Thursday, September 24, 2009

Like Watching Paint Dry

It’s been a long while since we updated you on our immigration status, mainly because there hasn’t been much to say. Finally, that’s beginning to change, so we wanted to share with you some of what we’ve learned, mistakes we’ve made and other info to help anyone reading this who’s thinking of moving to Canada (though we think a lot of the following applies to any other country).

The first thing I should mention is our particular situation as a reminder to readers who don’t know us well: my wife is a Canadian citizen, I’m the one who is really immigrating. My wife will be “sponsoring” my application to become a permanent resident here. It was trivially easy for her to get a new copy of her birth certificate and her Social Insurance Number and such, and her being a citizen makes it harder for Canada to actually get rid of me (presuming I don’t commit crimes or anything awful like that).

Not that the country has been in a hurry to do that (or indeed anything). By the time we reach the next stage of our process, I will have been living here under a visitor pass for almost two years. When one first arrives in Canada, they will often give you a three (or six) month visa, and in our experience have no qualms about extending it for at least another six months or more if you are clearly getting settled or starting the immigration process. I suspect I’ve gotten a little more time out of Immigration Canada than average, but the officials I’ve encountered seem well aware that this process takes a lot of time.

In October, I will finally be getting around to a couple of tasks I wish I had done earlier, but was constrained by finances: getting the “immigration medical” exam, and having special “immigration photos” done. More about that in a bit.

Just to consolidate things we’ve probably mentioned earlier in the blog, here’s some things we would advise people coming to Canada to do (some of which we did, some of which we wish we’d done) to move the process along:

  • First, you may wish to start the immigration process before you leave your native country. If you are not being sponsored, make that “we strongly recommend” you start the process via the embassy of your target country well before you leave.
  • Plan to be out of work for a long time. I am only just now -- after two years -- getting to where I might be able to obtain a work permit. Depending on your field (and the economy at the time), you could do it faster than I did, but only for occupations your target country is in desperate need of. In Canada, you’ll want to look at lists (provided online by the government) of occupations each province seeks, and particularly check those against professions in the “NAFTA list” of desirable professionals if you want to get the work permit more rapidly. Being a doctor or a lawyer or a nurse et al is obviously going to be in much more demand than, say, a bricklayer. If you don’t have a specific profession that you have college degrees for and/or a long history of doing, you’d better be rich, because otherwise it will take you several years to get residency based simply on the fact that you want to be here, or you’re married to a native. One of the biggest reasons we haven’t made more progress than we have so far is that we have had to live mainly on my wife’s earnings and some bits of supplementary income from me for longer than we anticipated, so budgeting for expenses becomes crucial. Rich people can invest in a Canadian business, which makes getting the permission to stay here much faster and easier. Stupid rich people. :(
  • Be in good health. As an immigrant, you can’t get into the healthcare system in Canada (which isn’t “free” btw) until you become a permanent resident, so any healthcare costs are going to be paid by you. If you have a Canadian spouse as I do, you might be surprised to find that this fact doesn’t help you at all. I happen to be in generally good health apart from having high blood pressure, so I pay out-of-pocket for my prescriptions and doctor visits (the good news on this is that it doesn’t cost me much more than it did when I had insurance in the States, but that’s a rant for another time). If I had a medical emergency I would be facing serious financial trouble (though I would get the treatment I needed regardless).
  • Get an immigration attorney. No joke! It’s possible to go through the process without one, but just like Milton Bradley’s The Game of Life, you will likely find yourself right back at “Start” not once but more likely several times if you choose to go lawyerless. Big bureaucracies like Canada’s are rather unforgiving of sloppy or incomplete paperwork, and while they do try to help you (with, for example, a pretty good set of immigration websites), there are times when the squeaky wheel needs some grease, or your application has to be flawless -- and this is where the lawyer comes in. Make sure it is someone you like, because he or she will be with your for quite some time. We have been very happy with ours, because he’s a culture nerd like we are (but also because he’s been very helpful).
  • Do what the lawyer tells you to do. Our biggest mistake (in my opinion) apart from not getting the lawyer on Day One (well, to be fair it was Thanksgiving!) was putting off aggressively pursuing the immigration paperwork because we were busy finding a place to live, setting up house, making friends and contacts, finding work for my wife and a million other things that eat up one’s day. Before we knew it, more than a year had gone by before we got serious and started looking for a lawyer. And it’s taken him nine months to get our application and documentation together (because we’re not his only clients!). Which leads me to the next point:
  • Documentation, documentation, documentation. You need it, you’d better have it -- and not just the usual stuff you would think of like birth certificate, passport, driver’s license et al. Canada needs other stuff like pictures from your wedding (posed and unposed!), marriage license, old utility bills or apartment leases (proof you lived where you say you did, and that you were a responsible citizen), a complete criminal background check, fingerprints, tax filings in Canada and the US, and as mentioned a medical exam. It’s a lot like that Albert Brooks movie Defending Your Life -- it’s all going to be brought up at some point, so you’d better know how to get a hold of your long-fabled “permanent record.” It will be immensely helpful to your lawyer (and save craploads of time) if he doesn’t have to track all that stuff down for you. Did I mention that back when we first crossed the border, we had to make a list of everything we owned (both what we brought with us and what we had in storage in Florida)? That really surprised us.
  • Always be patient and nice to the Border and Immigration officials that you meet. Can’t stress this one enough -- they have the same power and discretionary force as a traffic cop, and can on a whim send you back to your native land (and without a lawyer on your side, there’s not much you can do about it). We’ve found that most such officials in Canada are very nice and helpful, but like everyone they are human. We have seen examples firsthand of either officials who were clearly in a bad mood or visitors who had terrible attitudes towards these folks doing a thorough job. I sincerely believe that that main reason I’m still up here after two years when my sponsorship application is only just now being filed is that I’ve been consistently patient, forthright and honest whenever a border agent has questions about my visa. Keep in mind that they see lots of people each day, many of whom have poor language skills or are in a hurry, frustrated or just plain confused, and have to deal with a lot of guff and abuse on occasion. Your smiling face and humble approach will go far at the end of a long shift, believe you me. And if that doesn’t work, have a letter (or at least a business card) from your immigration attorney very handy -- border and immigration officials hate calling immigration attorneys. :)

