10/14/2013 05:13 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 18:58 EST

Longtime resident seeking citizenship hits bureaucratic wall

A retired bank manager who has lived and worked in B.C. since 1965 is going public in frustration over red tape that blocked him from obtaining citizenship and a passport.

“Life is put on hold,” said Gerd Nitzek, 70, who wants to travel during precious retirement years. “It’s a big disappointment. I feel like maybe I am not welcome after all.”

German-born Nitzek is a permanent resident, among more than a quarter of a million people caught in a chronic backlog of citizenship applications. He worked for Bank of America in Vancouver for 27 years and has owned the same West Vancouver home since the '80s.

He’s also been married to a Canadian for two decades.

“He’s been here forever. He’s been a taxpayer. He’s been a resident. We’re homeowners. We really didn’t expect there were going to be any issues,” said his wife Karen.

No previous need for passport

Nitzek said he didn’t apply before now, because he had no need for a passport.

“I went down to the [immigration] office I think about 40 years ago, actually, and I ended up in a huge lineup,” said Nitzek. “I was waiting and waiting just to get the forms. And after about two hours — that’s it — I’m leaving.”

Until recently, he said, he wasn't completely ready to relinquish his German/EU passport.

After his wife retired in 2010, Nitzek decided he needed a Canadian passport to enter the U.S. and stay for the winters. The couple invested in an RV and would like to spend up to six months down south.

“Now we feel we can’t do that,” said Karen. “We are lost in the shuffle.”

Nitzek is only allowed to enter the States for three months at a time on his German passport. He said he gets increasingly scrutinized at the border, too. One U.S. officer eyed him with suspicion, Nitzek said, asking why he hasn’t become a Canadian.

“He thought I was entering the States under whatever pretense,” said Nitzek.

So he filed to get his citizenship in 2011 and waited a year for an appointment. The couple figured that soon after, they would be celebrating.

“We were so excited, going down for this initial meeting,” said Karen.

'Can't do anything'

The government bureaucrat, however, refused to put his application through, because he hadn’t brought along a misplaced, decade-old expired German passport.

“She threw up her hands. ‘Can’t do anything for you,’” he said. “I asked, ‘Can I come back for another appointment?’ ‘No. Absolutely not.’ Categorically, no. And there was no one else to talk to.”

Nitzek had brought his current passport, and submitted reams of documentation to prove he’d been living in Canada and paying taxes for four decades. 

“If we had known the importance of this [expired] document we would have hunted high and low,” said Karen.

He went home, found his expired passport and sent it immediately with a longer application form he’d been given. He then heard nothing, for seven months.

Then, after his wife wrote to the minister’s office, they were told Nitzek would have to wait another three years for a formal hearing before a judge.

“Our records confirm that citizenship officers in Vancouver have determined that your husband must appear for a hearing with a citizenship judge to review residency issues,” read an Immigration Department email to Karen in January of this year.

3-year wait to see a judge

“However, there is a delay of 36 months for hearing appointments in Vancouver, due to a large number of applicants waiting to appear before a citizenship judge.”

“And we fell off our chairs at that point. We thought what the heck. It was unbelievable,” said Karen. “I just think it’s a terrible waste. And the cost of a judge!”

“I couldn’t believe that now they are questioning my residency status,” said Nitzek. “Three years from now, I see this judge and the judge looks at the file and says, ‘Why on earth do you need a hearing?’”

Immigration lawyers told Go Public there is no justifiable reason this should go that far.

“Something is severely broken in the citizenship system,” said Vancouver lawyer Richard Kurland, who obtained government documents showing 51 per cent of all applications were sent to a judicial hearing in the second quarter of 2012-13. That’s up from 30 per cent a year earlier.

“We’re hearing this again and again. Where people with clear evidence of residency in Canada to qualify for citizenship get the runaround and are told it will take three years to see a citizenship judge to work out the wrinkles.”

Kurland said he believes public servants are increasingly fearful of making discretionary calls, because the current government is telling them to give applicants more scrutiny.

“People within citizenship are too scared to make that executive decision. This is easy as pie. A simple supervisor should have been able to fix this.”

At the end of last year, 349,249 people were caught in the citizenship application backlog. The posted wait time for "routine" cases is two years. Kurland said the wait can be up to six, if the applicant is sent to appear before a judge.

Go Public gets results

As a result of Go Public’s inquiries, however, Nitzek will not have to wait three more years after all.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada said his file will still be sent to a judge for approval, as they all are, but indicated a hearing is no longer needed.

“Mr. Nitzek’s file is expected to be reviewed by a citizenship officer in the near future after which it will be sent to a citizenship judge for decision. Assuming it is approved, Mr. Nitzek would then be scheduled to participate in a citizenship ceremony, which is normally the final step.”

The ministry indicated he should have a date for that ceremony by April of next year — 35 months after he first applied —stating, "Mr. Nitzek’s case is on track to be finalized within that time."

The government also insisted it is taking steps to reduce the backlog.

"Many such reforms have taken place over the last year, and together, all of our combined measures will result in faster processing of citizenship applications."

The Nitzeks said they remain baffled by how rigid and bureaucratic the whole process was.

“This is an embarrassment, I think, for the Canadian government,” said Karen, pointing out the couple doesn't know why the case was sent to a hearing in the first place.

“If you are told, here are the reasons, why then I understand that. But at least tell me the reasons why there is an issue,” said her husband.

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