Government chops elders visas that reunite immigrant families

  • Feb. 18, 2011 10:00 a.m.
Abbotsford Community Services settlement worker Geeta Bhardwha says the majority of immigrant families from South Asian countries want to bring their parents to Canada

Abbotsford Community Services settlement worker Geeta Bhardwha says the majority of immigrant families from South Asian countries want to bring their parents to Canada

Neil CORBETT and Jeff Nagel

Black Press

A federal plan to sharply reduce the number of family reunification visas issued this year threatens to keep immigrants from being joined by aging parents and grandparents who may die overseas before they can come to Canada.

Immigration lawyer Richard Kurland said Immigration Canada targets he has obtained under Access to Information show Ottawa intends to grant just 11,200 visas for parents and grandparents to join family in Canada in 2011 – a 40 per cent drop from 16,200 issued last year.

With more than 140,000 applicants seeking such family reunification visas, Kurland said it implies wait times will more than double to 13 years, longer than many of the overseas elders may live.

Charan Gill, executive director of the Progressive Intercultural Community Services Society (PICS), said many immigrant families across the Lower Mainland will be upset by the change.

“There’s no point in processing many of these applications any more,” he said. “People will die before they come to this land.”

Gill called it a serious reversal of Canada’s traditionally humanitarian policy of accommodating the reunification of families here.

“This policy is really anti-immigrant,” he said. “They’re segregating the families.”

Chinese applicants should not have as much difficulty – the targets show the number of elder visas earmarked for Beijing will more than double from 1,000 to 2,650 this year.

But for East Indians seeking to bring parents and grandparents home, it’s a different story.

New Delhi, the hub for all applications from India, gets 2,500 visas this year, down 45 per cent from 4,500 in 2010.

Geeta Bhardwha, a settlement worker for Abbotsford Community Services, said this news will be met with frustration by most families who have immigrated, because virtually all of them want to bring family to Canada.

“In an Indian family, culturally, the son is supposed to be taking care of the parents,” she explained. “And life is better here, so a daughter or a son wants their parents here.”

One of her former clients, Sukhvir Chohan, wants to bring his parents here to live with his wife and year-old child. His parents have 10 years to retirement, and in the Punjab his father works as a police officer, and his mother as a teacher. They are both in good health, and he said they would be an asset to the country.

“I don’t know how fair this is,” he said of the immigration reductions, and questions how the government will choose which grandparents come into Canada, from thousands of applications across the country.

He said Sikhs who come to Canada are eager to work, but the currency difference between the two countries hits them. They have to “start from zero,” acquiring furniture, a vehicle and a house, and they need to show income in order to assist their extended family to immigrate to Canada.

“They want to bring family here, so they are working as hard as they can,” he said. “When you go to a better place, you want everyone to come.”

Chohan has been successful. He studied hard and got a job as a lab assistant at Surrey Memorial Hospital. But he knows many other Sikhs who work two jobs, some taking two shifts, seven days a week.

“The immigrants who come here work hard – they don’t go on welfare.”

He said looking after his parents is important to him, as it is to most Sikhs. He said all seniors of any culture should have the support of their children.

“I work in the hospital and I see them – they need their kids.”

Gill said the new direction doesn’t recognize the fact elders brought here to live with family often help with child care, saving expenses and enabling one spouse of a family to go back into the workforce.

Families will be hurt economically and culturally, he said, noting grandparents are key to helping instill heritage and cultural values in children.

Kurland believes the decision to clamp down on reunification visas is about money, specifically the potential cost to Canada of aging relatives who arrive here and soon become a financial burden on the medical system.

He proposes Ottawa consider a new option to address that problem.

Elder applicants could be assessed overseas and actuaries could estimate the amount of medical premiums required to cover 15 years worth of their anticipated medical costs in Canada.

Families could then choose to pay that as a lump sum – eliminating the health care cost to Canada from the equation – in order to have the parents come here without a wait, Kurland suggested.

In many cases, he said, members of the extended family from around the world could pool their finances to support the move.

While Gill fears the reduced allocation of elder visas is permanent, Kurland said it may be just a one-year reduction to enable government politicians to trumpet a subsequent “increase” back to normal levels in a possible 2012 election year.

Immigration Canada spokesperson Melanie Carkner denied higher health care costs are the reason for the lower 2011 visa targets.

“We’ve opted to put children and spouses first,” Carkner said, adding they, along with refugees, will have access to more visas this year.

She downplayed the importance of the targets, saying they can be adjusted throughout the year as necessary.