Family class was established as a cornerstone of immigration policy in the 1970s under the Trudeau administration





EARLIER this month, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced the results of a long-awaited review of the immigration program for sponsoring parents and grandparents, which was suspended in November 2011. The Minister suspended the program by putting a moratorium on new sponsorship applications for 24 months in order to reduce a backlog of 165,000 applicants, stretching up to eight or nine years.
The government will resume receiving new sponsorship applications for parents and grandparents in January 2014, though limited to 5,000 applications. In the meantime it expects to reduce the backlog by approving 50,000 applicants in 2012 and 2013, and will approve an equally high number in the coming years. The Minister announced four changes to the rules for sponsoring parents and grandparents starting in 2014. The changes will make it tougher for residents and citizens to sponsor their parents and grandparents.
Sponsorship of parents and grandparents has been an integral part of family class immigration under immigration law since 1978. Family sponsorship is one of three basic immigration streams, the others being economic immigrants and humanitarian immigrants.
Since 1978 sponsors have had to meet a minimal household income level set out in low income cut-off (LICO) figures published by Statistics Canada. The number of the sponsor’s family in Canada and family members being sponsored determines the level required. Parents and grandparents can include dependent children in their applications. The definition of who qualifies as a dependent child has varied over the years. Under the program, an immigrant, within a few years after arriving in Canada and establishing sufficient income, could sponsor their parents and remaining qualified siblings to come to Canada.
Sponsors also sign a contract, known as an undertaking of assistance, to be responsible for their parents or grandparents and their dependants for a period of time after they arrive in Canada. They also agree to repay to the government any welfare payments received by the sponsored relatives during the responsible period. Provincial governments didn’t begin suing sponsors to recover welfare payments received by sponsored relatives until the 1990s. In 2002 the current Immigration and Refugee Protection Act came into effect, keeping the sponsorship of parents and grandparents in place, with some changes to rules for the enforcement of undertakings and to the required income levels for sponsorship.


THE first change announced by Minister Kenney is to increase the sponsor’s minimum necessary income by 30 per cent above the required LICO figure. For example, a married sponsor with two dependent children sponsoring two parents will have to have a minimum household income of $55,378 plus the extra 30 per cent or $16,613 for a total of $71,991.
Secondly, the sponsor must show through income tax notices of assessment the required income level for the three years preceding the sponsorship application, instead of one year. Thirdly, the duration of the sponsorship undertaking is extended to 20 years, from ten years.
Finally, the maximum age of dependants is set at 18. At present, an applicant can include a dependant child over 21 who has been dependant upon the applicant before age 22 and has continued to be a student.
The government justifies the changes mostly for economic reasons. The official statement accompanying the proposed rule changes asserts that only 10 per cent of seniors over 65 years of age participate in the labour market, contributing taxes. On the other hand, a 2009 Metropolis Centre study suggests 40 per cent of parents and grandparents find work, with 30 per cent working as a child-care provider in the sponsor’s home. The government says a 2010 Immigration Department study found that three per cent of parents and grandparents receive welfare during the undertaking period, jumping to 20 per cent after the undertaking ends. As well, the official statement notes that 50 per cent of a person’s lifetime health care expenses are incurred after age 65, consuming 44 per cent of all heath care costs. As to increasing LICO levels, the government claims that compared with 1978, immigrant unemployment rates are higher, economic outcomes are worse and achieved later, and health care costs not covered by provincial health care are not adequately captured under current LICO levels.
Minister Kenney added more reasons in later statements, claiming one third of sponsored seniors end up on welfare and that he was informed more immigrant seniors were qualifying for subsidized public housing, displacing long-term residents and citizens who had contributed to the economy.
The changes will have a major effect on family sponsorship. The higher required income levels, and three-year period of assessment, will limit the number of qualified sponsors. Potential sponsors will likely have to have a longer period of settlement before making enough income to qualify. They may have to consider deferring establishing their own family in Canada until after sponsoring parents, if they want to meet the income qualifications, or wait until their own children become established on their own.
The lower age limit for dependants will likely result in many parents remaining in the home country if it means abandoning young adult children who are not self-supporting. If those children do not subsequently migrate, the parents may be less willing to join a lone child in Canada.
Sponsors may appeal refusals of permanent resident visas for parents on humanitarian grounds, when refused because the sponsor is unable to fulfil the income requirement. With fewer sponsors qualifying, the number of humanitarian appeals will increase. Those appeals are only likely to succeed if the parents have few family ties in the home country and the sponsor can show a stable income and adequate housing resources for the sponsored relatives.


FAMILY class was established as a cornerstone of immigration policy in the 1970s under the Trudeau administration. Its critics, particularly in the past 20 years, have stressed arguments based on increased economic costs of family immigration. A 2011 Fraser Institute report co-authored by Herb Grubel, a former Reform MP, recommends abolishing all family sponsorship.
The current proposals maintain the appearance of supporting family class immigration in name only, while measuring family members against an economic balance sheet skewed by an aging Canadian population. If an immigrant can’t contribute to the economy, the government will restrict their access to it. There is no consideration of intangible social costs of allowing whole families to live together in Canada, even though it is a stated objective of the immigration law. To some, this cold-hearted approach to immigration lessens all of us.


William Macintosh is an immigration lawyer who began practising in 1984. You can reach him for advice at 778-714-8787.