Can you imagine being required to show proof of income of $39,000 a year for three years just to be able to have your parents close by? That’s about how much new Canadians must show to be reunited with parents through Canada’s parental sponsorship program. And only a few thousand Canadians and permanent residents are allowed, each year, to make the application to bring parents and grandparents here. As if that weren’t tough enough, the processing time is so long and the process can be so cumbersome that aging parents might die before the application is processed.
That’s what happened to the Jaffers, a family forcibly displaced from Kenya when they fled persecution of ethnic South Asians, as the Toronto Star’s Nicholas Keung reported in early March. When Shabbir Jaffer applied to sponsor his mother to come to Canada from the UK in 2007, after the death of his father, he did not know that the application would take 11 years instead of the promised 36 months. He did not know that she would be denied on the basis of the possible costs of a medical procedure that, as it turned out, she did not require. He did not know that the family would incur additional costs because of the appeal process, nor that his mother would pass away in January 2018 from pneumonia with the application stuck in processing, so that all these efforts came to naught.
Here’s the problem: simply put, Canada views parents as a burden. Canada’s parental sponsorship system is set up so that we let as few parents into this country as possible. The requirements imposed on a Canadian citizen or permanent resident submitting the application are onerous. The applicant must undertake to provide their parents with financial support for 20 years, show three years’ worth of income of at least $39,000 per annum and hope that they literally win the lottery: applicants first submit an expression of interest, and then are randomly selected (10,000 spots are available in 2018) to be allowed to apply.
Moreover, medical inadmissibility laws remain on the books; they prevent the granting of permanent residence to someone who may cause “excessive demand” on Canada’s health care system. For most aging parents, this is effectively a bar to admission that can be overcome only through an additional costly application on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. That’s why the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship has said that medical inadmissibility rules are not aligned with “our country’s values of inclusion of persons with disabilities in Canadian society.” With changes promised by April 2018, Canadians and permanent residents wait for meaningful reform to the discriminatory requirement, eager to be reunited with their families.
Critics argue that liberalizing parental sponsorship will cost taxpayers money, burdening the system with the disproportionate health care needs of parents and grandparents. We know that the cost savings from medical inadmissibility rules are negligible: 0.1 percent of all provincial and territorial health spending. Moreover, most sponsored parents and grandparents arrive in Canada with assets, many find employment upon arrival, and new Canadians are, as a result, able to keep their savings in Canada rather than sending them home as remittances.
The existing program also discriminates against many new Canadians, because a significant proportion are low- and middle-income families unable to afford the high costs associated with sponsorship. Nor can they afford the high-priced “super visa,” which also requires private medical insurance and is often difficult to obtain; what’s more, this channel is currently plagued by a large processing backlog. Further, family separation hurts not just new Canadians but also the economy. It is the cause of anxiety and emotional distress that can lead to more sick days and less productivity.
But these cost arguments do not account for the emotional and child care support that parents provide. By providing mental and emotional support to their children, parents help set new Canadians up for success. Moreover, without affordable child care, many newcomer parents, particularly single mothers, are shut out of the workforce. By making it easier to sponsor parents, the government can uplift an entire cohort of workers otherwise unable to work.
It should be clear, particularly to this government, that existing parental sponsorship rules are decidedly antifeminist. They keep families apart, cost thousands of dollars to newcomers and hold single parents, particularly women, back from success. If the government is serious about governing through a feminist lens, it could start by overhauling this system that creates two tiers of citizens: one of Canadians who have their families here by accident of birth, and one of new Canadians who must pay thousands in fees, wait many years and win a lottery to be reunited with theirs.
Canadians should have the right to be with their children, and children with their parents. The Jaffers told their story in the hope that nobody else will suffer the heartache forced upon them by the Canadian government. As we reflect after International Women’s Day on building a country that is truly feminist, let’s act by reuniting parents with their children.
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