COVID-19 has forced the near-shut down of the Canadian immigration system, disrupting thousands of lives, including that of John and Donna McCall, pictured in this family handout photo from last fall with their family. The McCall children, Ian (second from right) and Meghan (far left), are American and can’t come to Canada to help take care of their mother, whose health is failing. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-McCall Family Mandatory Credit

Thousands of lives on hold as immigration system remains largely shut down

Thousands of families are separated amid travel and movement restrictions during the pandemic

John McCall’s great-grandfather was born in southern Ontario some 200 years ago, and ever since the descendents of his seven children, some living in Canada, some in the U.S, have criss-crossed the border with ease.

Until COVID-19.

John is American, his wife Donna is Canadian. They live now in Madoc, Ont., and Donna’s health is fading. Their American-born children are stuck in the U.S., unable to visit or help care for her due to bans on travel into Canada to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

So it hurts, John says, to watch the federal government swiftly decide whether professional athletes can come to Canada while the only answer to his pleas for compassion are an auto-response from bureaucrats and form letters from ministers.

“I don’t have a particular problem with the NHL or Major League Baseball, other than the fact that it does hurt to see those kinds of things take precedence over a life-and-death issue,” he said.

The McCall family is one of thousands separated, some by the Canada-U.S. border, others by oceans, due to the wide-ranging impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on Canada’s immigration system.

The border closure is the dominant element keeping so many apart, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suggested Thursday restrictions won’t lift soon.

“I understand how difficult it is to see these travel restrictions in place but Canadians understand that keeping our cities, our municipalities, our elders, our frontline workers safe by preventing international travel is a continued thing we need to do,” he said.

READ MORE: South Surrey man says he had no trouble entering U.S. to visit fiancée

Another question is how fast new immigrants will be able to get here once the borders do open.

Visa and biometrics collection offices around the world are closed, meaning would-be newcomers can’t be interviewed or submit the materials they need for their applications.

Even applications already in the queue are on hold. Where the Immigration Department used to post processing times, there is now just a message saying that due to COVID-19, it can’t.

Noor Ul Ain Mahmood has been waiting over a year for her application to sponsor her spouse to be approved. He is in Saudi Arabia, she in Oshawa, Ont., their plans for a future together on pause.

It’s not just that they are missing the chance to mark milestones together like birthdays or Eid, she said.

“The worst thing is we are under a global crisis right now, there is a pandemic, and we’re in isolation and we’ve been in isolation for so long,” she said.

“You always need your family to be able to go through something like that.”

The Liberals had planned to admit 341,000 new permanent residents this year.

As of the end of May, 84,275 had arrived, down from 125,870 by the same time last year.

The numbers this year compared to last are likely to drop further, as Canada typically welcomes more immigrants later in the year, said Howard Ramos, a sociology professor at Western University who researches immigration.

There are two plausible scenarios, he said.

The first is the government rolls over the number of people it was willing to admit this year into next year, creating a double cohort.

The other is that the flow of people slows down as potential newcomers, particularly economic immigrants, choose other countries where the novel coronavirus is less prevalent. Given that so much of Canada’s economic growth is fuelled by migration, that is a worrying scenario, he said.

“The time to have been working on this was immediately back in March, and it cannot be postponed,” Ramos said.

“It’s going to require bold decisionmaking.”

Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino declined an interview request. In a statement, his office said the government is doing its best to keep applications moving but the focus must remain on public health.

“The pandemic has resulted in unprecedented challenges at the border, and we know this has been a difficult time for families and others who are making their way through the immigration system,” the statement said.

Whether Canada will make more room for immigrants next year is a pressing question for refugee resettlement.

More than 10,000 refugees were caught in limbo when the world’s borders suddenly slammed shut in March, said Sabine Lehr, the program manager for private sponsorship of refugees at the Inter-Cultural Association of Greater Victoria in British Columbia.

All were already approved to come to Canada, but the flights organized by the International Organization for Migration were cancelled. Some were even turned back practically mid-air, she said.

Though urgent cases have been let in since, it’s completely unclear when the rest will be able to arrive, she said.

“Our concern is that the processing times will get longer if people cannot land,” she said.

“Obviously they will eventually land, but what it means is if the numbers don’t get increased for next year to account for this situation, we’ll be seeing longer processing times and that’s what nobody wants.”

The federal government has made some exceptions to existing travel restrictions.

In June, close family members of citizens or permanent residents were added to the list of those allowed into Canada, a move that came after very public pressure on the Liberals.

