Disability advocates, workers and immigration lawyers from across Canada are urging Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government to scrap a section of the country’s immigration act that they say is “unjust” and discriminates against persons with disabilities.
The problematic provisions are known as “medical inadmissibility” and “excessive demand.” They bar those with disabilities and their family members from gaining permanent residency in Canada on grounds that they could place an excessive burden on the country’s publicly-funded medical and social service systems.
“We are recommending strongly that the whole notion of excessive demand be repealed altogether,” said John Rae, first vice-chair of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities. “This repeal is long overdue… We need to be able to benefit from the interests, the aspirations and contributions of everyone. Any notion that disabled people are automatically a burden, we reject.”
WATCH: Immigration expert testifies before parliamentary committee on immigration act
Rae’s statements came Monday before before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration which is reviewing the provisions around excessive demand.
Other groups – including immigration lawyers and HIV/AIDS advocates – told the committee that the current system is so badly flawed that it’s beyond repair.
“We’re questioning the implementation of this law and we’re urging the committee to repeal it,” said Adrienne Smith, a Toronto-area immigration lawyer with Jordan Batista LLP and a former Immigration Canada policy analyst. “If the purpose [of this law] is to actually save the government money, it doesn’t make sense to put more money into a system that’s broken – and we strongly feel that the system is broken and it’s not worth fixing.”
According to Smith and other immigration experts, this system unfairly targets persons with disabilities and their family members with the aim of preventing them from immigrating to Canada.
But in a world where attracting the best and brightest immigrants is becoming increasingly competitive, experts say these sort of barriers actually hurt Canada more than they help. These sentiments were welcomed by some committee members who see the value of ensuring Canada can attract the most skilled workers possible.
“It’s insignificant in terms of healthcare dollars,” said Lorne Waldman, a Toronto-based immigration lawyer who spoke to the committee. “It creates a whole series of impediments to both family reunification and also to having the best and most skilled people come to Canada.”
Waldman said that no matter your qualifications or circumstance the rules around excessive demand prevent you from immigrating to Canada if your child or a dependent family member had a disability or serious medical condition.
Meanwhile, Liberal MP for St. John’s East, Nick Whalen, who is a committee member, says he finds the issue of excessive demand problematic.
“There’s been a lot of misgivings from all of us here about excessive demand, and why we are quantifying individuals in this way,” Whalen said. “We don’t do it in any other aspect of our lives.”
Maurice Tomlinson, a lawyer and policy analyst with the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, said the law is ironic given that Canada spend billions of dollars internationally to assist people with AIDS, but would deny those with the disease seeking permanent residency on the grounds their treatment could cost too much if they were to live here.
“It’s unconscionable that this kind of family separation is being [promoted] by a country that claims to be welcoming to all,” Tomlinson said. “It is a black eye on Canada frankly.”
Inadmissibility leads to heartbreak
For many, these provisions have kept hard working immigrants from their families for years, causing fear, stress and anxiety in those affected.
“I felt like I was dying when I was denied. I didn’t know what to do,” Josarie Danieles, a live-in caregiver, who has been separated from her children since 2010, said during an emotional press conference in Toronto on Monday.
Her daughter 14-year-old daughter Precious Ann Margaret Danieles has an intellectual disability and the family’s application was turned down in 2016.
Danieles said she has re-applied for residency on humanitarian grounds but is uncertain about the future.
“My daughters need their mother,” she said. “Every mother in Canada knows this. No one should be separated from their families.”
Advocay groups, including The Council of Canadians with Disabilities, the Caregivers Action Centre, HALCO and leading immigration experts have called t medical inadmissibility criteria “discriminatory” and uses outdated and stereotypical ideas around disabilities and those with certain illnesses in rejecting applicants.
WATCH: Disability advocate explains why Canada’s immigration laws discriminatory
Dr. Loree Erickson, moved to Canada from the U.S. 14 years ago to pursue a graduate-level education and completed a PhD at York University. She has also lectured at University of Toronto, Ryerson and OCAD.
Erickson says she received a letter saying she had been denied, with no explanation.
“I know for a fact that if I had been non-disabled that I would have been accepted,” she said. “I’m a white, professional professor with a PhD, from America.”
Erickson said the excessive demand criteria is “unjust” and “expose the longstanding disabilism and hypocrisy of the Canadian government and Trudeau.”
“It’s like doing this math where it’s only taking in what disabled are going to take away from the healthcare system,” she said. “It’s not including all of the things disabled people bring to the Canadian country.”
An ongoing Global News investigation has revealed how Canadian immigration officials use inaccurate information to deny potentially hundreds of applications each year and how officials often fail to provide specific cost estimates in “procedural fairness letters” given to people who could be denied due to so-called “medical inadmissibility.” Providing cost estimates is required under existing Canadian law.
Global News previously reported on the case of Mercedes Benitez, a caregiver from the Philippines, who spent nearly a decade fighting to be reunited with her two sons, Harold and Bill, and husband Romeo. Her son Harold was deemed to have an intellectual disability and her entire family’s application was denied.
In early November, Benitez received a letter from Immigration Canada stating she and her family would be accepted on compassionate and humanitarian grounds.
“I feel like I won the lottery,” Benitez told Global News. “I’m so grateful and very thankful.”
Benitez says she can still remember reading a letter just before in 2015 from federal immigration officials stating that her son was “mentally retarded” and was deemed medically inadmissible.
“We deserve to be treated as human beings,” Benitez said. “[After reading the letter] I questioned if there is a god?”
Among those appearing at the standing committee this week include Felipe Montoya, the York University professor originally from Costa Rica who had to temporarily leave Canada when the government found that his 14-year-old son was not eligible for permanent residency because he has Down syndrome and might place an extra burden on the health system.
WATCH: Canada’s immigration system is ‘out of step’ with today’s societal standards, says immigration minister
Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen is expected to speak at the committee on Wednesday.
Hussen has previously said he believes the policy of denying applicants because of a disability is “outdated” and “out of step” with Canadian values, but has provided few answers as to how and when the government plans to change these policies.
“My own view is that excessive demand provisions that we have in our immigration system are a little bit out of step with societal standards now with respect to accessibility and how we approach individuals with disabilities,” Hussen told Global News last month. “You can count on the fact that this is something that I care about.”
The committee was formed to study the issue of medical inadmissibility following a meeting between provincial and territorial immigration ministers this summer.
Immigration Canada has said “no specific health condition results in an automatic rejection” and every applicant is given a chance to respond to concerns with their application.
Meanwhile, Toronto immigration lawyer Toni Schweitzer says provisions around excessive demand should ultimately be removed.
“I think the law discriminates and the justification, the numbers that have been provided, are arbitrary and inaccurate,” she said before the committee. “It appears even that senior officials are not aware of some of the things that are being done by decision-makers. That’s a situation that is unacceptable.”