Visa policy bad for business
Jul 7, 2012 / 5:00 am
Dale Lockhart says the Federal government is making it harder for him to do business.
Lockhart is the Director of International Gateway Kelowna, which offers English as a second language training to a variety of students of all ages and nationalities.
The students mostly come from foreign upper-middle class families who require proficiency in English to live and work.
However, in order to have students attend his school, they have to be granted a visa. And lately, Lockhart says, it's getting harder and harder to get one.
"It's been progressively getting worse since the Conservatives have been in. It was much easier before and I think there's been new visa rules put in every year since the Conservatives have been in to kind of make it more and more limiting to who can come as a visitor and also as a student to Canada."
Conversely, Lockhart says, US visa laws have become more relaxed since Barrack Obama was elected to the White House in 2008.
He says many schools like his first realized the depth of change that was coming when the law changed to require that all Mexicans must have a visa to enter Canada.
"Many schools used to be about 20 per-cent Mexicans and before they had a visa-waiver like Japan, Switzerland and all of the EU countries."
Now, he claims the restrictions have become so onerous that International Gateway opened a school in Belize to get around the visa restrictions and the high Canadian dollar.
"In Belize, most countries get a visa waiver and if they do need a visa, it's usually granted in one to seven days," says Lockhart.
Part of the problem, he argues, is that rejected students only receive a "form letter" which offers little explanation on how to fix the problem, unlike other jurisdictions, including the US.
"It might be the case that they didn't show enough money in their bank statement, they didn't fill out their form correctly, they didn't show what their education plans are in their home country, so it's a very ambiguous form."
The lack of information renders the appeal process moot, says Lockhart, since those applying don't have the information necessary to remedy the problem.
He says the two most common reasons for rejection are not enough money or concern that the applicant might not return home when the visa expires. He says two 14 year-old students were recently rejected because they did not have enough travel history and were deemed a threat not to return.
"They're kids. How many places are they supposed to travel to?"
Most students are older than that, either in their late teens or early twenties, and he says only 10 per-cent plan to continue their studies in Canada.
Lockhart has been trying to convince the government to relax the regulations, but so far to no avail. He says he has worked his way up the chain, starting with Kelowna-Lake Country MP Ron Cannan, then to Immigration Minister Jason Kenney and finally, with a letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
"I never received an answer except 'thank you for letter'."
However, Cannan tells Castanet that he is aware of Lockhart's situation and has been in contact with him a number of times.
"I know that some of the implications of requiring visas for certain countries has had an effect on Mr. Lockhart's student enrollment," says Cannan.
"Where Immigration is concerned however, there will always be a need at times to place restrictions. That being said, Minister Kenney has been clear that we hope to get to the stage where we can reconsider a visa exemption for Mexico and other countries. Since 2006 our government has provided several visa exemptions to different countries because ideally we prefer to have visa free travel and movement of people. It is good for tourism and for cultural ties as well as businesses that rely on it like Mr. Lockhart's."
Cannan also points out that in the case of countries like Mexico, a visa exemption can only be lifted when Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) is confident that asylum reforms are working and dissuading large numbers of false claims.
"According to Minister Kenney, we had a problem where, before we imposed the visa on Mexico in the summer of 2009, Mexico was representing the largest number of asylum claims ever in our system. Canada was getting up to 1,500 claims a month, of which 90 per cent were deemed unfounded."
With the change in regulations, International Gateway has seen a sizable drop in the number of students allowed in.
Lockhart says the policy is costing the Kelowna economy jobs and money.
"It's a lot of money into a small community like Kelowna, we've had to lay off teachers and the students spend a lot of money. Our kids are upper-middle class kids, and they're spending a lot of money in the community and that's gone."
Since 2005, enrollment at International Gateway Kelowna has declined 20 per-cent, and Lockhart says, if government policy doesn't change, those numbers will only get worse.
Cannan says changes are on the horizon.
"Changes to C-31 recently passed in the House of Commons will allow CIC to deal more expeditiously with false claims to dissuade others from using Canada as a target. Once that happens then we can reconsider visa requirements. It's not an easy system if you are counting on it for business, but ultimately the responsibility falls to our government to assess who is coming to Canada as a legitimate visitor and who might be trying to use the system to jump the immigration queue."
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