Crackdown on immigration scams blamed for growing backlog of citizenship applications

·National Affairs Contributor
Slated to be introduced in 2015, the new "expression of interest system" will give employers a key role in selecting future Canadians through job offers.

The Conservative government has trumpeted its 40-per-cent reduction in pending immigration applications but now we're hearing those who do come here and want to become citizens are also facing a longer wait.

CBC News reports almost 350,000 permanent residents of Canada are waiting to swear their oath of allegiance, according Citizenship and Immigration Canada statistics from last September. That compares with just under 190,000 in 2007, the year after the Conservatives took power.

For a country that admits an average 250,000 newcomers each year, according to department stats, that adds up to a pretty long line. The department says about 160,000 immigrants are granted citizenship each year at 1,900 ceremonies across Canada. So you can see where this is headed.

According to CBC News, the problem seems to be an increase in the length of time it takes to process "routine" applications. In 2008, applications took 12 to 15 months to pass through the system, according to department data cited by CBC. By last January 2012, processing time had increased to between 15 and 18 months, then up to 21 months last August and most recently 23 months, CBC News said.

So what's the hold-up?

The department told CBC News that the rise in the number of immigration applications is a major factor, coupled with policy changes in foreign countries regarding dual citizenship that have boosted citizenship applications here by 30 per cent since 2006.

[ Related: More immigrants failing the citizenship test; how would you do? ]

But immigration lawyers, public-service union officials and applicants themselves say the government has made the process more complicated and time-consuming.

Egyptian immigrant Hoda Shawki told CBC News she applied for citizenship two years ago and initially the process was simple. But last year, after she'd written her citizenship test, Shawki was asked to fill out a "residence questionnaire" to prove she has been living in Canada.

The Conservatives have been trying to crack down on scams, often co-ordinated by so-called immigration consultants, where immigrants return to their home countries and use fraudulent means to create the impression they're living in Canada long enough to qualify for citizenship.

Shawki, who lived in Germany and the United States before coming to Canada, said she was required to provide documents such as utility bills, pay stubs and job-performance evaluations to support her record of residency, among other things.

"It really consumed me for about two months," Shawki told CBC News. "It was a daunting task.

"If you've really been living here and have no intention of going elsewhere, you have a big life and the documentation showing this life is extensive. And this is what CIC is asking us to provide."

[ Related: Fraud crackdown increases number of Canadians having their citizenship revoked ]

Shawki said since sending off the material, she's been given no idea when the government will deal with her application. She has been unable to find out the status of her file for the last year.

Immigration lawyers told CBC News applications requiring a residence questionnaire can take up to two extra years to process. Citizenship and Immigration said they are not considered routine.

The extra paperwork, especially for applicants who leave Canada and return, is adding to the workload of department bureaucrats, a union spokesman said.

"They have the same number of employees they had before, and with the added processes they've put in for somebody who is leaving and coming back, that's what's causing the backlog," Steve McCuaig, the national representative for the Canada Employment Immigration Union, told CBC News.

The added scrutiny isn't catching more fraud, he said.

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