September 22, 2023

Stubborn Canadian Demographics Pressuring IRCC to Super-Innovate Now!

Posted by Mario Bellissimo - Bellissimo Law Group PC

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada’s (IRCC) innovation/modernization initiatives are ongoing. Like any large organization, change is constant. Many news stories have been circulating about the housing crisis being attributable to a huge migrant influx, Canada’s broken immigration program and the insurmountable challenges it faces. For one, it is important to be cautious about singular attributions for serious socio-economic challenges like housing shortages. Further, it is difficult to definitively argue a program is broken and down for the count when immigration processing remains a life-line to our country’s growth. Having said that, there are serious issues afoot and the pressure as I see it is for IRCC to super innovate because the landscape is quickly changing, perhaps faster than at any time in my nearly three decades of being involved with immigration delivery.

The latest demographics from June 2023 demonstrate that Canada’s aging population and low fertility rates continue to stubbornly inhibit Canada’s economic growth. We are on par to become a super aged country like Japan by 2028.  In the first quarter of 2023 alone, 98% of the population growth in Canada was from permanent and temporary immigration. StatsCan reports that “Canada’s population was estimated at 39,858,480 on April 1, 2023, an increase of 292,232 people (+0.7%) from January 1, 2023. This was the highest rate of growth in a first quarter for which comparable data are available (since 1972) and is a continuation of the higher growth rates observed over the previous four quarters […] Canada welcomed 145,417 immigrants in the first quarter, the highest for a single quarter for which comparable data are available and a record first quarter across all provinces. The country also saw net gains of 155,300 non-permanent residents in the first quarter, thanks in part to an increase in the number of work permit holders”[1]. We have now crossed the 40-million-person threshold and that does not account for all the non-permanent residents in Canada. I delve deeper into this important factor in our latest issue of ImmQuest. The pressure to innovate and facilitate immigration delivery is mounting.

In our brief submitted to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration on backlog reduction last year, we made a number of recommendations including:

  1. Development of New Organizational Culture and Behavioral Training
  2. Leveraging New Technology
  3. Responsible Implementation of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Other Technology
  4. Application of Services Fee Act to IRCC processing
  5. New Temporary and Permanent Residence Streams
  6. New Caps and Queues
  7. Creation of an Office of an Official Immigration Ombudsperson
  8. All Forms and Messaging Should be in Plain Language
  9. Public Portrayal of Authorized Representatives Must Change & Needed Consultation
  10. Limited Use of Ministerial Instructions Only for Pilot Projects

Let me touch upon five recommendations relevant to our discussion regarding super-charging the innovation at IRCC. First, it is important to acknowledge that the backlog is improving and is unquestionably a reflection of many factors, including underfunding, the practice of establishing annual quotas, and the underlying policy choices that drive those quotas. It is a delicate tapestry that requires surgical precision to rectify the problem. Given the enormity and complexity of the backlog, meaningful change to the Canadian immigration system will require years of multi-stakeholder consultation and co-ordination. There will also need to be technological, cultural, and philosophical shifts in immigration policy and delivery to super-charge this innovation.

1. New IRCC Training Lens

Amongst the greatest challenges facing IRCC that must be acknowledged is the lack of transparency and accessibility. Despite many laudable efforts to modernize the immigration system, there remain significant barriers to communicating with IRCC. The Call Centre has limited utility. IRCC’s on the ground working relationship with authorized representatives, which should expedite processing, is often distant at best. These limits on communication in turn result in delays, litigation, and repeat or incorrectly filed applications, which overwhelm the system. Philosophical facilitation and transparency are sorely needed, and it begins with training.

The necessity for additional training was confirmed in a study by Deloitte, where it was determined that there is an opportunity within government departments to increase efficiency by improving organizational culture and behaviour.[2] Deloitte suggests that IRCC should shift to an outcome-driven approach with an emphasis on training, high-level decision-making, and motivation. Leveraging technology (see below) and a seismic shift to facilitation, transparency, and improved communication would be groundbreaking, and would support the required transition in culture.

2. Leveraging New Technology

Substantial time and resources are wasted by applicants, IRCC and even Members of Parliament seeking simple updates on applicant files. In our brief on the Canadian International Student Program[3], we spoke to the need for real-time access to notes on file. This would include information on the stage of processing, place of processing, processing notes and/or reasons for refusal. Access to notes would allow for concerns to be identified earlier, help preserve the individualization of the process, and act as a second set of eyes for IRCC by those equally interested in the process and the outcome – the applicants IRCC serves. This will in turn support faster processing in certain cases, as issues can be better identified and addressed expediently.

