Blair Hacche, who has been in Canada since February 2013, lives with Canadian fiancée Jenn Ward in Dorchester, where they are raising 13-month-old son, Dexter and six-year-old Ewan, Ward's son from a previous relationship.
Hacche applied for residency this July, but he's now facing a wait of more than a year before his application is initially approved, leaving him unable to work and support his young family in the meantime.
"[It's] definitely been a struggle financially to keep the mortgage paid and keep up with all the bills. That's definitely the biggest strain," Hacche told Go Public.
Hacche, a university-educated computer programmer, applied for residency under the spouse sponsorship program, which goes through two stages of processing.
The average processing time for the first stage, an initial assessment of the couple, stood at 16 months at the time of writing. The second, a series of medical and background checks, adds an extra eight months.
Applicants are not eligible for a temporary work permit to cover the first stage of the process. Hacche applied for a temporary work permit but was rejected and cannot find an employer to sponsor another application.
Hacche says the family is now buried in debt. They've had to borrow money just to purchase the basics, including diapers, formula and food.
"It's very tough, very taxing, stressful beyond anything I could have imagined," Ward said. "We're just going through a lot right now."
Since Hacche he can't get a job, Ward has had to cut her maternity leave short and head back to work. But with two children, a single income isn't enough.
"Because we now have Dex together here and Jen has her son Ewan from a previous marriage, it means we have to stay in Canada," he said.
CIC suggests applying outside Canada
CIC told Hacche in an email that if he wants to speed things up, he should leave the country and apply from the outside.
The average wait times for spouse applications from outside Canada are two months for approval of the sponsor, plus another period for approval of the applicant, which varies by country. In the case of New Zealand, it adds 11 months.
Hacche said applying outside Canada would mean leaving his fiancée and her son and taking baby Dexter with him to New Zealand.
He said he would have no choice but to take the toddler as it would be too hard for Ward to work and take care of both children on her own. And in the end, he said, the process would only be slightly faster.
"It would be devastating, even though I understand it would be temporary," he said.
"To have potentially half my family ripped apart even for six months or a year I can't even think of that happening. It doesn't seem like that should be an option."
Hacche said he sent a letter pleading his case to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and was told the PMO forwarded it to Minister of Immigration Chris Alexander.
Hacche said he has never received a response.
Go Public also contacted Alexander, but had not heard back yet.
10,000 spouse applicants left in limbo
Klaudios Mustaskas, who worked at the CIC for 37 years, first as a visa officer then as a manager, knows the immigration system inside and out.
Now an immigration adviser for Ontario law firm Pace, Mustaskas said Hacche's story is a common one.
Mustakas estimates there are more than 10,000 spouses of Canadians waiting to become permanent residents from within Canada, while struggling keeping their families intact.
While their applications are in limbo, these inland applicants cannot work or get provincial health coverage, and if they leave the country for any reason, they risk being turned away at the border on their return.
"The family has to exhaust all of their savings because they have to wait 15 months [average wait at time of interview] before the breadwinner is allowed to work. If — God forbid — they have to go on welfare, the sponsorship is null and void because you cannot sponsor someone who is on welfare," he told Go Public.
"The other issue is the health benefits. So if the spouse has to wait 15 months before they are entitled to receive OHIP [Ontario Health Insurance], that's a significant drain on the family's financial situation."
'CIC should issue work authorization'
Mustakas said the solution is simple. He suggests that once the CIC determines the marriage or common-law relationship with a Canadian partner is legitimate, it allows inland applicants to work while waiting for the application to be assessed.
"CIC should issue them a temporary work authorization until they make the final decision. What's the harm in allowing somebody to work who's married to a Canadian or a Canadian permanent resident?" he said.
The CIC already does that for other groups.
Spouses of foreign students can apply for a work authorization as soon as they arrive in Canada, and are also covered by provincial health insurance. Refugee claimants are also eligible to work once they make their claim.
Mustakas said immigrant spouses like Hacche should have the same rights.
As for the delays, Mastakas said wait times are almost three times longer than just a few years ago and there is no obvious reason why.
"Nobody knows. CIC has closed all of their access to the public. So you really don't know why they are taking so long," he said.
"If the excuse is, 'We want to investigate to make sure it's a bona fide relationship,' the reality is they don't do investigations. CIC isn't mandated to do any outside investigations, so I really don't understand why it takes so long."
CIC says backlog reduced by nearly 50%
Go Public asked the CIC about the delays.
The department said two years ago, it launched what it calls the Action Plan for Faster Family Reunification, with a goal of reducing the backlog of applicants.
CIC spokesperson Sonia Lesage said that program has been successful, reducing the backlog by nearly 50 per cent.
"The Government of Canada is committed to improving processing times and reducing backlogs, and has taken action to do so. We are improving the way we process applications so that it’s faster and more efficient," she said.
Mastakas and Hacche disagree, pointing to the thousands of people who are still waiting for a more than a year just to able to work and get health care.
"I would just like to work … I wouldn't really worry about how long I had to wait for residence if I was allow to work while waiting. So really, my only goal is just to get back to work, to support my family," Hacche said.
Hacche and Ward's relationship was a long time in the making. The couple met online 12 years ago, but it wasn't until February 2013 that Hacche came to Canada to meet Ward in person.
They've been together ever since, but the couple fears this situation could be the one thing that may separate them and their young family.
"We're just grasping at straws right now," Ward said. "We're just going to try to do whatever we can to get everything over with.
"We just want to get on with our life together as a family, so he is going back to New Zealand if it helps speed the process up. We don't really know what to do."
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