Deepak Talwar is tired of waiting for his permanent residency (PR) application to make its way through Canada's backed-up immigration system.
After more than two years of contacting Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) through online forms, emails and calls, he says he still only receives boilerplate responses from the department.
In 2017, Talwar bid farewell to his well-established business, sold his house in New Delhi, India, and immigrated to Saskatoon. The 51-year-old now owns a cabinet-manufacturing business in the city.
Talwar submitted PR applications for himself and his family through the Provincial Nominee Program (PNP), an immigration stream where the province nominates the candidate.
But no progress has been made on his file since Jan. 29, 2020. He now regrets immersing his family in uncertainty.
"We were living a comfortable life [in India]. It was my decision to go to Canada for a better life," Talwar said. "Now, I can't sleep at night. I get up at 3 o'clock, thinking about what will happen."
IRCC says it has experienced processing delays amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. But nearly two years into it, most of the department's in-person offices remain closed. And many applicants told CBC News they feel stuck in limbo, with no clear way to check on their files.
According to data received from IRCC, Canada had a backlog of nearly 1.8 million immigration applications as of Oct. 27, including:
548,195 permanent residence applications, including 112,392 refugee applications.
775,741 temporary residence applications (study permits, work permits, temporary resident visas and visitor extensions).
468,000 Canadian citizenship applications.
Before the pandemic, processing times for PR applications averaged six months.
Talwar said that when he submitted his application, IRCC's website said the maximum wait time was 18 months, which, for him, came and went on April 23 of this year.
The delay means Talwar cannot expand his business or visit his eldest daughter, who is working in the U.S. He also has to pay high international tuition fees for his youngest daughter enrolled at the University of Saskatchewan.
"Even buying a car is difficult for us. People are paying like 2.9-per-cent interest for their car; we have quotes of 7.9 because of the temporary status," he said.
Further, Talwar says he has spent around $12,000 on visa renewals for his family members.
In terms of IRCC's transparency and communication, Talwar said, "on a level of one to 10, it's one."
"After calling IRCC and holding for hours, they say computers are not working or systems are down. Even contacting MPs does nothing," he said.
Inequities exist, excuses abound: experts
Canada's immigration process is often unpredictable and arbitrary, says Candy Hui, a licensed immigration consultant in Regina.
"The processing times are quite sporadic and the stated processing times on IRCC's website aren't very reliable," she said. "These delays are damaging Canada's reputation as an ideal country to immigrate to."
These inequities also seem to disproportionately affect people from the southern hemisphere, she said.
Lou Janssen Dangzalan, an immigration lawyer in Toronto, said even urgent cases fall on "deaf ears."
IRCC was unjustly using the pandemic as a justification for the delays, he said, and now has switched to using the Afghan crisis. The department recently committed to expediting 20,000 additional applications for vulnerable Afghans.
"You can't keep riding the pandemic horse forever. This excuse is getting tired almost two years into the pandemic. It's a dead horse they're trying to hit with a stick," Dangzalan said.
Dangzalan said he believes the delays are being caused by shortages of staff and resources, outdated immigration infrastructure and technology, and a lack of political action.
"The government has created a system where you can't communicate with the officers unless you hire representatives and spend thousands of dollars. It has become very opaque and unfair," he said.
In May, the Information Commissioner of Canada released a report that found IRCC was inundated with access-to-information requests from applicants simply seeking information about their immigration files, because they felt they had no other means to receive direct updates.
In the 2019-20 fiscal year, IRCC received 116,928 access requests — an increase of 42 per cent over the previous year — with 98.9 per cent of those requests being around immigration application files.
But Dangzalan said the government still has not released any concrete plan on how to address the backlog.
In an email, IRCC acknowledged the ongoing delays and said it has improved technology and digitized its operations.
"Ongoing international travel restrictions, border restrictions, limited operational capacity overseas and the inability on the part of clients to obtain documentation due to the effects of COVID-19 have created barriers within the processing continuum. This hinders IRCC's ability to finalize applications, creating delays that are outside IRCC's control," the department said in its statement.
"We know that some applicants have experienced considerable wait times with the processing of their applications, and we continue to work as hard as possible to reduce processing times."
Study permits also delayed
Overseas students awaiting permits to attend Canadian universities are facing similar delays.
Hadi Hosseinionari, a PhD candidate in mechanical engineering at the University of British Columbia, went through 27 months of emails and phone calls before receiving his permit. During that time, his life in Tehran, Iran, was at a standstill, he said. It felt like "wasting three years of life and almost giving up on a dream."
Melissa Ensandoost, too, said her dream feels like a distant reality. After two years waiting in Iran, she has still not received her student visa. "I don't even receive any template emails now," she said.
She was supposed to come to the University of Saskatchewan for her PhD in the fall of 2019, but had to defer her admission twice, eventually cancelling it due to the delays.
"I'll be applying for the position again, but it's just shooting in the dark," the 34-year-old said.
She said there are close to 20 students she personally knows in Iran facing similar delays.
Delays across Canada
In many cases, the delays in processing applications are keeping families apart.
Kalash Gera, a software engineer in Saskatoon, submitted his PR application one year ago in hopes of bringing his spouse here from India. He says his plans of buying a house and starting a family are delayed.
"IRCC says their priority is family reunification, but it's been more than a year since I met my wife," Gera said. "I can't go back to India because my work permit expired."
After submitting five online forms and staying on calls for more than two hours, only to eventually get disconnected, Gera said he has still not received any concrete answers from IRCC.
The 28-year-old has five applications in the system. Four of them are still pending, including a PR application for him and his wife, Gera's work visa application, a spousal work permit and a visitor visa application for his spouse.
"IRCC recently announced that if you apply for a new visitor visa application after Sept. 7, it will be approved within 14 to 30 business days. But even that application is getting delayed," he said.
Gera said he is considering spending $30,000 to bring his wife to Canada as a student. Moving back to India would be his last resort.
"I've been living in isolation for over two years now," he said. "My mental health is deteriorating. It's unfair. I blame the policy-makers."
Abdul Hafeez Rasheed, a resident of Surrey, B.C., has been waiting for his PR since Aug. 1, 2020.
"I came as a student five years ago, with hopes of bringing my family soon. But the wait is ongoing," said the 40-year-old father of three, from the United Arab Emirates.
Rasheed can't switch jobs, because his application is based on his employment. In addition to paying high rent for a larger space he thought would be housing his family, he has to bear exorbitant school fees for his children back home.
"I left my youngest one when he was a newborn. Now he is five and hasn't seen much of his father. I just wanted to give my children a better future but things didn't go that way."
Amanpreet Singh, a resident of Charlottetown, applied for PR on Nov. 19 of last year. At the time, the website said Singh's application would take six months for processing, but it has already been more than a year.
He knows of some 25 other applicants in Charlottetown in a similar situation.
Singh came to Canada from India on a study permit on Aug. 14, 2017. When his father died soon after, Singh was not in a position to return home. Now his grandfather is very ill and wants Singh to visit.
The thought of not doing so is heartbreaking, but the 24-year-old cannot travel.
"If I go, I'll have to quit the job. If I quit the job, my PR won't be eligible," he said. "My grandfather wants to see me one last time."