Ottawa's Shuts the Door on Half of Family Reunification Applications--Two articles from Ottawa Citizen

Stephen Harper in Haiti Feb 2010.jpg

Prime Minister Harper visits Haiti in February 2010

On the Fast Track from Haiti to Nowhere

By Kelly Patterson, Ottawa Citizen, Feb 14, 2011

The government has shut the door on an Ottawa man’s attempt to be united with the daughter he didn’t know he had until she was an adult, writes KELLY PATTERSON.

When the earthquake struck Haiti a year ago, Kelly Fontil faced the question every parent dreads: Was his daughter dead? What about his only grandchild, born in Port-au-Prince six months before?

A year ago, Kelly Fontil applied to have his daughter come to Canada under the expedited family reunification program for Haiti after the earthquake. Despite letters of support from Minister John Baird, a senator and another MP, he was refused. Luckily both survived, but now Fontil faces a new form of grief: Just months after the disaster, federal officials slammed the door on his appeal to bring the family to safety with him in Ottawa, despite letters of support from then-transport minister John Baird, as well as a senator and two MPs.

A tailor who has run a modest shop in the ByWard Market for 27 years, he spent months on a paperchase for documents such as birth certificates that had been destroyed in the disaster. The day Fontil sent them in — before the deadline — his rejection letter from the ministry was already waiting in his mailbox.

“Obviously they didn’t even look at her file,” says Fontil, in his unfailingly soft-spoken and restrained manner. “They didn’t do anything” — except collect the $1,250 fee for processing his application.

When he pressed his case, the ministry threatened to deport him. Now, he says, the government is holding onto the documents he submitted, such as his daughter’s birth certificate and school diploma, leaving her in legal limbo in Haiti. Since July, he has been pleading for their return.

It’s a Kafka-esque ordeal that critics say is all-too-common for families who have applied to the government’s fast-track immigration program for earthquake victims.

After the catastrophe struck last January, killing more than 220,000 people, federal officials launched the Haiti Special Measures program, which pledged to cut processing times for victims applying to join close relatives in Canada, through so-called “family-class” applications for permanent-residence status. Last week, on a request from the Citizen, the ministry released figures showing they had rejected almost 50 per cent of those requests. About 18 per cent were ruled ineligible, and 31 per cent were unable to produce the required paperwork by the given deadlines. By contrast, the average approval rate for family-class applications from all nations from 2009-2010 was 83 per cent, ministry figures show. (See that Citizen article below).

Fabienne Lozis, president of the Union des Haitiens de l’Outaouais, says the federal program has been mired in red tape, forcing Haitians to endure long delays and ruinous costs to retrieve the required documents. “It’s a mess, a real mess,” declares Lozis, saying officials have been sticklers for original records, such as birth certificates, which are difficult to get since the quake. Desperate applicants sometimes have to scrounge as much as $500 in bribes to get a replacement document, says Lozis.

In a country like Haiti “we should expect some practicality from officials,” says Peter Showler, an immigration-law expert at the University of Ottawa. For example, he says, officials could accept the testimony of community elders in lieu of birth certificates. Quebec did just that in the wake of the disaster in Haiti; by January, Quebec had approved more than 3,000 applications.

By contrast, about half of the people who apply to the federal program have wound up at an impasse, like Fontil, who paid not only $1,250 in federal fees to apply, but an estimated $1,500 to recover his daughter’s lost documents.

With the ongoing political turmoil, Fontil remains worried sick about his daughter Woodelyne and his granddaughter. But he has given up on the dream of bringing them to Canada: “There’s nothing else I can do. I have used up all my resources,” says Fontil, his voice tinged with regret.

Since Woodelyne, 31, did not qualify as a dependent child, he applied to bring her to Canada under the program’s provisions for compassionate grounds. At the time, she was living on the streets with her baby; her husband, crushed by a collapsing building, was suffering internal injuries.

