Separated: Canadians are waiting to be reunited with their overseas partners

·4 min read

In four months, Sherri-Lee Koroma will celebrate the third anniversary of her marriage. But she's unsure if her husband will be by her side for the occasion.

“The uncertainty is just really, I don't know how to say, it's just unbearable. Every day you get off, you don't know what's going to happen,” said Koroma in a phone interview.

Koroma, who lives in St. John's, is a native Newfoundlander but her husband is from Sierra Leone, Africa, and is currently living in Germany. Koroma filed for an application to sponsor her husband, A.J. Koroma, to become a permanent resident in September 2019 and has been waiting to hear back from Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) for over 25 months.

“When you get married, you get married to be together and to start a new life. And that has been taken away from me for the first three years of my marriage now,” she said.

Koroma is 41 years old and has had plans to have a child with her husband after getting married in Germany. She said the long wait and separation have taken on a toll on her mental health.

Koroma is one of many Canadians who are separated from their overseas partners as a result of a complicated immigration system that is slowed down by the pandemic. Many Canadians and their overseas spouses have waited for years to reunite with each other. The online outcry over the long wait time has prompted Canadian advocacy groups and immigration lawyers to call for prioritization in family reunification.

Without permanent resident status, there’s no immediate pathway for A.J. Koroma to visit his wife in Canada and build a life here.

Applications from international spouses for a Temporary Residents Visa (TRV), which only allows the partner to visit but not work in the country, get routinely denied as it requires the candidate to prove that they have no strong ties to Canada.

The contradictory requirement stopped many spousal sponsorships from getting approved on a visitor visa.

Jenny Kwan, the federal NDP's critic for IRCC, sent an open letter last September to Marco E. L. Mendicino, minister of immigration, refugees and citizenship, calling on the government to create a special temporary resident visa as part of the family sponsorship process to ensure more timely reunification.

“Though we are in an unprecedented time, the pandemic has put a spotlight on the biggest vulnerabilities in our systems, and as a result, we are presented with a clear opportunity on how we can move forward and build on a better system into our recovery efforts,” the letter reads.

Before the pandemic, the average processing time for overseas spousal sponsorship was less than 12 months, according to IRCC’s website. The review process for overseas applicants involves the collaboration between the Canadian office in Sydney and a local visa office in the applicant’s home country.

The global pandemic has made that collaboration challenging.

“With COVID everything shut down; mails got shut down. The different visa offices were hit in different ways, and they all had different processes because they're all in different countries (with) different responses to the pandemic. So it just dramatically lengthens the processing time,” said Thiago Buchert, a Halifax-based immigration lawyer.

In March, IRCC expanded the case processing centre in Sydney, Nova Scotia, and hired 62 new employees In an effort to process more applications and reunite families faster. “Expanding the Sydney Case Processing Centre will create meaningful employment for 62 people here in Sydney–Victoria, while helping our region continue to grow and prosper through immigration,” said Jaime Battiste, member of Parliament for Sydney–Victoria.Buchert said before the pandemic, the process worked pretty well as the local visa offices had a better understanding of the cultural aspects of the application. “I’m happily married and I don't like being away from my spouse for even a few days so I can't imagine what it's like to essentially have your life delayed for years like this. So it's really important that it gets prioritized,” said Buchert.

Lu Xu, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Chronicle Herald