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/ Canadian Government Executive

// January 2016


Immigration Visa Officers

on the Front Line




he government of Canada’s

rush to welcome Syrian refu-

gees has put the visa officer’s

job in the spotlight recently.

Canadians are concerned: are the right

people being let in? I think the country

can sleep comfortably. We’re in good


Despite changes in context, the over-

all purpose of a visa officer’s job has not

changed much since the 1970s and 1980s.

To phrase it in the more technocratic lan-

guage of today, the job is to assess, and

balance, credibility and risk. The world

of immigration was, and is, big, messy,

and ambiguous. Immigrants and visitors

come to Canada from every corner of the

globe. The backgrounds and biographies

of individuals, their reasons for travel-

ling to Canada, the documents they bring

to support their applications, and the

countries and contexts from which they

come are all different. So, too, are the so-

cial contexts in which they live and work,

the ways in which they gain their experi-

ence, and the mechanisms that their states

employ to produce and document their


The immigration system is already high-

ly bureaucratized and rule and procedure

heavy, and adding more rules and proce-

dures to cover every possible contingency

would no doubt produce more problems

than it would solve. And, as some legal

scholars have pointed out, flexibility in the

application of rules is necessary to recog-

nize that some individual cases are special

and unique, and cannot be slotted into a

clearly defined box or processing category.

This is why it would be wrong to inter-

pret visa officers, and their decision-mak-

ing procedures and techniques, as capri-

cious. Capriciousness is not synonymous

with discretion. When it comes to border