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January 2016 //

Canadian Government Executive /



control decisions such as visa issuance,

most states recognize that it is impossible

to create a set of processing rules for every

variable and consideration that goes into

assessing credibility and risk. Nor it is pos-

sible to create a strict formula or balance

sheet in which individual characteristics

are measured, quantified, and weighed

against each other to mechanically arrive

at a decision.

States can use immigration laws and

regulations to specify various indicators,

criteria, and procedures in assessing cred-

ibility and risk, but they ultimately del-

egate discretion to their border control

officials. Though the scope for discretion

has been progressively narrowed, it re-

mains the case that Canadian visa officers

are expected to exercise their discretion

as they carry out their duties and make

their decisions. They must choose wheth-

er to approve or refuse a visa, and they

must make various other choices as they

progress toward that decision. Legislation

and processing manuals can outline the

options that are available to them and can

instruct them on procedure, but they can-

not tell them what choice to make.

The question of how those choices are

made ultimately leads to the issue of bias.

Are the choices and final decisions of visa

officers fair and reasonable, and are they

free of bias? Various adjudication ap-

peal bodies do sometimes find that the

decisions of visa officers are faulty on the

grounds that they are not reasonable or

that proper procedures have not been fol-

lowed, and so it would be foolish to think

that visa officers are infallible.

Many argue that despite efforts to rid

the system of partiality, bias nonetheless

creeps into the process whereby officers

approve or refuse visas. Of course, certain

kinds of biases are built into the criteria

that officers employ when they deter-

mine whether someone is deserving of a

visa. The federal skilled worker selection

system contains unabashed class biases

that favour applicants with the financial

resources to get a higher education, gain

professional and skilled work experience,

and speak English or French. The “adapt-

ability” points on the selection grid for fed-

eral skilled workers are explicitly skewed

in favour of people who already have cer-

tain family members in Canada.

There is also little question that biases

stem from the way in which immigration

policies and rules are carried out. Visa of-

ficers do not have the time to dig deeper

into every case, so they must triage appli-

cations and use various shortcuts to assess

credibility and risk. For example, appli-

cants from wealthier, developed countries

are perceived as having little incentive to

enter into a sham marriage with a Cana-

dian, and thus officers tend not to dig as

deeply into their files. People from coun-

tries that face relatively favourable global

visa regimes also benefit from discretion

because they are defined as having many

opportunities to work and travel abroad,

so have little need to enter Canada on an

undocumented basis.

Applicants whose class resources have

permitted previous travel to other West-

ern countries may benefit because some

officers will conclude that they are un-

likely to jump in Canada. These biases,

however, are more about socio-economic

standing than about race per se. Profiles,

based on past experience and past pat-

terns in detected fraud, mean that some

applicants are subject to greater scrutiny

than others. Criminologists and police of-

ficers often say that “the more you look for

crime, the more you find crime,” and this

may also apply to visa officers and fraud:

The more one looks for fraud, the more

one finds fraud. Conversely, some appli-

Acting Chief of Operations, Almeida (far right) supervises the processing of Syrian

refugees at Montréal Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport on December 12,

2015. Photo: Canada Border Services Agency.

CBSA BSOs are ready to process first flight of Syrian

refugees. Photo: Canada Border Services Agency.

Visa officers do not have the time to dig deeper into every

case, so they must triage applications and use various

shortcuts to assess credibility and risk.