After his father died of cancer, Ken Yu began entering Canada’s annual lottery in the hopes of winning an opportunity to sponsor his mother to come to this country as a permanent resident.
That was six years ago.
The Calgary banker has had no success. Instead, he’s been left despondent as he sees more recent immigrants win the draw and be reunited with their parents or grandparents through Canada’s immigration sponsorship program.
“It’s just so sad. We only have each other. I’m my mother’s only family on earth,” says the 38-year-old Yu, a product of China’s one-child policy, who came to Canada in 2008 as an international student and is now a Canadian citizen.
His only other option is a temporary visa for his 64-year-old mother, Cui Xing Jiang. Such a visa requires a costly private health insurance plan in Canada that serves to cover health emergencies, but nothing more.
“It really scares me if she gets sick here and it’s something that’s not covered in the insurance plan,” Yu says.
The concern over the costs of health insurance — anywhere between $1,800 and $5,000 a year — for visiting parents and grandparents like Yu’s is among the issues that a new bill before Parliament is hoping to address, in a bid to ease family reunification for Canadians who have parents and grandparents abroad.
Dubbed the Reuniting Families Act, Bill C-242 would, if passed, allow a parent or grandparent who applies for a temporary resident visa as a visitor to purchase private health insurance outside Canada and to stay in the country for a period of five years.
It would also require the immigration minister to prepare and table a report on reducing the minimum income requirement that a Canadian sponsor must meet for the visiting parent or grandparent to qualify to stay here for an extended period.
The changes are intended to lower the financial burden and minimize the hassles for Canadians seeking to bring their parents and grandparents to Canada.
Such visitors typically get a so-called super visa — a multiple-entry visitor visa valid for 10 years. The visa allows the holder to stay here for a maximum two years at a time. But in order to get a super visa, they must be covered by a Canadian health insurance company.
First launched in 2011 under the Conservative government, the super visa was introduced in a bid to provide temporary relief to separated family given the ballooning backlog in the parent and grandparent sponsorship program. (At the time, the backlog had reached 168,500.)
In the face of the backlog, then-immigration minister Jason Kenney also stopped accepting new applications for immigration sponsorships of parents and grandparents until 2014 before introducing an annual cap on the number of people invited to apply under the family reunification program.
The Liberal government later introduced the lottery system and, today, Canadians must submit an expression of “interest to sponsor” in an annual draw and only those who get picked can proceed to submit an application.
Sponsors must meet minimum income requirements and applicants with multiple children in Canada can file as many “interest to sponsor” to boost their chances. For instance, for a family of four, including the sponsored parents or grandparents, the income threshold was set for $48,167 in 2020.
Although there’s no more application backlog, the cap and the lottery system have been highly controversial and criticized as unfair because the selection is not based on things such as how much the sponsor needs the help of the parents in providing care and support or how long someone has been waiting.
Dima Amad of the Arab Community Centre of Toronto said the costs of travel and insurance and income thresholds can be “prohibitive” for access to the super visa, which she said some research suggested does not support family reunification because it prevents families from making meaningful long-term plans with parents or grandparents who are not able to stay long term.
“The new bill comes with much-needed improvements. … These are excellent improvements and we believe that it will greatly facilitate the lives and integration journey of many new immigrants,” Amad told the parliamentary immigration committee in a meeting this week.
“But we do believe that these measures should not be a substitute to the pathway for permanent relocations of parents and grandparents.”
Immigration lawyer Vance Langford said there are about 30 Canadian insurance companies offering private insurance for these visitors and authorizing foreign insurance companies could help encourage competition and lower the insurance costs for super visa applicants — between $1,800 and $5,000 a year. But program integrity is a concern.
“We would not object to a limited number of foreign insurance brokers and underwriters being subject to equivalent standards to brokers and underwriters in Canada,” said Langford, who spoke to the parliamentary committee on behalf of the Canadian Immigration Lawyers Association.
“We also recommend that any authorization of foreign health insurance involve robust information programs to make it clear that only authorized insurance brokers and underwriters are eligible to avoid the victimization of Canadians and their parents and grandparents.”
