Sunday, April 30, 2017

Points of Entry: How Canada's Immigration Officers Decide Who Gets In

An image of Vic Satzewich's book, Points of Entry
Vic Satzewich's book, Points of Entry
Today's blog post is about a book of the same title, written by Vic Satzewich, professor of sociology at McMaster University, and author of numerous articles and books.

Although immigration is not one of the most fascinating topics to read about, it is increasingly becoming an important one to understand given the fact that immigration (visa) officers are not thoroughly vetting all immigrants, visitors, and refugees, which is a symptom of an even bigger problem: the lack of nation building within Canada's immigration system.

Satzewich details why this is and in the process provides an immense amount of information on the intricacies of Canada's immigration system, making this book one of "the" sources on how Canada's immigration officers decide who gets in and the influential factors that impact their decisions.

Reading this book was my first foray into the inner-workings of Canada's immigration offices; a shared journey with the author who had admitted in the Introduction, that prior to beginning the research for this book he had, at best, a "sketchy understanding" of the decision-making process for visa issuance. 

Points of Entry breaks open what was once a subject matter clouded in secrecy. Satzewich accomplished this through his determination, diligence, and a drive that, from July 2010 to January 2012, saw him visit eleven Canadian visa offices abroad: one in each of Europe, the Middle East, the Carribbean, the United States, and South America; two in Africa; and four in Asia. His time in each office varied according to size of the office and the respective manager's schedule. In most cases, his observations lasted for approximately two to four days. In total he spent 220 hours at various offices, interviewed 128 people involved in immigration, and had the opportunity to observe forty-two face-to-face interviews that visa officers conducted with various types of applicants.

I consider this book to be a very timely publication given the fact that Canada has one of the most open immigration policies in the world, the dangers of which could—and I would argue, already have—negatively impact Canada's identity, heritage, and culture. One could easily point to: the increased threats of terrorism; violence perpetrated against Canadians; Motion 103 (M103) and all other threats to the freedom of speech including current and future legislation; fraud in its most simplest and sophisticated forms; "jumpers" (those who after arriving in Canada with a visitor visa, make a claim for refugee status); asylum shoppers; economic migrants and so-called "refugees"; the exploitation of our failed immigration policies and procedures, and our open borders by organized crime; and the entry into Canada by those who have no intention of assimilating into Canadian society, but instead wish to live according to their own culture and customs with Canadian standards of living.

In addition to the Introduction, Conclusion, Appendixa detailed Notes and extensive References section, and an Index, Points of Entry's 291 pages are organized into nine chapters: Stated and Hidden Agendas, Delegated Discretion, Immigration Policy, Visa Offices and Officers, Approval and Refusal Rates, Spousal and Partnership Sponsorships, Federal Skilled Workers, Visitor Visas, and The Interview.

Amongst all the challenges that Canada's immigration system is faced with, what I found most disturbing was the lack of contact between immigration offices and applicants, and the fact that visa officers conduct very few face-to-face interviews with applicants.

This became a reality in large part due to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (2002), budgetary constraints, the use of outsourced private sector Visa Application Centers (VACs), and the "guidance" of various ministers from Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC), that all together imposed unreasonable quotas and time pressures upon immigration officers. The result of which has compromised the effectiveness of the screening process, and substantially reduced visa officers' role as "gatekeepers" of the nation.

Add to this the CIC's modernization agenda (driven by a need to "do more with less") in which many features of the application process were designed to minimize interaction with applicants.

These developments over the past few years have significantly diminished, and for some visa officers altogether removed, the sense of nation building.

The Importance and Necessity of Face-to-Face Interviews

In the Introduction, Satzewich alerts the reader to the necessity of face-to-face interviews by including a visa officer's interview of a Guatemalan woman, Maria, who together with her Guatemalan husband (not present at the interview, but living in Canada as a permanent resident), applied for a spousal sponsorship.

The case not only exemplified the importance of face-to-face interviews in the screening process, but set the tone for the remainder of the book; that is, there is cause for concern that visa applicants are not thoroughly screened at Canada's immigration offices.

Immediately into Maria's case, Satzewich pointed out that the visa officer, prior to the interview, had already reviewed the file and only requested an interview because the couple's story "did not add up." Sadly, this has become standard protocol at immigration offices, which has reduced the screening process to a paper-based exercise: the visa officer reviews a file for a few minutes and only requests an interview if during the triaged-analysis, a "flag" is raised.

