By Candice So June 9, 2012 6:02 PM
EDMONTON — When Frances Bustamante applied to immigrate to Canada from the Philippines six years ago, she wanted to live in Edmonton to be near her sister and start a better life.
This April, she was devastated to learn the Canadian government might return her application, leaving her in a no man’s land of paperwork, phone calls and unanswered questions.
“I really got frustrated, I was so excited,” Bustamante says. “I’ve lived here all my life and for the past five years, I’ve been waiting.”
In her bid to move to Canada, Bustamante applied under the federal skilled-worker category because she now works as a repair technician for a conductor company in the Philippines. Bustamante hopes to give her nine-month-old daughter, Anya, a new life.
Bustamante is one of 300,000 immigration applicants who are uncertain about whether their future lies in Canada or whether they will have to remain in their home countries and start the process again.
On March 30, the federal government announced it would be returning “stale” applications and fees to anyone who applied under the federal skilled-worker category before Feb. 27, 2008. While 20,000 applications are still up for consideration, the other 280,000 would-be immigrants will now have to reapply, even if they have waited five or six years.
Much of the workforce in Alberta is buoyed by immigrant workers. While the official numbers on immigration won’t be available until 2013, the 2011 census ranks Edmonton as third among major Canadian cities for population growth in the past five years, at 12.1 per cent. Whitehorse and Calgary top the list at 13.6 per cent and 12.6 per cent, respectively, while Toronto sits at 9.2 per cent.
The provincial government has estimated as many as 114,000 jobs will go unfilled by 2021, which means skilled workers like Bustamante could be in demand.
Tim Shipton, president of the Alberta Enterprise Group, is concerned about the lack of skilled workers coming into the province. His group is part of the Alberta Coalition for Action on Labour Shortages, which was formed this spring to lobby the federal government.
“The real concern, of course, is that if we can’t find the people, it’s going to slow down economic growth,” he says. “It makes no sense for people who are ready to work and have the skills needed to be sitting in some government queue.
“Meanwhile, Australia’s approving people on the spot, you get off the plane and you’re approved … countries like Australia, quite frankly, are running circles around Canada.”
Shipton says returning applications of skilled workers would only be a temporary setback if it meant the government would get a fresh start in processing cases.
“You don’t want anybody who’s worked their way through the queue to get screwed over,” he says. “But … what we support is the system being reformed to put more emphasis on the economy. We’ll leave it up to the government to sort out the fairness of the process.”
In an email, a Citizenship and Immigration Canada spokesperson said returning the applications was necessary to stay abreast with changes in the labour market, and to keep up with competitors like Australia and New Zealand. In March, the department also said the number of federal skilled-worker applications had been piling up, creating a backlog that would see some applicants waiting until 2017 for a decision. Last year, the department put a cap on the number of new applications in an attempt to stem the swelling backlog, reducing the number of applicants from an estimated 850,000 to 470,000.
“A new processing system is not a luxury but a necessity if we are to keep pace with our competitors for global talent,” the department said in the email, adding that new applications can now be processed within a year.
But Erick Ambtman, executive director of the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers, says solving the problem is not as easy as cutting red tape and simplifying paperwork. Among immigrants’ biggest concerns is reuniting their families, he says, and often that means bringing them to Canada.
And while adjusting the criteria for the federal skilled-worker category might be positive in some ways, there’s a human aspect to immigration that can’t be ignored, he argues.
And there’s never been much clarity in how the system works, says Bustamante’s sister, Chissa Schmuhl, who immigrated here 10 years ago as a live-in nanny. Now a Canadian citizen, she also works at the Mennonite centre, where she regularly sees immigrants who are rocked by a barrage of changes in immigration policy. But returning these applications was a change that hits closer to home, she says.
“I was confident (Bustamante) could apply,” Schmuhl says. “It’s really unfair because it was quite a bit of a wait … It wasn’t a very good decision from (Immigration Minister Jason Kenney).”
Although Schmuhl has married an Edmontonian and put down roots here, she says the city would feel even more like home if her family were able to join her here. Her sister, Odessa, arrived in Canada in mid-May, but Schmuhl is still waiting for news about another sister, her parents and her 10-year-old niece.
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