So as I mentioned, we’re finally on the eve of actually filing our immigration and sponsorship paperwork, having filled out our life stories, provided most of the supporting documentation we’ll need, and paid the retainer to our attorney. Just two more goals to meet before the filing officially happens: the medical exam and the photos.

It sounds simple, doesn’t it? :)

Sadly, you can’t just go into any old medical clinic (of which there are plenty, btw) and get your usual “annual physical” type exam and that’s that. Only a limited number of physicians in the entire province are certified by the government for immigration exams. In Victoria, there is only one office (two doctors) that do it, and they are booked up for this particular procedure months in advance. The whole of Vancouver Island has only a handful of such doctors, all of whom are equally booked up. Luckily, Vancouver is a very major city in Canada and not far away, and the number of approved physicians there means much shorter wait times. As an aside, I should mention that this is the first and only time so far in Canada where the level of service and backlog of appointments has felt akin to the hassle one often goes through with “HMO” lists of “approved” doctors in the states.

The cost of the exam varies and yes, I pay for it (because I’m a visitor, I’m not on the provincial healthcare plan). The cost varies depending on location, but seems to run a little over $300 (which includes bloodwork and a chest x-ray). Add to that the expense of getting to Vancouver and back and so forth and you’re looking at a fair few bucks.

The photos, too, need to be taken by a professional photographer (though you’re given a lot more leeway in choosing whoever you want on this). You get a form that specifies exactly how big and how many photos and so forth, and no your passport photos (even new ones) cannot be used. And you pay for this as well. Stupid bureaucrats. :)

With luck, I will have this done in a week or so and the application will be filed. What happens next, you ask? Well, nothing. At least not for a while -- and “a while” here is defined by whatever the government wants that to be, so there’s no timetable for it (“some number of weeks” is the best we could get from our lawyer). Then they get back in touch and tell us what other documentation they will need, and no doubt give us some new hoops to jump through.

But in the meantime, this filing will give us two new opportunities. First and most important, it will probably assure us the ability to remain here in Canada and obtain a further visa when my current one expires, making it safe for me to visit the US and other places on those occasions when I need to. And second, I can finally begin looking for work at long last, as one of my various skill sets (Graphic Designer) happens to fall under a job category that both NAFTA and the province allow to “fast-track” for a work permit (by “fast” here we mean “within a month or three”). It’s not actually the profession I would have chosen to work in here (and the permit is tied to the job), but I have a lot of experience at it and wouldn’t be at all unhappy doing it.

Of course, there is the little matter of actually finding a position, particularly given that the employer has to wait for the work permit to clear (yes, you have to get the serious full-time offer first, then you and the potential boss have to wait for the paperwork to go through), but at least it will be finally possible for me to be working, which would help enormously in our quest to live here permanently. A light at the end of the tunnel, perhaps.


Anonymous said...

My head hurts!!!

Anonymous said...

We've had couple of friends who have "landed".... and had parties to celebrate. I've thought that the parties were a little, um... cliche. Little paper Canadian flags on toothpicks, maple syrup on everything. Red and white frosting on a cake. And yet it was also obvious that our new 'landees' were so incredibly proud and happy to have been accepted. It was infectious, and everyone there started feeling a little more proud.

When I got my landed status/citizenship I was too young to have the party. Too bad.

So, when you get your papers... have a party. Invite your friends.

Haven't been to a citizenship party yet. Just a matter of time.

Good Luck with your application.

Next weekend is Apple festival on Salt Spring. Too bad about the weather, though - eh?!