Aspiring citizens face nightmare of lost files

Jack Knox, Times Colonist

  Back in May 2013, Stu and Susie Brannon got the good news from the immigration authorities: The Cobble Hill couple had been approved for Canadian citizenship. All they had to do was wait for the letter giving details about the swearing-in ceremony.

   Alas, the letter never came.

   When 61 newcomers were sworn in at Government House that Canada Day, the Brannons, who came up from California nine years ago, weren't among them.

   So Stu went to the Citizenship and Immigration Canada website to check the status of their application - and got a shock. It was two years out of date, with no record of the interviews and approvals that had led to the Brannons' acceptance. A bureaucratic screwup had snakes-andladdered the couple back to square one.

   "I believe our files have been discarded," Stu wrote in an August 2013 email to Immigration Canada. "What should we do?" We'll get back to you, the feds replied that September.

   Except they didn't. Not a word for 10 months. When a letter finally appeared this June, it wasn't the hoped-for invitation to a citizenship ceremony, but a request for passport documents - information that the Brannons

   had provided three times previously, including once at a daylong meeting with Immigration authorities.

   "What on Earth is going on there?" Stu wrote in reply. "And what has been done, if anything, to process our applications?" Citizenship and Immigration's response, which arrived July 2, was a demand for even more information: passport pages, employment records, tax assessments, health records, exit-entry records, landing papers. The Brannons were told they must provide this small mountain of documents by July 24 or their four-year-old citizen application would be considered "abandoned." Seems audacious, given that it was Citizenship and Immigration that lost the information in the Brannons' file in the first place.

   Stu is aghast. So are neighbours at Arbutus Ridge, where the Brannons are knee-deep in community life, getting involved in charity work, the strata council and the local marine association. "Mr. and Mrs. Brannon are fine upstanding residents of our community and deserve so much better treatment," their friend Clint Stewart wrote in a letter shotgunned out to several federal politicians.

   Those politicians can reply that the Brannons' story is much too common. Such files have become a massive headache for members of Parliament, particularly since Citizenship and Immigration closed 19 offices, including those in Victoria and Nanaimo, in 2012. Unable to get Citizenship and Immigration to communicate, people turn to their politicians instead.

   "Approximately 50 per cent of our caseload is immigration," Nanaimo-Cowichan MP Jean

   Crowder said Wednesday. The cases don't lend themselves to quick and easy fixes, either. "They're complicated nightmares."

   Victoria MP Murray Rankin's constituency staffer spends 80 per cent of her time on such problems. "She's working on 48 Citizenship and Immigration cases right now," he said. "It goes on and on and on."

   Rankin figures budget cuts have simply left Citizenship and Immigration with too few workers. Certainly, trying to reach the department requires the patience of Job. The turnaround for email inquiries can be up to 20 business days. Callers complain it can take many attempts to get through by phone, only to end up with a recorded message containing little useful information. Even in those cities that still have Immigration offices, there is no frontcounter service; all access is by appointment only.

   "There's no human contact," Stu Brannon says.

   The citizenship application process has become cumbersome even in normal circumstances. Average processing time for a routine application is 24 months, seven months longer than in 2005. The department's backlog of applications stands at 387,600, more than twice as many as it was seven years ago.

   Ottawa has just introduced reforms - including reducing the application process from three steps to one, and stripping citizenship judges of discretionary powers - that it says will streamline the system.

   It would also ease the bottleneck if people like the Brannons didn't have to repeat steps already taken in this snail-paced game of Snakes and Ladders.

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