Papers, Please: Getting Canada's green card on an uneven playing field

By Lauren Donnelly

Living in Venezuela was like roulette. Some people were victims of crime, and the others were lucky. Things got worse for Maria, who asked me to refrain from using her real name, one night in 2012. She got out of her car to open the gate to her driveway. When she turned back towards her car she saw three men. They held her at gunpoint, taking her car and her purse.

“Thankfully they didn’t do anything to me,” she said. “They could’ve taken me as well. But that was the beginning of the story.”

The thieves had abandoned her car close by, but Maria had to pay corrupt police officers to get it back. “I had enough,” she said. “Like, I cannot live in a country like this anymore. I need to get out.”

Maria had already considered grad school abroad, but this motivated her to apply for school in Canada and Spain. She arrived in B.C. for grad school in 2013 with a study visa, and by 2015 she was applying for permanent residency.

Permanent residency is Canada’s equivalent to the U.S. green card. Permanent residents pay taxes and are eligible for social benefits. They may apply for citizenship, and they’re protected by Canadian law. Depending on whether they fall under economic, family, or refugee class, they can apply under the points-based federal system or a provincial system.

As a skilled worker, Maria applied through the federal express entry program. Express entry is a relatively new selection system. Candidates get points for criteria like language proficiency, age, education, and work experience. They’re entered into a pool where they’re ranked against others. The higher their points, the closer they are to the top of the list.

The system isn’t efficient for everyone, said Nir Rozenberg, a Regulated Canadian Immigration Consultant.

“It’s express but only if you meet the criteria and have enough points,” he said. “I consider it a lottery system in that if you have enough points you can get selected –– if you don’t have enough points you’re going to sit there with your lottery ticket and you’re never going to be invited to apply.”

Rozenberg sees impressive candidates fall short in points because of their age. Maria was in her 20s, with two degrees, and she’d worked and studied in Canada––she was invited to apply for permanent residency after six-months. But coming from a country fraught with corruption had other challenges.

“Getting documentation, it’s not like you can just make a phone call to get what you need,” she said. “The university has to send your grades, translated, in an envelope that has to be sealed. Universities in Venezuela don’t do these things. They don’t have the resources.”

The first criminal record check she ordered was rejected because the Ministry it was addressed to had changed its name.

“I had to ask for another one,” she said. “And all of this requires more money, it requires someone going there and in this case, risking their life, because every time you go out in Venezuela you’re risking your life.”

It’s an expensive process even without having to re-request paperwork. On top of application fees there are background checks, medical examinations, translations, language tests, equivalency tests, and transcripts to pay for. Maria also hired an immigration consultant to help with her application.

Although the system is unbiased in that it identifies applicants by their number of points rather than by name, it’s biased in that it makes things harder for some demographics. People from non-English speaking countries need more documentation and therefore more money than applicants from the UK or Australia.

The Liberal government plans to increase immigration quotas incrementally over the next few years. The target has gone from 300,000 new permanent residents in 2017 to 310,000 in 2018. Some Canadians are wary of more immigrants. A recent survey by the Angus Reid Institute found that half of Canadians would prefer if immigration targets were decreased.

But Rozenberg said that, contrary to the myth that newcomers steal our jobs, the system’s structure favours applicants who already contribute to the Canadian economy.

“In 2017, more than 42,000 of the foreign nationals that the government invited to apply for permanent residency were already in Canada,” he said. “They were here studying or working. Because of the way that the system is designed, it’s putting more emphasis on the individuals that have that adaptability to Canadian life.”

In other words, if you’re similar to “us” you get higher points. Canadians like to think of ourselves as a welcoming nation that values multiculturalism. But the immigration system forces standardized criteria on the diversity of human experience.

“It’s not easy,” said Maria. “You have to prove your value. You sacrifice your career because it’s never going to be the same, especially when you’re going somewhere where they speak another language. It’s very stressful, but at the same time I understand. I guess when you have little choice you just understand that’s the price you have to pay.”

Maria made sacrifices for her permanent residency. She left her friends and family behind, and she ended her relationship when her partner was denied access to Canada. She sends money home to her mother in small amounts. She commutes from her home in Surrey to work in Vancouver. It’s been five years since she arrived in Canada to study, and she plans to apply for citizenship soon. She loves grocery shopping here. There’s no scarcity like there is in Venezuela and she can choose what she wants. She can sit in a park without being robbed.

“Simple things,” she said. “Peace. That’s the thing that I value the most. To be safe.”

This piece will appear in the Green Edition of SAD Magazine