Photo: The Canadian Press

By Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press

Ottawa: People seeking to bring parents and grandparents to Canada this year were anxiously checking their credit card statements Tuesday to see if their sponsorship applications made the cut after some paid hundreds of dollars to ensure their files were at the top of the pile.

The first-come, first-serve federal immigration program saw delivery services reportedly charging as much as $400, and many camped out overnight to be close to the front of the line, a system some people say is unfair and will likely get worse next year unless planned changes to the program address the problem.

Word spread quickly online Tuesday about which companies apparently made good on their delivery guarantees as people began to notice the Immigration Department processing their application fees, a sign that their file was one of the 5,000 applications the government will accept this year.

By midday Tuesday, Uzair Khan’s card hadn’t been charged.

His family is seeking to sponsor their 83-year-old grandmother from Pakistan and he’d spent days trying to figure out which company to use to deliver the application. Word-of-mouth suggested major companies weren’t as nimble as smaller ones, but on the other hand, he was wary of those too.

One asked for $200, he said. Several charged different rates based on delivery times. Khan eventually opted for a firm that wanted $80, still steep, but he said he was left no choice, given the requirement that files only be delivered by mail.

“They are charging based on your emotions,” Khan said.

Khan’s family put in an application six years ago to sponsor his father-in-law from Pakistan. At the time, the system had no caps and a rolling application process. The resulting backlog was so massive, Khan’s father-in-law is only arriving next month.

Paring down that backlog was part of the reason the previous Conservative government put a three-year pause on accepting new parent and grandparent sponsorship applications in 2011. When the program re-opened in 2014, it was with a cap of 5,000 on the number of new applications per year while they continued to process old ones. Once 5,000 were received, the program closed, only taking in new files if any of the 5,000 were incomplete.

But in a sign that change is imminent, the Immigration Department is handling things differently this year. They are holding on to the 14,000 applications they received after opening the program on Jan. 4, waiting for the Liberals to make good on a campaign promise to double the cap to 10,000.

Neeraj Sappal, trying to bring his parents from India, said he doesn’t think the extra room will do much to alleviate the competition to be first in line. He didn’t know about the smaller companies when he decided to send his application via Purolator for $55. It didn’t arrive until mid-morning.

Had he known there were firms that would guarantee getting it there earlier, he might well have paid whatever they were asking.

“Next year it will just be worse,” Sappal said. “Everyone will know about the small companies and they’ll end up charging $1,000 and just deliver all the applications.”

In an online forum, one courier company defended the prices.

“If you cannot pay between $100 and $250 for a once-in-a-year opportunity plus the necessary fees to CPC I think you should consider your financial state more closely to whether you can afford to bring someone over in the first place,” wrote a representative for Metro Mississauga Courier.

“It’s a drop in the bucket to what your real cost will be over time.”

The Immigration Department did not respond to an inquiry about whether they’d consider changing the application system, but did say they wanted it to be fair.

“(The department) makes every effort to make the process as fair and transparent as possible, and operates the PGP program on the ”first in, first out” principle, whereby applications are processed in the order they are received,” spokesperson Faith St. John said in an email.

NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan said the entire program needs an overhaul with an eye towards the value parents and grandparents bring to Canada.

“Parents and grandparents contribute to people’s family life, they contribute to our cultural understanding,” she said, pointing to how her own mother helped teach her kids Chinese.

“It’s a huge benefit to the multicultural mosaic of Canada. Multiculturalism is what this country is built on, the strength of families will only add to that.”

© 2016 The Canadian Press