OTTAWA - New legislation introduced Wednesday by the Conservative government gives greater powers to the immigration and public safety ministers to determine who gets to come and stay in Canada.
It's the latest in a series of changes that have given the immigration minister in particular far more individual say over immigration matters.
The new law, called the Faster Removal of Foreign Criminals Act, seeks to cut off avenues for convicted criminals to appeal their deportation.
Currently, anyone who is not a Canadian citizen and is sentenced to less than two years in prison can appeal the automatic deportation order that comes along with a jail term.
But the new law would see that right cut off for sentences of greater than six months, even for permanent residents who have been in Canada for decades.
"I'm more concerned about the rights of law-abiding Canadians who have been victimized by foreign criminals who have delayed their deportation, than I am about the rights of foreign national citizens who committed serious crimes in Canada," Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said.
"The one way they can stay in Canada for good is to either become citizens or not commit serious crimes. I don't think that's too much to ask."
The government argues that convicted criminals abuse the existing appeal system to avoid deportation and, in the meantime, remain in Canada for years.
Officials cited examples such as the case of a Peruvian man who sexually assaulted a senior citizen, served 18 months in jail and then managed to delay his deportation by four years.
Kenney said many immigrants convicted of crimes avoid deportation because they are sentenced to less than two years in prison.
According to Statistics Canada, 86 per cent of prison sentences in 2010-11 were for six months or less.
Officials with the immigration department say there are more than 2,700 deportation orders currently being appealed, with the average file taking 15 months to process.
The proposed legislation also makes it more difficult for those convicted of crimes abroad — and their families — to get into Canada.
It denies entry to the spouses and children of those deemed inadmissable to Canada, such as war criminals.
It also removes the right to appeal on humanitarian or compassionate grounds for people refused entry to Canada on the basis of security, rights violation or organized crime.
Those turned away do have the right to appeal directly to the minister of public safety, but the new law would only require the minister to take only national security and public safety factors into account, not humanitarian concerns.
Another provision would allow the minister of public safety to overturn a ruling of inadmissability "on his or her own initiative."
The department said this would, for example, allow the minister to admit heads of state into Canada who would ordinarily be considered inadmissable due to past infractions in their home countries.
Officials were quick to clarify this wouldn't mean war criminals.
Meanwhile, the immigration minister would be given the power to deny someone entry into Canada on the basis of "public policy considerations," such as a foreign national who promotes violence against a religious group.
Since 2008, Kenney has quietly been amassing more control over immigration, beginning with the use of a device called a "ministerial instruction" that revamped the skilled worker program in a bid to eradicate a major backlog of applications.
In the government's refugee reform bill, currently before the Senate, the minister is given singular power to draw up a list of safe countries from which those claiming refugee status would receive greater scrutiny.
In the latest proposed legislation, Kenney said the new powers are justified and mirror what other western countries do.
"We needed a power that we could use quickly," Kenney said.
"If someone is standing on the boarding ramp at an airplane in Heathrow, ready to come to the country, and we find out that they have a long track record of promoting violent anti-Semitism or violence against women or gays and lesbians, frankly we don't have the luxury of convening various consultative committees."
Kenney said he'll consult with other parties, when he has time, as he doesn't want the ministerial power to become political.
But opposition critics said it's a troubling trend.
"We have a parliamentary democracy for a reason and when you have a parliamentary democracy it is so that legislation and issues can be debate by parliament," said NDP Immigration critic Jinny Sims.
"When the minister goes to the House of Commons ... and they get centralized into the minister more and more of the power, it does give you concern because then you no longer have a parliamentary democracy, you are moving more and more towards an autocracy with power centred into the minister's hands."
The bill came after a week in which Kenney was forced to apologize for an email, in which he used profane terms to describe Alberta's deputy premier.
Liberal immigration critic Kevin Lamoureux accused the minister of trying to change the channel by introducing the bill in the waning days of the spring session of Parliament.
The House of Commons is expected to rise as early as Thursday for the summer.
"They've pulled this issue because they want to give the impression they want to be tough on crime. This time it is at the expense of immigrants and what people are going to be thinking about immigrants in general, when a vast majority of immigrants have built our country," Lamoureux said.
Kenney said the bill was a platform commitment in the last election and it was time to follow through on the promise. He said officials have been reviewing the inadmissability system for the last two years.
"It's frankly been a lengthy process to come up with just the right balance and in the past (minority) Parliament there was no chance of this measure being adopted," he said.
Kenney said the new bill will follow the usual legislative process and there will be time for opposition MPs to provide input on how the new system should work.
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