Will your immigration application be fast-tracked? It depends whether it hits Canada’s new ‘Green Bin’

The Toronto Star

Nicholas Keung The Star Wed., Sept. 21, 2022

More and more would-be immigrants to Canada may soon find themselves in the fast lane — or seeing others cruise past them — as a result of the government’s expanding use of an automated triage system for applications.

The system is going to become increasingly prevalent as Canada transitions, starting this Friday, to “100 per cent” digital applications for most permanent residence programs — from family reunification to skilled immigration — meaning people can only apply online, unless they have accessibility issues.

Canadian officials have generally processed applications within a given immigration program on a first-come-first-served basis, but occasionally people complain that their files get bumped by others because complex cases take longer to process and because some visa posts are more backlogged.

Now, experts say, there’s one more element that dictates which permanent immigration applicants could get an easier — and quicker — ride.

For at least some programs, it comes down to whether their applications are initially sorted into a “Green Bin” or “Standard Bin” for processing.

“It means that you have no control over whether you are left in a multi-year limbo or if your application supercharges through the application processing stream,” immigration lawyer Andrew Koltun told the Star.

“Any of those who wait years can continue to wait years, whereas new applicants can jump ahead of them.”

Since 2018, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada has used an automated system to triage temporary-resident visas applications for students and visitors in China and India.

Previously, in-paper or mailed-in applications could not be fed into the automated system. The move to almost exclusively online processing will see a bigger swathe of applications enter the automatic sorting system.

Officials found that “routine files” can be assessed 87 per cent faster using the system and decided to expand its use at visa posts around the globe in January.

The automated triage system has now also, it turns out, quietly started for the first time for a permanent immigration program.

Through an access-to-information request, Koltun learned the government signed off on the technology in April 2021 for use in processing sponsorship applications of foreign spouses who are in Canada.

Here’s how it works, according to an internal memo:

  • Based on “evidence-based, data driven rules” from past applications and decisions, the automated system identifies the low-complexity cases that would have a high likelihood of being approved without officer review;
  • These cases are placed in what’s known as the Green Bin, where officers will move on to conducting medical, criminal and security assessments to make sure the sponsored spouse is admissible to Canada; however,
  • The rest of the applications are referred to the Standard Bin, where they are assessed by officers for both eligibility and admissibility as per standard procedures.

The memo said the model was developed and tested using some 40,000 inland spousal applications processed in 2018 and 2019. It’s expected half of new applications would be slotted to the Green Bin for quicker processing.

The notes also pointed to “seven criteria” coded in the automated screening process, but redacted what those criteria were.

Immigration department spokesperson Rémi Larivière said the pilot program, launched in April 2021, showed the automated system was efficient and effective at identifying routine and straightforward cases for streamlined processing. Since June, it’s been used permanently to process inland spousal applications.

“The automated system never refuses or recommends refusing an application. Where there is a refusal decision, it is made by the officer based on their manual review of the application,” he noted.

Experts believe it’s just a matter of time before the triage system is adopted throughout the immigration system.

The pilot project comes amid ramped-up efforts by Canada to “modernize” the antiquated immigration system to cope with skyrocketing immigration backlogs that have reached more than two million applications in both temporary and permanent streams.

Since the project’s inception, about 25,000 applications have been triaged into the Green Bin while 24,620 have been referred to the Standard Bin. The automated system has been credited with driving down these applications’ overall processing time back to the 12-month pre-pandemic standard.

Larivière said the system uses a combination of rules developed by staff and rules generated through machine learning that have been assessed, adjusted if necessary, and reviewed.

Data used and rules developed through machine learning are vetted by lawyers, privacy experts, policy analysts and experienced immigration officers. The system is monitored to identify and mitigate risks related to bias, procedural fairness, privacy and accountability.

However, Koltun worries applications in the Green Bin would be less scrutinized and more likely to get a favourable decision by officers during the admissibility assessment as a result of the machine pre-screening.

“That can lead to unconscious bias, where if someone has been already approved (for eligibility), then you deem it more trustworthy,” he explained.

Permanent-resident applications take much longer to process than a temporary visa because of the extent of the scrutiny involved. Processing time for the federal skilled-worker program, for instance, averages 26 months, but a study permit only takes about 12 weeks.

“Now, all the applications are run through triaging and if I don’t meet the criteria, I will go into a slower processing queue,” said Koltun. “But if you meet the criteria, you will jump ahead of me. In a temporary-resident visa application, which is less complex, the impact of this is felt less.

“In spousal sponsorship, where processing times can range up to 24 months, the difference of being placed in this Green Bin versus the Standard Bin can be years. It’s also why applicants are very unhappy and confused with the process because they do see others who applied after them get their approvals, whereas they’ve been stuck.”

Critic Lou Janssen Dangzalan said the immigration department should communicate to the public that the first-come-first-served tenet the immigration system has run on is “out,” replaced with the automated triage.

“IRCC still continues this mythology that if you file now ahead of somebody else, your application is going to be treated first,” said Dangzalan, a founding member of the Canadian Immigration Lawyers Association.

“They’re dealing with people’s expectations. And in the context of a massive backlog, transparency and honesty is probably their best friend.”

The experts said the digital transformation of the immigration system is needed, but officials have to be more clear about the use of analytics and artificial intelligence in application processing.

Earlier this year, the parliamentary immigration committee studied the department’s advanced analytics program and another tool called Chinook software developed to fast-track processing of study permits.

The committee recommended officials publish information on all artificial intelligence software programs, and undertake proper public consultations regarding new technologies, as well as an independent oversight for the expanded use of artificial intelligence.

Koltun agreed that officials need to be more transparent about the rules used to triage in the automated system.

“IRCC’s overriding concern is program integrity and the notion that people will game the system, but you should know the case to meet for an enhanced processing,” said Koltun. “If IRCC is using objective criteria, it’s unclear to me how I could game the system.”

Larivière said the inland spousal sponsorship program is currently the only permanent immigration program that uses the advanced analytics for triage. He declined to comment if it will be expanded to other permanent streams.