The shortcomings of this approach is that visa officers are deprived of going through due process to assess credibility and risk, much of which can only be accurately identified and understood through face-to-face interviews.

This only begs the question, "Why are visa officers bypassing the proper protocol in such an important job, one in which visa officers are in essence, the "gatekeepers" of Canada's borders?" It is a valid question that Satzewich answers and elaborates on:
The bureaucratic environment in which officers work also imposes its own set of pressures. All workplaces have expectations regarding staff productivity, and visa offices are no different in this respect. They and their offices must meet certain processing targets and client service expectations, and those too help mould officer decisions to dig more deeply into certain files. In the context of scarce resources, time constraints, and a heavily back-logged system, offices and officers must triage applications, deciding which ones warrant further probing and which ones can simply be approved...They also rely on locally engaged staff members who are familiar with local conditions, customs, and contexts to help them address issues of credibility and risk. (17) 

Targets (visa issuance quotas) and the time pressures created by them, originate from Ottawa and the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, who announces the targets the year before in Parliament.

If a visa officer fails to meet his/her target, it reflects negatively upon the entire respective immigration office, including the immigration program manager. Citizenship and Immigration euphemistically refer to unreviewed files as "inventory," which as Satzewich points out is code word for "backlog." (2) If no other immigration office fills the gap of another office's failure to meet its target, then that failure works its way up to the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, who will be held accountable by the Opposition. 

Satzewich noted that in 2011, the Auditor General of Canada had the number of processed permanent or temporary visas at 1.36 million at Canadian overseas visa offices in 2010 alone. (6) Satzewich also noted that in 2010, there was a backlog of approximately 1 million applications awaiting to be processed. (121)

As for the interview with Maria, it ended after one hour at which time the visa officer (Brenda) informed Maria that she was not satisfied that the relationship was genuine, and suspected that the purpose of Maria's application was to obtain permanent residency status.

Brenda determined this through detailed questioning, that probed deeper into Maria's relationship, putting Maria to task to explain certain things that she was unable to do. Throughout Brenda also assessed Maria's facial expression and body language, demeanour, responses to questions, and overall behaviour, which in most, if not all, cases is telling about whether an applicant is genuine or not. This is precisely what visa officers must do on a daily basis: separate genuine from non-genuine applicants.

The fraudulent nature of spousal sponsorship applications is something that Satzewich elaborated on in chapter six, Spousal and Partner Sponsorships, which apparently is so "plentiful," that it impacts the wider circle of applicants in "particular application streams." At the subheading, Client Behaviours: Fraud, Satzewich goes on to explain the fraud:
In several visa offices, and without any prompting from me, nearly every officer whom I interviewed immediately mentioned that "we have a lot of fraud here." Some was purely individual in nature: applicants may lie about their marital status, the existence of dependent children, or the biological parentage of children, or they may simply embellish certain aspects of their biography. Other types of fraud are organized and systemic, and they take various forms. Some arise from immigration lawyers and consultants who counsel their clients to invent stories about their relationship to satisfy the expectations of a visa officer. As one officer suggested, "In some cases, people have sold everything they own only to pay for a crooked agent, who cheats them out of their money by promising them something he cannot provide. People here often get cheated by agents." (147)
Although Satzewich did not explicitly include the outcome of the visa officer's conclusion, he did ask the rhetorical question, "In the end, what decision do you think Brenda made?"(6) The answer is rather obvious: no visa was issued!

What Satzewich did include was how visa officers make use of their discretion to determine whether to approve or reject an application. Discretion plays an important role in the screening process. Although laws and procedures do provide guidelines and specifics on how to assess each applicant, they by no means cover every scenario that immigration officers are confronted with. As such, immigration officers must utilize their knowledge, experience, and judgement when employing their discretion to properly assess each applicant.

