Separated families anxiously await reunion amid immigration processing delays

·4 min read
Faustina Mambwere says she's been raising her one-year-old child alone as they wait for her family's permanent residency application to be approved. (Submitted by Faustina Mambwere - image credit)
Faustina Mambwere says she's been raising her one-year-old child alone as they wait for her family's permanent residency application to be approved. (Submitted by Faustina Mambwere - image credit)

Faustina Mambwere had long had visions of what she calls the "Canadian dream" — a home, a family and stable employment. She says it's why she decided to move to B.C. after growing up in Zimbabwe

But her optimism and hope has descended into stress and anxiety in the time since she applied for permanent residency on behalf of her and her family. She submitted her application 18 months ago and hasn't heard anything since, not whether it's been received or is being processed

During that time, she's been separated from her husband, who won't be able to move to Canada until the application is approved, while she raises their one-year-old child by herself.

"I'm stuck," she told CBC News. "I would like my husband to come here to he can be a part of our lives. He's been missing out on a lot of things. He missed out on our daughter's first birthday.

"It hurts me, and it keeps me up at night."

Mambwere's story is far from unique — she's among hundreds of thousands of prospective Canadian residents who are awaiting permanent residency status, a process that has slowed down during the pandemic, according to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. Nearly two years into it, most of the department's in-person offices remain closed.

However, immigration lawyers say particularly lengthy processing times for people who are citizens of visa-required countries, including Zimbabwe, were issues long before the pandemic.

"Because of their country of citizenship, these delays arise," said Will Tao, an immigration lawyer with Heron Law Offices. "It's really broken down the impetus of what immigration should be doing, which is emphasizing family reunification and getting spouses together sooner.

Tao is among many advocates who have been calling for Canada to prioritize family reunification for residency applicants. On Dec. 16, Prime Minster Justin Trudeau, in an immigration mandate letter, announced reduced processing times would become a priority.

Submitted by Faustina Mambwere
Submitted by Faustina Mambwere

A long journey

Mambwere, 32, was born in Zimbabwe. She grew up with dreams of going to school and having a career but because of the country's economic collapse and hyperinflation, she says there were few opportunities for work.

She came to Canada in 2017 to study, and after graduating, took up work as a senior bookkeeper at a Vancouver-based non profit.

She married her husband in 2019, who is also from Zimbabwe and currently lives in the United States, where he has a green card. In July 2020, she filed a permanent residency application in Canada on behalf of the family and has been waiting for it to be processed ever since. Shortly after she applied, she gave birth to her daughter — who she has been taking care of by herself ever since.

"I don't know what's going to happen. I don't know if it's going to improve," she said. "I feel like [my work] performance is going down because I am stressed and I'm depressed."

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press
Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Common challenges

According to recent data received from IRCC, Canada had a backlog of nearly 1.8 million immigration applications as of Oct. 27, including:

  • 548,195 permanent residence applications, including 112,392 refugee applications.

  • 775,741 temporary residence applications (study permits, work permits, temporary resident visas and visitor extensions).

  • 468,000 Canadian citizenship applications.

The queue has also grown longer as Canada carries out a two-year plan to welcome 40,000 refugees from Afghanistan, who are receiving priority processing.

Tao says the country should also look at prioritizing families who are separated during the immigration process, particularly if there are children involved.

"Where there are kids in the relationship, I feel like someone should prioritize those applications, because in those contexts, it presumes there is a child in the relationship, that more likely than not the relationship is genuine, and the primary purpose is for them to reunify," said Tao.

According to Trudeau's Dec. 16 mandate letter to Canada's immigration minister, the ministry is being asked to "work to strengthen family reunification by introducing electronic applications for family reunification and implementing a program to issue temporary resident status to spouses and children abroad while they wait for the processing of their permanent residency application."

It's welcome news for advocates like Tao, but he says time is of the essence.

"It's one thing to say it, but it's one thing to actually implement the policies."

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