Immigration policy analyst Richard Kurland said extending the residence period to five years could have unintended consequences. Many of the super visa holders may end up applying for permanent residence on humanitarian grounds after their lengthy stay.
“We’re going to see extraordinary numbers of parents, grandparents stressed, anguished at the thought of forcibly being returned to the homeland after half a decade with their family in Canada. That’s cruel,” he said.
Instead, said Kurland, Ottawa should tackle the management of the immigration sponsorship program.
Currently, about 100,000 Canadians express their interest to sponsor their parents and grandparents in the annual draw for a limited number of application spots (20,000 pre-COVID in 2019 and 30,000 in 2021). The inventory is then emptied and anyone who fails to make it repeats the process.
Kurland said what immigration officials ought to do is stop taking in new “expressions of interests” until each candidate in the existing pool is cleared.
“It no longer is a question of if I can sponsor my family member. It is a question of when,” said Kurland.
Rohan Sekhri, who co-administers a Facebook group of 11,800 members interested in sponsoring parents and grandparents to Canada, said the proposed changes to the super visa program are only Band-Aid solutions for those not getting through the sponsorship process. He said the majority of the visa holders do intend to settle here permanently.
“The current parents/grandparents sponsorship program is luck-based rather than needs-based. We have had members who have been waiting for years and haven’t been able to sponsor,” said Sekhri, 36, whose 69-year-old mother stays with him in Toronto on a super visa. Her health insurance costs $2,800 a year.
How long a super visa holder gets to stay in Canada at a time is something that’s left to the discretion of border officials at the port of entry, he said. They often limit the stay to 12 months. That means, the visitor must pay $100 to apply to extend the stay each time or fly home and return again.
For their part, immigration officials have told the parliamentary committee that there’s no need to bring in changes to the super visa program.
“Under the current super visa, clients can request extensions while here, meaning that they already have the possibility to stay for five years or even longer without needing to leave Canada,” said Michele Kingsley, a director general of the immigration department.
“Allowing foreign providers as proposed by the bill would require consultations with health-sector experts, as well as with provinces and territories to determine which criteria should be included in such a designation scheme. Simply put, there are many unknown impacts of broadening health insurance to foreign providers.”
When questioned by MPs about the social, economic and cultural benefits of the proposed changes in the bill, Kingsley said it’s hard to quantify but believed the super visa and sponsorship programs strike the right balance between short- and long-term family reunifications.
Helen Archer of Victoria, B.C., an immigrant from Russia, said her family has benefitted a great deal from the presence of her mother, Valentina Pitirimova, who has allowed Archer and her husband to work without worrying about costly daycare for their two boys, both under 11.
The super visa, said the 39-year-old accountant, is an expensive option for her mother, who didn’t get invited to apply for sponsorship in three attempts and is paying $320 a month for a Canadian health plan for emergency coverage on top of $420 US to an American insurance provider for regular visits to doctors.
“It’s good that they’re extending the super visa to five years and allowing foreign insurance coverage, considering how important my mom’s presence for my family,” said Archer. “But what’s most frustrating for us is the uncertainty over the lottery system. You have to understand how stressful that is for my mother and my family.”
Daniel Egusquiza, whose brother and sister are also in Canada, said his parents, both accountants, have been visiting since 2000s but only considered settling in Canada in 2016 after their retirement because they wanted to be with their children and grandchildren. They have entered the pool perennially since but yet to get invited to apply.
Meanwhile, the Montreal IT project manager’s father, Luis, 71, and mother Corina, 66, have bought a house and established a new life here despite the uncertainty over their pathway for permanent residence.
Egusquiza said he would like to see the lottery system replaced by a point system similar to the skilled-immigrant programs, in which candidates are awarded points for personal attributes that indicate their potential success. In the cases of parents and grandparents, applicants’ time spent in Canada and their contributions to the family here should all be factored in, Egusquiza said.
The 39-year-old Peruvian worries that there will be a point when his parents will no longer be “insurable” due to their age and health conditions, and have to pack and leave if they still can’t secure a sponsorship spot to stay permanently.
“We need that peace of mind,” said Egusquiza. “For us, our family is everything.”
The immigration committee will continue to hear from witnesses before making a final report with recommendations for adoption of the proposed changes.
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