To further elaborate, part of the bureaucratic environment in which officers and staff must work includes certain guidelines: the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, which spells out the general principles of Canadian immigration policy; the Immigration Regulations, which specifies the criteria to be used in assessing applications; and detailed processing manuals that explain how they should conduct and document investigations. In spite of all this as Satzewich points out, "...[T]he decision to issue or refuse a visa is ultimately a matter of discretion. An officer must be "satisfied" that applicants are who they claim to be, that they meet the eligibility criteria for the visa, and that they are not inadmissible to Canada for reasons of public safety, security, or health conditions. (6)

Although the Guatemalan case did demonstrate that visa officers are able to identify problematic cases, it only begs the question, "How many have they missed?" A thorough screening of an applicant can only occur through interviews, where quota and time pressures are removed from the process and visa officers can properly assess an applicant's file. The fact that this is not the norm sets off alarm bells that the screening process at Canada's immigration offices are not driven by nation building.

The Negative Consequences of Quotas and Time Pressures

At chapter five, Approval and Refusal Rates, Satzewich identified one of the many consequences from the lack of interviews: immigration officers tend develop negative attitudes about the application pool as a direct result of conducting interviews only for "problematic cases." Applications that "qualify" as problematic are those cases where there is a concern about credibility or the risk of making a wrong decision is high.

In that same chapter Satzewich noted, in a conversation with program manager, how time pressures had negatively impacted application processing since the introduction of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. Here is the quote from the program manager:
There are so many things we miss. We only interview if we are leaning towards a refusal. We don't interview good applicants. This can make an officer sour. We don't get the sense of nation building that we use to have. It cuts into job satisfaction. There is no way of talking to clients, we don't counsel them any more. In face-to-face circumstances, we are only dealing with likely refusals. This can lead to the development of a negative mindset. (135)
Further to this Satzewich highlighted how target-driven time pressures work in favour the client (applicants). He went on to note how several officers informed him that if there weren't such high demands placed upon officers, the refusal rate would be much higher. One officer stated, "...If I had enough time, I would at least triple my refusal rate." (136) Another Canada-based officer was quoted as saying:
In some cases, you are 'feeding the target beast.' The big buzzword is 'risk management.' You just can't take the time to verify every document. Sometimes you have to overlook things to get the program numbers. That is why quality assurance exercises are very important. Risk management means closing your eyes. (136)
In chapter eight, Visitor Visas, under the subheading, Time Pressures, Satzewich further revealed how quotas for visa issuance have forced immigration officers to make swift decisions about each application. He went on to note that once visa officers opened a file, the expectation is that they approve or refuse an application within a few minutes. 

Satzewich cited a few examples. In one of Canada's Asian offices, an immigration officer, who dealt exclusively with visitor visas, revealed to Satzewich that she was expected to make seventy-five decisions per day. (196) This translates into a few minutes per file, not including the time needed to write notes in the database. (196) Another officer from that same Asian office was quoted as follows, "I spend about five to seven minutes per file...this office is ridiculous." (196) Satzewich also noted similar experiences from other visa officers as well. 

Most noteworthy was Satzewich's concluding statement about the Asian office experience, that in my view perfectly sums it all up, "As elsewhere in the system, time and productivity pressures provided the overarching context for decision making. A Canada-based officer remarked, "There's so much pressure. They want the numbers. They don't want waiting times...It's always about the numbers." (196)

The imposed quotas and time pressures are not conducive to nation building!

The Problem With Visa Application Centers

Another reason why contact between immigration offices and applicants has been reduced substantially is due to Citizenship and Immigration Canada's (CIC) outsourcing part of the application process to VFS Global; an international corporation that processes temporary visa applications including study and work permits, as well as travel documents for permanent residents of Canada. This is not done at CIC's offices, but at Visa Application Centers (VACs); private sector offices, most of which are in the same city as the visa office, but some are in other cities or regions.

Screen shot of VFS Global web site page for Poland
VFS Global web site for applications in Poland. Image: VFS Global/Apply for Visa to Canada in Poland

Satzewich goes on to point out that the use of VACs is a cost-saving measure that is intended to alleviate much of the expense of interacting with applicants. The rationale is that VACs eliminate routine and time consuming aspects of receiving a properly completed application, allowing for visa offices to focus on assessing credibility and risk.

What the use of VACs spotlights is the failure of CIC to recognize the importance of contact between its visa offices and applicants.

The fact that CIC uses a third-party, private sector company does not bode well with me at all. Although Satzewich states that VACs, "...[P]lay no role in the decision-making process and are expressly forbidden to provide any visa related advice to applicants," (193) I am not convinced that the integrity of Canada's immigration system won't be compromised, if it hasn't been already! In my view CIC should keep all processing in-house irrespective of the costs and time to properly screen all those who seek to come to Canada.

