Are Visa Officers Prejudiced?

Clients often complain that their fiancés or spouses have been denied visitor visas to come to Canada.

Most often this rejection occurs when a Canadian has developed a relationship with a foreign national and would like the opportunity of having that person come to Canada to gain an appreciation of Canada geographically, appreciate the Canadian’s life at home and to meet friends and family. They make an application at the Canadian consulate abroad, only to receive a flat, curt, formulated refusal letter ending with a shallow “Thank you for your interest in Canada”.

The letter of refusal application is usually a form letter, which does not indicate specific reasons, but simply generically has boxes ticked off indicating, lack of funds, lack of previous travel, inadequate roots in the home country or not a genuine visitor. Given the number of refusal cases, one can come to the conclusion that these officers are necessarily prejudiced against certain parts of the world which generate excessive refugee claims, are experiencing civil strife or where there may be a high degree of impoverishment. In a recent book published by Vic Satzewich and commented upon by Professor Efrat Arbel during the National Immigration Conference in 2016 in Vancouver, such prejudice was challenged. He stated:

“Satzewich was given access to eleven overseas visa officers between July of 2010 and January of 2012, four in Asia, two in Africa and one in each of Europe, the Middle East, the Caribbean, the United States and South America. He interviewed 128 people involved in the operations of the immigration program, observed 42 interviews in their entirety, and spent many hours observing the operations of these offices abroad.

The conclusions the author comes to run counter to many of the suspicions that the private bar has of how these offices make decisions. For example, individual bias rarely enters into decision making. The author concludes instead that a combination of experience, organizational culture and accumulated local knowledge plays a far more important role in decision-making then preconceived cultural or racial biases.

While accepting that individual officers do entertain ethnic or racial prejudices, the author concludes that the possibility the decisions are grounded in racism should really not be over emphasized, because of the existence of structurally imposed checks and balances. Essentially, because those checks and balances make refusing an application far more work than approving one, and because officers must meet processing targets and cope with time restraints, they arguably have an incentive to approve applications ultimately rather than refuse them. Officers who do allow prejudice into their decision making would stand out with higher refusal rates, as well is an inability to contribute to office targets – and thereby drawing the unwanted attention of management.

These structural checks and balances up appear to have worked, as the author has found no evidence that approval rates are systemically lower than in offices that presumably deal with mainly racialized applicants than in those the deal

with presumably “whiter” ones. Instead, visa-post resourcing, current Immigration policy emphasis on paper-based decision-making (thereby limiting individual contact between officers and clients), biases relating to the relative socioeconomic standing of source countries, and the “social constitution of digging deeper” are all identified as far more prevalent challenges in the selection process.”