A focus should additionally be placed on establishing online informational sessions and video interviews rather than solely relying on one-way electronic-based communication. This would offer a quick and efficient way to resolve issues for multiple routine processing matters or areas of confusion that otherwise bottleneck the progress of a file. It would also reintroduce desperately needed two-way touch points on files which help to humanize the process, de-escalate conflicts, and improve transparency and accessibility.

Finally, and in support of this effort to leverage technology, it should be highlighted that IRCC has access to enormous volumes of data on processing streams, including processing times per type of stream, number of applicants, efficiency of various visa offices, etc. This gold mine of data presents IRCC with an opportunity to gain insight into how visa offices process applications from when they are received until a decision is made. This information can be used to determine how best to approach processing moving forward in order to better standardize global processing.[4]

3. Responsible Implementation of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Other Technology

I spoke before Parliament on 7 April 2022 regarding Canada’s use of AI in the immigration context, and we provided two comprehensive briefs on the role of AI in immigration processing.[5] It was underscored that while AI can help streamline applications and increase efficiency, we must be cautious. The submitted briefs provided ten recommendations on how to implement AI while maintaining the discretionary nature of decision-making and mitigating bias, privacy incursions and other key participatory rights. With the proper safeguards in place, AI and other technology could be revolutionary. AI is currently being used to pre-screen applications at a far faster rate. The use of AI can be expanded to support data collation, the management of multiple application categories, and the production and enforcement of caps and queues.  The possibilities are exciting.

4. New Temporary and Permanent Residence Streams

The introduction of more nuanced streams that better target the wide variety of immigration purposes will increase efficiency and control intake within program areas. Targeted streams would clarify (not complicate) requirements for potential applicants and expedite family reunification, increase economic benefit and diversity. Varied streams could be more responsive to the diverse reasons permanent and temporary migrants seek entry to Canada. It would also allow the flexibility to assign targets and prioritize certain streams over others, and even pause as required.

We have seen this recommendation in action recently: Category-based Express Entry Draws

Based on labour market data, IRCC announced in June 2023 that it will be inviting top-ranking candidates in 6 categories who can help Canada meet specific economic goals. Each year, based on labour market data, the categories will change. For 2023, the categories are[6]:

  • French-language proficiency
  • Healthcare occupations
  • Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) occupations
  • Trade occupations
  • Transport occupations
  • Agriculture and agri-food occupations

Similarly, on 27 June 2023 at Collision 2023, the Honourable Sean Fraser, then Minister of IRCC, launched Canada’s first-ever Tech Talent Strategy in response to the rise of AI and technological advancement in general. This strategy involved additions and improvements to Canada’s existing immigration programs[7]. We have just seen the introduction of Express Entry candidates with work-experience in transport occupations. So nuanced. So welcomed.

5. New Caps and Queues

It follows that the varied temporary and permanent resident streams should have clearly established and well communicated eligibility criteria, targets, processing times and caps. Applicants should be advised that applications will not be accepted and/or processed once caps are met. If applications are submitted after these targets are achieved, then they are returned.

The introduction of caps and queues for TRVs is particularly appropriate given that many visitors to Canada hope to travel during specified timelines. Any delay in processing ultimately renders their applications moot. Yet these applications remain in queue despite no longer serving a purpose, increasing the delay and inventory. A cap that reflects available resources can help address this problem and effectively reduce the number of applications that need to be processed.

A similar cap and queue approach should be taken for study permit applications as I have written and spoken extensively about in the media and elsewhere. Not only would the diversification of streams help to reduce the backlog in permanent resident applications, but adding in caps for study permits from diverse types of institutions (i.e., University vs. College) would additionally allow for the better identification and direction of resources.

To Close .  .  .

The possibility for a more measured, nuanced, and effective immigration delivery model is within reach. A national immigration plan that is multi-tiered with new streams would be transformative when introduced in combination with effective re-training, leveraging of technology in an innovative, transparent, and responsible fashion, and the engagement of all stakeholders. Short term fixes and tinkering will not deliver desired outcomes. IRCC also cannot embark on this journey alone. Any advancement in processing will require the cooperation, vision, and assets of various stakeholders. If undertaken altogether, we can envision a future where we distance ourselves from non-transparency, inaccessibility, delays, uneven processing, bias, and marginalization.

If we put in the collective work now, pressing for thoughtful action through collaboration, oversight, transparency and responsible implementation, where IRCC decision-making and delivery are shining examples of innovative, real-time results that are applicant-centric and guided by fairness and inclusion.  We can meet this challenge no matter the pressure that is on the horizon.