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Obstacles to reuniting families at border during COVID-19

Thursday, June 11, 2020 @ 1:59 PM | By Caroline Mok

Caroline Mok %>
Caroline Mok
Since the government of Canada first announced in late March that it was closing Canada’s borders, many foreign nationals have been separated from their loved ones who live or work in Canada. From complex travel restrictions to disruptions in the processing of Family Class applications, there are numerous challenges and obstacles facing families who are hoping to be reunited in Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Obstacles at the border

Since the travel restrictions were first announced in late March, one of the main obstacles confronting families has been the complex travel restrictions which are in place until at least the end of June. While most foreign nationals are prohibited from entering Canada at this time, there are explicit exceptions for certain “immediate family members” (including spouses, common law partners, dependent children and parents) arriving from a foreign country other than the U.S.

Despite the exemption for immediate family members, travellers could still be denied entry to Canada if their purpose for travel was “optional or discretionary.” This restriction on optional or discretionary travel also applied to travellers entering from the U.S. In other words, a traveller could still be denied entry to Canada if a border officer determined that their purpose for travel was “optional or discretionary,” even if they had family ties and were an immediate family member of a Canadian citizen or permanent resident.

However, in response to calls for clearer and more comprehensive policy guidance and legislation, the federal government has, as of June 8, 2020, updated the orders-in-council regulating travel to Canada. Under the current iteration of the orders-in-council, immediate family members of Canadian citizens and permanent residents are exempt from the travel restrictions on optional and discretionary travel if they can demonstrate that they intend to stay in Canada for at least 15 days. Notably, immediate family members of temporary residents, such as international students and temporary workers, are not included in the new exemptions.

While it remains to be seen how front-line officers will apply this new exemption for immediate family members, this is a positive development in the law that promises to facilitate the reunification of many Canadians and their loved ones, who have been separated during these difficult times.

Challenges to long-term family reunification

Besides making it harder for family members to be together in the short term, the pandemic has also impacted family members seeking to be reunited in the long term as permanent residents under the Family Class.

For example, while Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) continues to accept new permanent residence applications, there have been significant delays in processing due to IRCC’s severely limited processing capacity and because many applicants are currently unable to complete their medical examinations or biometrics, obtain their police certificates or submit their passports. Due to COVID-19, IRCC has also delayed the reopening of the 2020 PGP Sponsorship program for new applications until further notice.

Moreover, as people experience reduced incomes and layoffs, questions arise as to whether the economic fallout from COVID-19 will make it more difficult for people to sponsor their family members in the future. Under the Family Class, sponsors are required to sign an undertaking, promising to provide financial support for the basic needs of their sponsored family members. A sponsor’s eligibility will be impacted if they receive social assistance, for reasons other than disability.

Financial benefits such as Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and Employment Insurance (EI) do not render sponsors ineligible, as they are not considered as social assistance. However, certain benefits that are administered by provinces or territories that provide for basic requirements such as food, shelter, clothing, utilities, household supplies and health care not provided by public health care may count as social assistance, the receipt of which may cause a person to become ineligible to sponsor or default on their undertaking. The issue of financial eligibility is especially pertinent in cases of PGP sponsorships, as sponsors must meet a specific minimum income requirement for three consecutive taxation years prior to the date of application.

Future for family reunification

To alleviate some of the harsher effects of COVID-19 on families, the government should continue to reduce the obstacles facing travellers at the border and should adopt a compassionate approach when assessing a sponsor’s financial eligibility. While balancing concerns for public safety with the flow of essential people, services and goods, it is important that policy-makers not lose sight of the economic and social benefits of keeping families united, particularly during these challenging times and in terms of Canada’s long-term immigration goals, once the pandemic has passed.

Caroline Mok is an associate lawyer at BARTLAW LLP, Canadian Immigration, Barristers and Solicitors and can be reached at or 4166011346.

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