In a phone interview with the Citizen last year, Woodelyne said that when the quake struck, “I left my house naked — naked with nothing on at all. I only had my daughter.”

Officials ruled there were “no compelling humanitarian and compassionate factors ... to warrant exceptional measures in this case.” Trained as a doctor, Woodelyne could easily find work in Haiti, and was not injured herself in the disaster, they said.

But Fontil says officials “didn’t investigate at all,” pointing to the fact that they rejected her application before it was even complete.

It has a certain sense of deja-vu for Fontil, who tried once before to bring her to Canada, only to run up against a Catch-22. Ten years ago, he was already raising a family in Ottawa when he was contacted by a teacher from his hometown of Cap-Haitien with some stunning news: A woman he had dated more than 20 years before had given birth to a daughter who, now an adult, bore an uncanny resemblance to him. Her mother had died when Woodelyne was seven years old.

Fontil arranged DNA tests, which confirmed the teacher’s suspicions. “I was amazed,” he said. He “had absolutely no idea” that he’d fathered a child in Haiti. A doting father of three already, he wanted to do right by his newfound child, and applied to bring her to Canada. Even though he had showed he could easily provide for her, officials flatly rejected his request. The reason: Fontil hadn’t declared Woodelyne as a dependent when he had filled out his citizenship application some 17 years before.

“How could I do that? I didn’t even know she existed,” says Fontil, exasperation creeping into his steady voice.

He appealed, to no avail, and the matter was dropped — until last year, when he questioned the ruling on his Special Measures application. A stern letter from an Immigration official told him “there is little that can be added to what has already been repeatedly conveyed to you and your daughter.”

It then jumps back to the time, almost 30 years ago, when he filled out his citizenship papers, warning him that those who do not declare dependants “are reportable and may be removed from Canada.” Three paragraphs are devoted to spelling out the consequences of “concealing family members.” To Fontil, the implication is obvious: Drop your case, or we will deport you.

Ministry spokeswoman Kelli Fraser says undeclared dependants “may not be sponsored at a later date ... to encourage honesty,” but that exceptions may be made for humanitarian reasons. She says officials did look at the documents that arrived after their ruling this summer, but it “did not change the decision.”

As for the stack of vital documents Fontil says they have kept, Fraser says they were all returned in July. This makes Fontil chuckle: Only one document was ever returned, he says — a hospital birth registration, which arrived after the Citizen began making inquiries in January.

It takes a lot to defeat a man like Kelly Fontil, whose quiet resolve has seen him through 30 years as a small-business owner: “It doesn’t matter what you do in life,” he says, “if you work hard and do it well, even if it is sweeping the street, you will succeed.” But after months of heartache and almost $3,000 in expenses, Fontil has given up on his quest to get Woodelyne and her baby to safety. His only battle now is to get her papers back so she can resume her life in Haiti.

“I am done with filling out forms,” he says. “I’ve filled out so many.”

Immigration 'fast track' not so fast
More than half of Haitian families rejected for reunification

By Kelly Patterson, Ottawa Citizen, February 10, 2011

Federal officials have rejected almost half the applications they received under the government's much-publicized fast-track program to reunite Haitian families affected by the earthquake with relatives in Canada, Immigration Department figures show.

Launched last January, the Haiti Special Measures program was heralded as a key part of the federal government's response to the massive earthquake that tore through the Caribbean nation, killing more than 220,000 and leaving at least a million people homeless.

The cornerstone of the program was its promise to expedite the permanent-residence applications of Haitians affected by the earthquake who want to join immediate family in Canada through so-called "family-class" applications.

But officials have rejected 49 per cent of those applications, say the Immigration Department's statistics.

About 4,800 Haitians applied to join immediate family members as permanent residents in Canada under the program, which closed Aug. 31. While official results have not been released, ministry staff told the Citizen final rulings had been made on almost 94 per cent of the applications by Feb. 3.