The Importance of Contact Between Visa Offices and Applicants

At the time when Satzewich conducted his fieldwork for the writing of his book, many visa offices still permitted individuals to personally drop off their applications. This changed in 2013, after which applicants were required to send their applications to the VACs for processing.

In chapter nine, The InterviewSatzewich clearly demonstrates how detrimental the use of VACs has been with regard to the ability of visa offices to assess credibility and risk. Regarding the change in 2013, he stated, "This measure may have conserved departmental resources, but it also came at a cost for the assessment of credibility. In shifting the task to Visa Application Centres, Citizenship and Immigration sacrificed the opportunity to assess credibility and risk as people submitted their applications." (222)

Satzewich elaborates on how things used to be done, highlighting in the process how the shift to processing applications at VACs has removed the ever so important contact between visa offices—including program assistants, receptionists, and security personnel—and applicants. Here is what he stated:
Before 2013, when paperwork was dropped off in person, locally engaged staff, typically a program assistant or receptionist, ensured that the application was complete and that the necessary supporting documentation was present. If this were not the case, staff encouraged people not to submit their application, because they knew that a visa officer was unlikely to approve it. Thus, applicants would have paid the non-refundable visa-processing fee for nothing. In counselling individuals to hold back their applications, staff saw themselves as doing them a favour. (222)
Program assistants and receptionists played an important role in the triaging of applications. They were the first to come into direct contact with applicants, which afforded them the opportunity to begin a sort of pre-screening process, assessing whether cases were simple and straightforward or whether officers in the Temporary Resident Unit might be confronted with a problematic case.

Highlighting the importance of the "pre-screening" process, Satzewich pointed out that triage at the application submission stage also involved assessing demeanour. Here is what he wrote about applicants as they approached visa offices:
As they walked down the street to the embassy or entered the reception area to hand in their paperwork, most people had no idea that their mannerisms, behaviour, and body language were being scrutinized for anomalies that could reroute their application to the "problematic" folder. For example, if they were a "little bit too friendly," receptionists might intuit that they had something to hide and could alert the visa officer to this potential concern. (225)
Triaging applicants at the "pre-screening" stage also involved security guards. Having access to the offices, guards also kept a careful watch on applicants and relayed their observations to receptionists, who would provide this information, along with their own impressions of applicants to visa officers. This was a much needed collaborative effort that greatly aided visa officers giving them a "heads-up" on certain cases.

Full Marks to Kellie Leitch

An image of Kellie Leitch at the CPC's Saskatoon leadership debate.
Kellie Leitch during the Conservative Party of Canada leadership debate in Saskatoon on November 9, 2016.
Photo: National Post/John Ivison

It would be very remiss of me not to mention Conservative Party of Canada leadership candidate, Kellie Leitch, in a post about Points of Entry, as it was through her campaign that I first discovered the book.

Throughout her campaign, whether it was at the Saskatoon leadership debate (above photo)—where she has been captured in many photos actually holding up Satzewich's book—mentioning it on televison and radio, disseminating it through campaign email updates, or through social media, Kellie has consistently encouraged Canadians to read this book and discover some of the major issues surrounding Canada's immigration system.

I took that encouragement to heart, purchased a copy, and read it. Since my initial discovery, I have eagerly shared this book with others.

It has been quite the rewarding experience gaining knowledge about the intricacies of how immigration officers decide who gets into Canada and the factors that negatively impact the screening process.

It became abundantly clear earlier on in the campaign and even more so now, why the thrust of Kellie's campaign has been to spotlight Canada's failed immigration policies, procedures, and border security issues: they are real, serious, and need to be urgently addressed!

Leitch has done more than to just identify a problem, she has provided a solution: her Screening For Canadian Values policy proposal, which she detailed and provided on line at her web site, from day one of her campaign launch.

In addition, Kellie has made it crystal clear, at the Conservative Party of Canada leadership debate in Edmonton, that as Prime Minister of Canada, she will not be tolerating illegal border crossings, (like what we are witnessing in Emerson, Manitoba) which will entail the detainment, questioning and return to the United States of those illegals who have already come to Canada.

For those who are concerned about Canada's immigration problems, I hope that today's post has encouraged you to seriously consider purchasing a copy of Points of Entry: reading it will be time well spent.

To Kellie Leitch, full marks for making this book known to Canadians!

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