Saturday, April 10, 2010

Canada fails to speed up visas for Haitian family members: critics

Fri Apr 02 2010
Andrew Chung
Quebec Bureau

MONTREAL – While more than a million Haitians remain homeless, many still without protection from the driving rains, Canada has not fulfilled its promise to accelerate the reunification of family members here in the wake of the Jan. 12 earthquake.

In fact, examining numbers provided by Citizenship and Immigration Canada, the government has given virtually the same number of permanent resident visas as last year by this time, and appears to be well under its own immigration targets for Haiti.

The number of permanent resident visas issued between Jan. 13 and Mar. 27 – the latest statistics available – was 311. Last year 302 were issued up to Mar. 19.

The government has also given out 104 temporary resident permits, usually meant for those who don’t meet normal immigration requirements, but which could turn into permanent residency if extensions are granted.

“There doesn’t seem to be anything to indicate expedited processing,” said Montreal immigration lawyer David Cohen. The number of visas given so far, he added, “really isn’t impressive.”

The internal department target for Port-au-Prince for 2010 is between 2,358 to 2,435 people.

The current rate of visa issuance would yield about 1,500 for the year.

Given the epic scale of the disaster, the situation has Haitian families, most of whom live or have settled in Quebec, worried and frustrated.

“They promised to accelerate the process, but we don’t see any sign of that and it’s been three months,” said Marjorie Villefranche, program director for La Maison d’Haiti, a community centre in Montreal.

The Canadian government points to the fact that Canada’s embassy was severely damaged in the earthquake, limiting access to paper files.

It also says it has increased staff working on Haiti applications from four in Port-au-Prince before the quake, to 30 now, in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Ottawa.

On Thursday the department issued a notice saying it hopes to make final decisions on applications completed before the earthquake by June, and on those after, by the end of July.

If it succeeds at the latter commitment, the normal processing time of 23 months would be dramatically cut down.

Ottawa also points to another figure to show its humanitarian commitment. Accompanying the thousands of Canadians airlifted out of the country were more than 1,700 Haitians. The airlifts have since ended.

They were issued temporary resident visas – usually given to those going on vacation or to work or study in Canada. Some already held work or study permits.

By contrast, Canada gave out 562 temporary visas by this time last year.

“All these people we’ve helped leave Haiti and are now safe with their families here in Canada,” Immigration department spokesperson Mélanie Carkner said.

But these people have little to do with the promise of the government to give “priority” to new and existing sponsorship applications of family members in Haiti.

Instead, experts say, they were “lucky” enough to make it out as thousands clamoured at the gates of the embassy seeking evacuation.

They are, in some cases, family members of Canadians given passage at the discretion of an embassy officer. Or, Haitian parents might have had a Canadian child and were therefore able to go with the child, explained Villefranche.

“They were lucky,” she declared. “Normally they wouldn’t have been able to come so quickly.”

“My guess is that ordinarily they would not have gotten the (temporary resident visa),” Cohen added. “In that sense Canada extended a hand, and in that sense they were lucky because there are way more people who would have wanted the TRV.”

Cohen said these people might be able apply to stay in Canada on humanitarian grounds, something that is usually done from abroad.

Eline Occessite, a Haitian refugee, wanted to bring to Canada her 14-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son.

They’re currently living in Haiti, under a tent, with an adult friend. They have active immigration files to reunite with their mother.

But when Villefranche, while in Haiti recently, tried act on Occessite’s behalf to persuade the embassy to grant them temporary resident visas to expedite the process, they were refused on grounds that they did not meet that visa’s criteria.

“I was asking for humanitarian reasons,” Villefranche explained. “They are in danger; let them come.”

“I was shocked they did not accept them,” Occessite, 45, said. “There are bandits, and my children are not protected.”

There has been “zero change, zero progress” in the case of Canadian retiree Marie-Gerta Fanor, 66, who has been trying to bring her husband Roland Noel to Canada since they married in 2004, a family member said Friday. Noel now lives in his car in Port-au-Prince and Fanor had hoped his circumstances might favour his case.

There is also criticism about Quebec’s contribution to helping Haitians come to Canada.

In February, Quebec began allowing families to sponsor not only spouses, parents and children under 18, but also brothers, sisters and adult children.

But as of Mar. 19, only 19 cases had been approved, for a total of 40 people.

Even if more had been approved earlier, “it would not have changed anything,” said Claude Fradette, spokesperson for Quebec’s Ministry of Immigration and Cultural Communities.

The reason? Quebec’s role is to select immigrants; Canada issues the visas. There is already a backlog of 1,500 files approved by Quebec awaiting visas in Port-au-Prince.

Social worker Nicole Tremblay said families are also having trouble meeting the financial criteria to sponsor the relatives, even with a co-guarantor. To sponsor a family of four, for instance, would require an income of almost $70,000.

“I’m a single mother,” said Manoucheka Masson, a cook in Montreal, who wants to sponsor her sister. “Where am I going to find the kind of money they require?”

And yet, she says, her sister is living under a tarp with a baby and 9-year-old child and complains to Masson they are hungry. “I can barely talk to her on the phone, it hurts my heart so much.”

Tremblay has begun telling Haitian families to contact their members of parliament to press their cases. “We have sent letters, we have called; I don’t know what is causing the delays,” said Tremblay, of the Volunteer Action Centre of Montreal-North.

“If they wanted to really do something, they could,” Masson ventures. “They can’t bring everyone here from my country, of course, but they could do their best to help some.”

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