Watchdog says immigration applicants need easier access to info on their files

·2 min read

OTTAWA — A federal watchdog says the Immigration Department needs to provide easier access to information for applicants seeking more than a bare-bones outline of their files.

In a new report Tuesday, information commissioner Caroline Maynard called for readier transparency as aspiring Canadians frequently have to resort to requests under the Access to Information Act.

"They need to give more information without having to wait for people to ask for it," Maynard said in an interview.

The recurring complaint to her office revolves around a lack of available information on details such as application status or the reasoning behind decisions, which can be tough to obtain through the department's online account portal, she said.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada received about 117,000 access-to-information requests in 2019-20, compared to fewer than 40,000 for all other federal institutions combined, the report says. Some 99 per cent of the former relate to immigration applications.

The deluge of document demands prompted a processing lag that resulted in a 670 per cent spike in complaints to the information commissioner last year, according to the report. The 4,298 complaints tower above the No. 2 complaint target, the RCMP, which garnered 355 complaints to Maynard's office.

She is calling on the Immigration Department to provide more timely responses to the requests as well as targeted measures to reduce the need for those demands in the first place.

"They have this great portal, but it just does not provide sufficient detail on the information that the these people were asking for," she said, contrasting the website with the Canada Revenue Agency's.

"If you wouldn't have all the information through the CRA account, you would have to make an access request. It would be ridiculous," Maynard said.

"This needs to be upgraded."

The department says it plans to modernize its digital platform in the next two to three years and launch a review that could result in more details about why an application was denied, all with a view to greater information for would-be residents.

In its response to the report, the department said Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino has confirmed it is "working to improve the availability of client immigration information through other means than access requests and find the root cause driving clients to submit requests."

Those requests come from permanent residents as well as applicants outside Canada who are trying to obtain a work or student visa, among other types. Many of the filings come via immigration consultants or lawyers, "either because of the language barriers or just because the system is a complex process," Maynard said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 25, 2021.

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press