But the definition of close family didn’t include adult children. Mendicino’s office did not explain why.

That’s how McCall finds himself caring for his wife alone, his daughter in Wisconsin, his son in Illinois, unable to be with them.

Donna McCall has been in and out of hospital since February with a cascading series of problems that now have her on a liver-transplant list.

John’s voice breaks as he shares how his kids are ready to put their lives on hold to come to Canada at moment’s notice.

Among the arrangements: his daughter is married to a police officer and other officers’ wives have set up a system to help look after their three kids.

That so many pro sports players are being let in doesn’t bother him as much as the belief the government just doesn’t care about life-or-death situations, he said.

“It’s un-Canadian-like,” he said.

To let in NHL players, as well as the Toronto Blue Jays for spring training, the government had to grant them a waiver in the “national interest,” and if they can do that, they can figure out a better system for families, said David Poon.

The Regina doctor’s long-time partner is stuck in Ireland as they don’t qualify as common-law under the Immigration Department’s definition.

Poon has joined forces with families like McCall’s to try to convince the government to adopt a special COVID-19 immigration approach that would impose specific conditions on family members not currently covered by exemptions.

“We’re not asking for open borders,” Poon said.

“We’re just asking to be together.”

Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

CoronavirusImmigration

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

“We have to make a call out to address this now so our people don’t have to feel fearful,” said Tribal Chief Mina Holmes. (Carrier Sekani Tribal Council Facebook photo)
Carrier Sekani Tribal Council seeks Indigenous-led task force in northern B.C. hospitals

Request made in an open letter to federal minister Carolyn Bennett

Ellis Ross (left), BC Liberal party, celebrated with his wife, Tracey after being named the preliminary winner of the 2020 snap provincial election.
Ross presumptive Skeena winner in snap B.C. election

Election outcome will not be official until mail-in ballots are counted

Voting has officially closed throughout B.C. for the 2020 snap provincial election. (Clare Rayment)
Map of Skeena polling stations

Watch the updates on the map below as polling stations are counted throughout Skeena riding

NDP headquarters on election night, Oct. 24, 2020. (Katya Slepian/Black Press Media)
ELECTION 2020: Live blog from B.C. party headquarters

BC NDP projected to win majority government – but celebrations will look different this election

B.C. Green Party leader Sonia Furstenau outlines her party's climate action platform at Nanaimo's Vancouver Island Conference Centre earlier this month. (News Bulletin file photo)
Green leader Furstenau declared victor in her home riding on Vancouver Island

Cowichan Valley voters elect freshly minted party leader for her second term

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry arrives for briefing on the COVID-19 situation, B.C. legislature, Oct. 26, 2020 (B.C. government)
B.C. records 217 more COVID-19 cases, mask use urged

Infection spike continues, 21 senior facilities affected

An elderly woman wearing a face mask to curb the spread of COVID-19 walks past an advertisement for a television series in Vancouver, B.C., Sunday, Aug. 30, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. has been under a COVID-19 state of emergency for more than half the year

Province has been under a state of emergency for 32 weeks – and counting

Los Angeles Dodgers celebrate after defeating the Tampa Bay Rays 3-1 to win the baseball World Series in Game 6 Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
L.A. Dodgers beat Rays 3-1 to win 1st World Series title since 1988

National League champs claim crown in six games

Seven-year-old Aaliyah Rosa was found dead in an apartment in Langley in July. (Langley Advance Times files)
Child’s body cold, no pulse: Off-duty cop testifies in Langley mother’s murder trial

The seven-year-old girl’s mother faces a first-degree murder charge

Tyrell Giroux was arrested by Williams Lake RCMP on Sunday, Oct. 25. (Facebook video screenshot)
Tsilhqot’in leaders call for suspension of officers seen in controversial Williams Lake arrest

Disturbing video demands an immediate, independent investigation, says TNG

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

People march during a climate strike in Montreal, Friday, Sept. 27, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
Judge rejects 15 youths’ climate change lawsuit against Canadian government

Justice Michael Manson has granted the government’s motion to strike the plaintiffs’ claim

A woman walks through check in at WestJet at Pearson International airport during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Strong support for pre-flight COVID testing ahead of upcoming WestJet trial: YVR

Airport is partnering with UBC, which is helping choose the method of pre-flight testing

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau provides an update on the COVID pandemic during a press conference in Ottawa on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Trudeau says pandemic ‘really sucks,’ and that Christmas gatherings are up in the air

The prime minister encouraged residents to continue to follow the advice of local health authorities

Most Read