When Jennifer Hasenknopf said goodbye to her husband, Munir El Kadi at the Abu Dhabi International Airport in 2018, she had no idea they would be separated for almost three years.
Hasenknopf, 48, and El Kadi, 51, decided to move their family to Surrey, B.C., for a fresh start after they both lost their jobs in the U.A.E. But Hasenknopf, who is Canadian, and El Kadi, an Iraqi national, soon ran into immigration-related hurdles that would keep them apart for longer than they anticipated.
The couple are among many impacted by backlogs for spousal sponsorship applications, which if approved will permit the foreign spouse of a Canadian to reside in Canada as a permanent resident. The application takes an average processing time of 12 months, but during the pandemic many foreign partners have had to wait overseas for as long as two years — or more — to receive feedback on their application.
And while foreign spouses from visa-exempt countries, like the U.S. or the U.K., could enter Canada to visit their Canadian partners while they wait for their spousal sponsorship application to be processed, this was not the case for spouses like El Kadi.
Foreign spouses who are nationals of visa-required countries, including Iraq, are required to make another application for a visitor visa, also known as a Temporary Resident Visa or TRV, simply to enter Canada to visit their spouse.
According to Hasenknopf, her lawyer advised the couple not to bother applying for a TRV for El Kadi because it could further slow down their spousal sponsorship application. In 2020, only 32 per cent of spousal sponsorship applicants from Iraq were approved.
"I find it a complete insult and a complete injustice as a Canadian citizen that I couldn't bring my husband here on a visitor visa, I only saw him one time in two and half years," said Hasenknopf. "There's something wrong with the system."
'A very clear, two-tier system'
Vancouver immigration lawyer Will Tao calls it "a very clear, two-tier system" that gives visa-exempt spouses a range of options while placing unfair emotional and financial burdens on others, and requiring them to jump through more hoops to prove their relationship is genuine.
He also says this problem is not new, but long waits due to the pandemic, and the appointment of a new federal immigration minister have brought new urgency to calls to address the plight of spouses from visa-required countries, whose applications languish in visa offices long after the processing timelines laid out by the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) have passed.
"Until we really have a reckoning with the past history of Canada's racist, exclusionary immigration policies, and then combine that with the de-prioritization of family [reunification] ... these things are going to clash and cause problems," he said.
An impossible burden of proof
According to IRCC data, the overall approval rate for TRV applications dropped from 82 per cent in 2011 to 66 per cent in 2020, and lawyers like Tao say many spousal sponsorship applicants they work with are impacted.
The decision to issue a TRV often hinges on compliance with section 179(b) of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Regulations (IRPR), which states that to obtain a visitor visa, foreign spouses must prove they will leave Canada at the end of the authorized period for their visit.
To do this, applicants need to show evidence of stronger family and economic ties to their home country than to Canada — a burden of proof many critics say is impossible to meet for someone married to a Canadian.
"It doesn't make any sense," said Vancouver East NDP MP Jenny Kwan. "There is no question in my mind that our system has systemic issues and I think biases."
Calls to grant TRVs to foreign spouses
Hasenknopf and El Kadi were finally reunited in Canada in May 2021. Today they are calling on immigration minister Sean Fraser to grant TRVs to foreign spouses whose application files may have been caught in the spousal sponsorship backlog so they could temporarily reunite with their partners and families.
Kwan has also joined calls from family advocacy groups and the Canadian Bar association's immigration branch to remove or update section 179(b), and to provide TRVs to spouses who have been stuck in application processing queues for more than a year.
"Every MP in the country will know exactly what I'm talking about and will know this is a major issue for their constituents in their own riding, so it is in the best interests of the government to take action," said Kwan.
IRCC did not immediately respond to CBC's request for information on proposed changes to the spousal sponsorship or TRV application processes.