Nicholas Keung The Star Thu., Oct. 6, 2022
Having a tough time logging into your immigration application portal? Running out of space to fill out your information? Failing to upload a document because it’s oversized, or finding you can’t examine the files you just uploaded?
These are some examples of the frustrations that immigration applicants and lawyers say they have encountered in filing applications through the federal government’s online portals, as Ottawa forges ahead trying to modernize and digitize its antiquated system.
On Sept. 23, the immigration department kicked off its transition to mandatory electronic applications for most permanent-resident programs; people can no longer submit paper applications unless they are exempted due to an accessibility issue. However, some of the technical headaches predate that switch.
The stakes are high. A flawed application can be sent back months later for missing documents, omitted information or missed deadlines — delaying and jeopardizing a migrant’s chances for permanent residence.
Canadian immigration lawyers are urging Immigration Minister Sean Fraser to roll back the change and continue to accept paper applications at least until the system is perfected or proper technical support is put in place to assist users who need help.
“The government is … moving very quickly and the technology has not kept the pace,” said Lisa Middlemiss, chair of the Canadian Bar Association’s immigration law section, who spoke to the Star in her personal capacity.
“The online PR (permanent resident) portal and online PR representative portal are fraught with technical glitches. And these glitches impede counsel or applicants from submitting their applications.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly hampered Canada’s capacity to process immigration applications because officials had to work from home, with limited access to traditional paper files and documents.
As of the end of July, there were 2.4 million immigration applications in the system, 1.3 million of which have already exceeded the standard wait times.
In response to surging backlogs, Fraser’s department ramped up the effort to expand its online applications beyond its temporary immigration programs (visitor visas, study permits, work permits) and what’s known as Express Entry, a management system to process permanent residence for selected skilled immigrants.
Last year, officials soft-launched several new online portals to accept electronic applications for a string of permanent-residence programs for family reunification and skilled workers. The government is spending $428.9 million over five years to deliver a new, departmentwide digital platform — but online applications remained optional until now.
Immigration department spokesperson Isabelle Dubois said officials have taken the necessary time to ensure the successful transition to online applications by thoroughly testing the platform, training employees and deploying it in a phased approach. A small-scale controlled group of applicants was used to test, adapt and improve the user experience before expanding it to a wider audience.
“Checks and balances were in place to make sure that any issues are identified and fixed before the system is rolled out more broadly,” said Dubois, adding that officials also closely monitor performance to avoid any system crashes.
She said there has been only one outage impacting clients, in June 2022, since the launch of the permanent residence portal.
Officials did identify an issue with the portal for authorized paid representatives, which prevented some representatives from receiving a confirmation email after submitting a payment and application, an issue Dubois said the department is trying to fix.
Ottawa immigration lawyer Tamara Mosher-Kuczer said some of the technical issues preceded the new portals but they have multiplied because now every application must be done online. Despite the department’s efforts to assist applicants, the online guidance for users is confusing to say the least, she said.
For instance, there are online forms that one has to actually fill out within the portal, and there are regular paper forms. However, the new guidelines say that those regular paper forms must now be signed digitally (using an encrypted and authenticated electronic fingerprint created by the signer).
“They say they must be signed in different places electronically, but they don’t exist on the form. On one of the forms, it says, ‘sign it digitally and type your name here.’ The instruction is on the form and not in the guide,” said Mosher-Kuczer.
“There’s no explanation of what digital means. So does it mean typing your name? Does it mean … print a PDF and then attach the electronic signature with a stamp in it? And then on one of the forms that now must be signed electronically, you can’t actually type in the signature.”
She said many lawyers have raised these issues with immigration officials over the past year but the majority of the problems have not been addressed. To safeguard the interests of clients, lawyers have to screenshot every page along the process for their records in case of disputes, which means an “insane” duplication of work, said Mosher-Kuczer.
The immigration department’s Dubois said applicants and their legal representatives can find answers to their questions on the department’s FAQ page. If no solution is found, they can ask for help through a web form.
In one recent post on the Canadian Immigration Lawyers Association’s website, a Toronto lawyer said she submitted numerous web forms looking for help regarding an issue with the portal. Instead of responding to the questions, officials simply replied by emailing links to a web form.
The lawyer finally got a reply from the department, informing that her client had missed the deadline to submit a permanent-resident application. Officials apologized via email for the mishap “due to a technical issue with our online tools.”
Mosher-Kuczer said it can take weeks for people to get a response from immigration this way, if they get a response at all.
“Officials have been very clear that this is just their initial iteration and they will be building on these portals and making them better,” Mosher-Kuczer said. “But I don’t think you can force people and make it mandatory to use minimum viable products that have not been properly tested.”
There are also other issues such as the limit in some forms on the number of characters allowed, and problems with filing supplementary information without omitting something, creating grounds for applicants to be refused or pursued by officials for potential misrepresentation.
The system also restricts the size of documents one can upload, which becomes particularly problematic for complex cases, said Ronalee Carey, another immigration lawyer based in Ottawa.
“The new portal has no ability to upload (more) documents once it’s submitted. It’s basically an electronic courier service. They don’t communicate with you through that portal,” said Carey.
“You can only send an initial application. You can’t use it to submit any supplementary documentation.”
As it is, she said, the system is a “stopgap” way of accepting electronic applications, so immigration call-centre staff can manually determine which office is responsible for an inquiry.
Carey understands immigration officials must forge ahead with the digitization plan to address the backlog issue but tech support has to be there to support users 24/7, especially for overseas applicants in different time zones.
“My biggest issue is not being able to get into my portal. They need to stabilize the old system so that it’s not going offline so often and we’re not getting all of these error-403 messages,” said Carey, who was unable to access her own portal for over two weeks earlier this year, with requests (via web form) for help going unanswered.
Middlemiss said these problems are system-wide and her members are frustrated because immigration applications are time-sensitive; supporting documentations must be filed by deadlines or applicants might face devastating consequences.
“There are so many bugs and errors with the system. It also slows down everyone’s work enormously and it provides uncertainty. It would be better if we could continue with the paper-based option till all these problems are fixed,” said Middlemiss.