Of those, only 51 per cent were approved -- significantly less than the approval rate for families from other countries who applied under standard procedures. For example, statistics on the department's website show that the average approval rate for families from all countries was 83 per cent in 2009-2010; the rate for Europe-based applicants was 88 per cent for that period. (Figures do not include applications for the dependants of refugees).

The program also promised to expedite temporary visas for Haitians coming to Canada. On its website, the ministry notes that it had issued more than 3,100 temporary visas and permits to Haitians in 2010. Asked how that compared with 2009, the ministry said the number was down from 4,400 that year, explaining that its commitment to family reunification after the earthquake bumped temporary visas to "a secondary priority."

In dealing with the permanent-residency applications for families, agents ruled about 31 per cent ineligible, and "withdrew" a further 18 per cent because the applicants did not supply the required documents in time or "comply with (department) requests, such as submitting to medical or DNA testing within the requested timeline," the department explained in an email.

Fabienne Lozis of the Union des Haitiens de l'Outaouais says the contrast between the special-measures program and another federal earthquake-relief program, Operation Stork, is making many Haitian-Canadians "angry and confused."

Operation Stork fast-tracked ongoing applications by Canadian parents to adopt Haitian children. In a matter of weeks, officials had united 203 children with their adoptive parents.

"People are asking, 'How can you possibly give this opportunity to people who are not Haitian, and not give ... the same chance to biological parents who want their own children to come to Canada?' "

While the Union itself does not have a position on this question, “some people are saying it's just racist,” says Lozis.

Marjorie Villefranche, of the Montreal-based Maison d'Haiti, says the rejection rate is high because federal officials make few concessions to the situation in Haiti: "They have been acting as if there had been no earthquake at all. ... There has been a real lack of humanity" in the way the program has been administered, she charges.

For example, she says officials still insist on seeing documents such as birth certificates and marriage licences, despite the fact that many records were destroyed, along with the government buildings that issue them, in the earthquake.

In some cases, federal agents demand school transcripts going back 10 years, and reject documents, many of which were drawn up by hand even before the earthquake, for simple typos, she says.

By contrast, the separate “special measures” program launched last year by Quebec permits alternative methods, such as affidavits by relatives and fimaly photos, to be used in support of an application where identity papers are impossible to obtain.

Immigration Department spokesman Remi Lariviere said staff have a duty to protect Canadians from potential threats. "We cannot allow criminals to come in, or people who pose a health risk or security risk."

The conditions in Haiti have made this important task more difficult, he points out: "In Haiti we had to assess things more carefully" because so many public records were destroyed.

Staff have been “doing the best job they could” under difficult circumstances, he says.

The ministry website says that as of Dec. 31, more than 2,500 Haitian families had been reunited since the earthquake, more than three times the number in 2009. However, that figure includes applications filed after the special-measures prorgam expired in August. On average, applications were processed withn four months as of Dec. 31, the site said.

Officials strive to be flexible, says Immigration spokeswoman Kelli Fraser: “They will request all documents, but if only some are available, or the person only has copies, the person will review those,” and may request and interview or DNA test for verification.

Villefranche concedes that “you have to be sure that people are who they say they are,” but says there has also been a lack of common sense: Haitians applying under the special-measures program were already being vouched for by a spouse, child, parent or grandparent in Canada. “These are not strangers,” she points out, “but officials doubt that it's your wife or your kid, and they ask for a DNA test and if you don't do it quickly the close the case.”

At about $1,000, DNA tests are far too costly for many Haitians, observers say. “if you have three children and need DNA tests for all of them, thats $3,000,” says Peter Showler, a University of Ottawa professor who specializes in refugee and immigration law.

NDP immigration critic Olivia Chow says the federal program was an empty promise: “It looked good on paper, but no change was made in any of the regulations,” or even in most of the hefty fees famillies face to apply.

A Canadian citizen wanting to bring a spouse and two minor children here would pay $850 in fees to apply under the special-measures program, not counting the “right of permanent residence” fee of $490 per adult.