Government missed the most important reform in amending citizenship legislation

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OP-ED

by Andrew Griffith & Robert Vineberg

The Hill Times
November 20, 2017

OTTAWA—Recent amendments to the Citizenship Act rolled back many of the restrictive provisions introduced by the previous government. These include reducing the residence period to apply for citizenship from four out of the previous six years to three out of five years; allowing half of the time spent in Canada before becoming a permanent resident to count towards the residence period for citizenship; and, removing the provision that allowed dual citizens convicted of treason, spying or terrorism to be stripped of their Canadian citizenship and deported. Now, as before, they will face Canadian justice. In addition, the new legislation replaces the minister or his delegate—in practice, a mid-level official—as the decision-maker in citizenship revocation cases based on misrepresentation or fraud at the time of application. Once again, these cases will be determined by the Federal Court.

The government has, however, overlooked the biggest barrier to citizenship erected by the previous government: cost. Prior to 2014, an applicant for Canadian citizenship paid a $100 fee and adults paid an additional “right of citizenship” fee of $100. Thus, a family of four had to pay $600 for their citizenship applications. However, in February 2014, the previous government increased that fee to $300 and then, in 2015, increased it again to $530 plus the $100 right of citizenship fee for adults. Therefore, since 2015, the cost for a family of four applying for citizenship has soared to $1,460. The government of the time argued that this reflected the costs of processing applications.

In addition, in the Canada Gazette, the government argued, disingenuously or stupidly (take your choice), that “the fee increase will not impact the naturalization rate as the value placed on obtaining citizenship is very high and the benefits associated with obtaining citizenship far outweigh the fee increases. Thus, the number of applications expected per year is not anticipated to fall following an increase in the fees.”

Now anyone who has taken economics 101 knows that price affects demand. So what has happened in reality? In 2015, before the new fees took effect, there were 130,227 applications and 252,187 people received citizenship. However, in 2016, only 92,197 applications were received and 147,791 people received citizenship—a drop of 41 per cent. And in the first six months of 2017, the precipitous drop continued. Only 51,412 were granted citizenship as opposed to 98,418 in the first six months of 2016—a further drop of 48 per cent. So who was right, the previous government or graduates of economics 101? Clearly the outrageous new fees are a huge impediment for newcomers, often struggling to make ends meet. 

Some of the reduction in applications is due to other factors. Lengthening residency requirements to four out of six years had a one-time impact as those meeting the previous three year minimum had to delay their applications. Similarly, the extension of language and knowledge testing to applicants aged 55 to 64 (about seven per cent of all applications) meant fewer applications from that age group. However, the greater part of the drop in applications is due to the fees increase.

Now, after two years of the higher fees, the number of applications has recovered slightly but remains far short of the historic average of some 200,000 annually. A further worrying fact is that applications from poorer newcomers, in particular refugees, have declined even more than for other immigrants.

Now you may ask, what difference does this make? It makes a huge difference. The entire Canadian immigration policy is based on the premise that it is a continuum, starting with a person applying overseas and ending with him or her becoming a Canadian citizen. It is critical that newcomers participate fully in Canadian civil society and feel part of civil society. And they cannot do so if they do not become Canadian citizens.

The benefit of newcomers becoming citizens as soon as possible vastly outweighs the government’s need to recover costs of processing. It seems paradoxical at best that’ at the same time the government promotes diversity and inclusion, and increases immigration levels, it retains a major barrier to immigrants wishing to participate fully in Canadian society. 

The cost for adults applying for citizenship must be reduced to at most $300, including the $100 right of citizenship fee, and quickly.

Robert Vineberg was formerly director general of Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s Prairies and Northern Territories region. Andrew Griffith was formerly director general of Citizenship and Multiculturalism.

Image credit: Andrew Meade

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