Why do we have a cap on spousal sponsorship applications?

May 2016


In our modern world, falling in love with someone from a different country is becoming as common as striking up a romance with a cute next door neighbour. With the help of the internet, Skype, and (sometimes) affordable travel options, it is becoming much easier to maintain a long-distance relationship.

Long-distance love is not without difficulties. Telephone conversations must be planned around time differences.  Meeting each other’s friends and families requires an airplane and time off work.  But for those who have fallen love with a Canadian, the biggest test of the relationship occurs after the decision is made to join their partner in Canada.

Long Processing Times and Growing Frustration

Currently, sponsoring a spouse or common-law partner can take years of waiting in administrative limbo. Couples have to deal with uncertain futures and in some cases, are forced to live off a single-income for significant periods of time.  And who is responsible for causing this stress in the personal lives of so many Canadians?  The Canadian government.

Processing times are always changing. As seen over the last few years, the change has not been for the better.  Since 2013, the wait times have doubled, and then tripled. As of May 7th, 2016, the government of Canada website said that the processing time for sponsoring someone who lives inside of Canada with their sponsor is 26 months. For spouses who live outside of Canada, the processing times depend on what country they live in.  Some visa offices post processing times of less than a year – Algeria, Brazil and Tunisia come in as the quickest, at 8 months.  At the other end of the spectrum is Pakistan at 28 months, Thailand at 29 months, and St. Vincent at an incredible 41 months.  For the USA, our closest neighbour, the processing time is 15 months.

Canadian processing timelines are absurd compared to the wait times for spousal sponsorships in other countries. In the United States, individuals are frustrated that the process to sponsor can take up to one year.  In Australia, sponsoring a spouse is ever swifter, with processing times taking no more than 8 months. The United Kingdom, which has a different sponsorship scheme and uses the ‘marriage visa’, ensures that spouses can live together and work to earn a living within a few months.

Naturally, Canadians with foreign spouses are upset. They feel like they are being punished for falling in love with someone non-Canadian.  They are also vocal in sharing their frustrations.  A Twitter account exists urging the government to take action. A documentary called ‘The Backlog is currently filming to depict this injustice. Petitions are being circulated demanding the government to at least give work permits to waiting spouses. These efforts have so far only been partially successful. Couples are also sharing their frustrations with the media.  Reporter Nicholas Keung, who has been following the situation closely, has written many articles chronicling the experiences of these couples-in-waiting. To read about these experiences see:

Processing Times Are Due to the Cap on Spousal Sponsorships – But Why Do We Need a Cap?

The situation wasn’t always this bad. As I explained in a previous blog post, prior to 2013 the Canadian government permitted more of its immigrants to be from the family class as opposed to economic classes. Changing the balance meant slower processing times for family class applications.  Immigration offices process applications at a rate that allows them to meet their numbers for the year – there’s no point in processing them more quickly if there is a finite number you are permitted to process in a calendar year.

But why do spousal sponsorships have to come under the caps for immigration? It is the Government who sets the caps. Therefore, it also has ability to change this way of dealing with spousal sponsorships.

Just like we don’t control the birthrate in Canada, we can’t control how many people decide to enter into relationships with non-Canadians. We give automatic citizenship to babies born here (or abroad to a first generation Canadian).  Likewise, the government could take out nuclear family members from the rest of the immigration pool.  With our declining birthrate, we should want those non-Canadian spouses here ASAP, because the longer we leave them in limbo, the longer they are delaying starting families.  Moreover, the faster they start working as permanent residents, the sooner they can contribute to our economy through taxes.

These Canadian spouses and dependent children need very little in terms of settlement support. They can’t go on welfare, because their spouse or parent is obligated to financially support them for years.  They are unlike economic immigrants who need orientation when they arrive in Canada as they have a built-in support system.   And they can’t be compared at all to refugees, most whom need years of financial assistance and substantial settlement support.   Accepting economic immigrants and refugees requires budgetary planning, I understand this.  But the budgetary planning argument just doesn’t work for spouses and dependent children.

I also understand that processing is limited by the number of staff available to do the processing. However, staffing can be unlimited since the salaries of those public servants come from processing fees paid by the applicant.  Just hire more people!

The currently outrageous processing times are determined by the cap on family class applications. Based on the cap, immigration offices are told to process a certain number of cases per quarter. Therefore, no cap would mean less processing time, a more efficient system, and happier Canadians.

Our Current Government and the Future of Spousal Sponsorships

When the 2016 immigration levels plan was announced in March, there was good news for Canadians who were waiting for their spouse or dependent child sponsorship applications to be processed.   The government plans to process 57,000 to 62,000 individuals for entry to Canada from this category. This is quite an increase from the 45,389 people admitted under this category in 2014.  We don’t yet have the numbers for 2015, but the goal for that year was 45,000 to 48,000. 

In the 2016 Budget released in March, the government made an explicit commitment to reduce application processing times for family sponsorships. Specifically, they dedicated $25 million solely to reducing processing times.

At the Canadian Immigration Conference held in Vancouver a few weeks ago, where I was in attendance, John McCallum, our current Minister of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship even announced that he is "ashamed that the heavy hand of the Canadian state keeps families apart for two years."

All the right intentions seem to be there to reduce processing times for sponsorship applications. Still, no concrete plans have been implemented to end the capping of spousal sponsorships.  Although the government is now once again providing country-specific processing times for outside-of-Canada sponsorships, the actual processing times have not changed significantly. 

In the meanwhile, with every day that passes, Canadians stuck in sponsorship limbo are becoming more and more frustrated. Promises are great, but until they get to live with their spouses who are able to work alongside them, they will continue to deal with the romantic roadblock that is our Canadian immigration system.