Melanie Whitlow says she and her family had only recently started to get ahead financially when a complication with their immigration forms caused her husband to be fired from his job.
"We're down at least half our income," said Whitlow, 39. "We've had to stop being able to save money for future endeavours and our future life plans."
Whitlow and her husband, Steve Whitlow, 43, moved their family of four to Vancouver in August 2019 from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as part of British Columbia's provincial nominee program, which offers a path to permanent residency for skilled and semi-skilled workers in high-demand occupations.
It was a plan eight years in the making.
Whitlow is a registered nurse and had to complete the B.C. licensing process before finding an employer willing to nominate her. She eventually secured a position with Vancouver General Hospital, giving the family a path to permanent residency.
Steve, 43, did not have a job waiting for him, but accompanied his wife and found a job in July of last year with a steel company in Richmond.
The pair says things were going "pretty good," until a few weeks ago when, on Family Day, an oversight in their work permit renewal forms resulted in Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada denying their extension.
Whitlow says she completed the IRCC forms well in advance of the Feb. 4 deadline, but failed to include the necessary Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA) exemption number from her employer. She says it was an "oversight," given her employer had paid the corresponding fee and had the number, but that she was still able to submit the paperwork without this crucial bit of information.
Documents shared with CBC show IRCC followed up with them on a separate issue, regarding a different $100 fee from her employer, but never mentioned the missing LMIA number. An email to IRCC about the outstanding $100 balance shows the couple requested a follow-up phone call with IRCC staff.
Eleven days later their permits were denied, making it illegal for the couple to work. But while Melanie says VGH chose to "keep an eye" on the situation, Steve's employer opted to terminate him.
Legal experts say that while IRCC had the right to reject the couple's application over the missing number, their case reflects the sometimes impersonal touch of a department tasked with approving complicated forms — ones capable of throwing lives into turmoil if completed incorrectly.
"A human had to have read my note where I was clearly confused," said Melanie. "I don't know why they would deny a work permit instead of reaching out."
In its response to CBC's inquiry about the Whitlow file, IRCC acknowledged that both permits had been refused due to the missing LMIA exemption number "as well as the employer compliance fee."
"Mrs. Whitlow was advised by IRCC of her eligibility to apply for restoration and she reapplied," writes the department. "Her work permit has since been approved and is valid until February 18, 2023 ... Mr. Whitlow also applied for a restoration of his temporary status and this application is in progress."
Immigration officers quick to 'move on'
One immigration lawyer tells CBC that IRCC officers will reject applications that are missing information in order to "move on to their next task."
"Normally folks would hope that an officer would pick up the phone and call them," said Joshua Slayen of Larlee Rosenberg, Barristers & Solicitors. "It's very disheartening to see someone so negatively impacted by it."
Slayen says applicants have three options when their paperwork is refused or rejected, including restoration, reconsideration, or an appeal in Federal Court.
"There has to be some smarter way to do this," said Melanie Whitlow, acknowledging that many of those who interact with the IRCC may not speak English and therefore require more assistance.
While the couple is confident Steve's work permit will be restored, the couple says it's unlikely he will get his old job back.
"The IRCC doesn't pick the dominos up," said Steve Whitlow. "They only let them fall."