February 10, 2014
New Study: A Rare Look Inside Canadian Visa Offices
One in four new permanent residents to Canada in 2012 arrived by way of the Family Reunification Program. Many of these new permanent residents were sponsored by their Canadian spouses.
Citizenship and Immigration Canada has recently taken measures to tighten the rules for sponsoring a spouse to live in Canada. Identifying genuine marital partnerships and marriages of convenience is a task that falls to Canada’s many visa officers stationed around the world. Their role is to screen the relationships of applicants for signs of fraud before the non-Canadian spouse arrives in Canada.
McMaster University Professor Vic Satzewich was granted the exceptionally rare opportunity to follow Canadian visa officers through their many cases to look closely at this assessment process. His new study “Canadian Visa Officers and the Social Construction of ‘Real’ Spousal Relationships” was published last week in the Canadian Review of Sociology. The study is based on 220 hours of field work conducted at 11 Canadian visa offices located in Europe, the United States, the Middle East, South America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia between 2010 and 2012. It is only the second time a researcher has been granted access to what Satzewich refers to as the “black box” of Canadian visa offices.
He observed that visa officers evaluate the credibility of a spousal sponsorship application by using their knowledge what ‘normal’ relationships look like in the local culture. A few areas of concern can flag an application for an in-person interview. Examples include:
- Applicants from a poor region where fraud is common, and who require a visa to enter Canada
- Couples who have not met before their marriage or do not share a common language
- Couples who do not know details of their partner’s past and present personal lives
- Couples who appear incompatible in terms of age, values, or physical appearance
- Non-Canadian spouses who have previously lived in Canada
- Applicants who are facing deportation who suddenly marry a Canadian citizen
Written letters and emails, as well as photos are reviewed to assess the validity of a relationship. Excessive expression of love can actually discredit the applicant because it is expected that couples would discuss many topics. The concern is that letters may be ingenuine, created specifically for the visa officer to read. Photos often show who and how many friends and family attended a wedding, and if this is a normal size wedding in the local culture. What is normal will vary by culture and geographic regions, and the visa officer’s assessment is meant to reflect this.
A public perception that personal bias may influence the way a visa officer uses his or her discretionary powers is discussed in the study. Satzewich observed that in Canada’s system it is possible for cultural prejudice to enter into a decision, however the study found no examples of this occurring. He noted that some regions have higher rejection rates than others, but cautioned against interpreting this as cultural or racial bias on the part of the visa officers. Many other factors may be involved. The author concluded his study remarking that visa officers were motived to uphold the integrity of the immigration system.The author was surprised at how few face to face interviews are actually conducted, and identified the trend toward a more paper based approval process as a possible area for further research.