulations limit applications to a small number of occupations in need of highly skilled labour.

But the new qualifying job fields are so narrowly defined that many affected applicants, like Xu, will automatically be shut out.

“First-come-first-served is a universal value,” said Yun Li, another frustrated applicant who has been waiting in the backlog since 2007.

“The Canadian government let latecomers jump the queue and told the applicants in the backlog to wait for further processing, and finally slashed all of us without mercy,” said Li, who has a master’s degree in packaging technology. “What the Canadian government has done is draconian.”

A demonstration is planned next week in front of the Consulate General of Canada in Hong Kong, with applicants from other regions expected to follow suit.

Since Ottawa’s plan was revealed, immigration lawyers and consultants have been frantically answering calls from disillusioned clients overseas.

The Canadian Bar Association has struck a subcommittee to examine the proposed changes and investigate whether the government has the legal authority to stop processing the applications and have them refunded and returned.

“People have been calling, distraught. They just cannot believe it,” said Toronto immigration lawyer Mario Bellissimo, who chairs the subcommittee. “This is a wrong message to be sent by a government purported not to reward queue-jumpers.”

The plan has also created havoc for some lawyers with clients looking for a refund of the thousands of dollars in consulting fees, he added.

But Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said the move, while understandably unpopular, is necessary.

“I can understand their frustration and I regret the fact that they waited patiently in the queue only to find out that we’re returning their applications,” Kenney told the Star.

“If we don’t decisively deal with the old backlog, we’ll be carrying it well into the future. With this reimbursement of fees, we will be able to get to what we call ‘working inventory’ or a ‘just-in-time’ system by the first quarter of 2014.”

Regrets are not enough for affected applicants, however, many of whom put their lives on hold and worked around their immigration plans.

Maurice Xuanjin Zhu says he was hesitant about getting married and having children after he applied in 2006 as a chemist from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, fearing any change in status would jeopardize his position in the queue.

“Too many nights, I woke up in bed thinking of the next stage of processing . . . But I believe I am not the only one who gave up a lot of things and opportunities for a ‘better future,’ ” said Zhu, 31, who works in Shanghai.

“We need to question what integrity means to Citizenship and Immigration Canada. Immigration may be relieved from the heavy burden of the backlog, but Canada is going to lose in the future, for generations to come.

“No one will be willing to go there because it’s not a system we can trust.”

Yuanyuan Dong, another applicant, delayed plans to buy a new house and turned down job offers while waiting for the processing of her application, filed in 2007.

“I feel disappointed with Canada,” said Dong, 32, an electronic automation engineer from Shenzhen, who applied on behalf of her husband Hengjun Wang and son Changrui. “We are not numbers. We are people. We are not backlogs. We are assets.”

Some applicants said they are considering legal action against the government in a déjà vu of a 2002 class action lawsuit, which saw Ottawa lose after changing the immigration system to reduce the backlog.

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