Sr. Norita Espena has had her permanent residence application rejected. In this file photo, she signs her first vows with the Congregation of the Sisters Adorers of the Precious Blood in Calgary.Canadian Catholic News

Foreign-born nuns and priests face immigration roadblocks to permanent residency in Canada

Sr. Vicky Nguyen was ready to profess her final vows this year and enter fully into the life of the Congregation of the Sisters Adorers of the Precious Blood, but one obstacle stood in her way. Her application for Canadian permanent residence was rejected.

Nguyen was deemed unsuitable for residency status because an immigration official was “not satisfied (Nguyen) performed work” for the duration of time declared in her application.

A criteria for permanent residence under Canada’s new Express Entry system required Nguyen to have at least one year of skilled work experience in Canada over the last three years.

But Nguyen, 53, a contemplative nun, has no salary and no personal bank account. Her ministry with the Sisters Adorers involves simple daily tasks like prayer ministry, correspondence with people who write for prayer support, altar bread distribution and household duties.

Though these works are essential to the monastic life of the Sisters Adorers in London, Ont., they are not recognized by Citizenship and Immigration Canada as “skilled work.”

“It’s not fair. They won’t even look at that,” said Sr. Carol Forhan, Sisters Adorers formation director who is helping Nguyen and other Sisters Adorers with their permanent residence applications.

“There are just so many things against them and it’s so hard. The lawyer we’re working with right now — even he said (Express Entry) just doesn’t work for us.”

As homegrown vocations continue to dwindle, the Church in Canada is becoming more reliant on vocations from other parts of the world. According to a 2018 survey by the National Association of Vocation and Formation Directors, 26 per cent of men and women in Canada’s religious congregations are not Canadian-born.

But as religious orders become increasingly multicultural, they face a complicated and costly road block established in 2015 when the immigration application process changed.

A new electronic screening process favours applicants who are young, educated, proficient in one of the official languages and financially independent. Religious workers — as the government classifies priests, religious and consecrated lay people — are now competing against a large pool of permanent resident applicants who, based on a scoring system, are moving to the front of the line. Congregations and religious communities are worried.

Alcido Fank

Alcido Fank is a certified immigration consultant who has worked with religious communities for 21 years. He said the Express Entry system is not a significant change in policy, but rather a change in how applications are processed. An electronic ranking system is meant to fast-track some applicants, such as skilled workers.

The difficulty for religious workers, Fank said, is not just the way the government defines employment. The main obstacle is the Express Entry pool, where religious applications compete head-on with professionals.

Before creation of this electronic pooling system, applicants were evaluated according to one of three categories, “and if you qualified under that category and if there were still available spaces for the quota of that year, then you would submit a paper application and it would be processed,” said Fank.

With Express Entry, every applicant is entered into one pool.

“The difference is that lots of the religious workers don’t have the university degrees, or the language skills and even some don’t have the work experience to be able to compete like every other professional competes,” Fank said.

Now, only applicants who score well in what is called the “Comprehensive Ranking System” are eligible to be invited to apply for permanent residence. A point system is used to rank each application from best to worst. But the ranking is fluid. It is not like a typical waiting list.

As applications arrive throughout the year, those with the highest scores go right to the top of the list, pushing down applicants who could have applied months earlier but have lower scores.

If not chosen for permanent residency within 12 months, applications must be renewed for a fee.
Mary McGough, formation director at Madonna House in Combermere, Ont., said consecrated members of her community have been wrestling with the point system for three years.

“People were getting in with no problems until 2015 and the Express Entry system,” she said.
The main problem is that applications are processed by computer without human intervention, she said. “There’s no way to have a dialogue. There’s no way to make a case.”

Sr. Norita Espena is another religious whose permanent residence application was recently rejected. Although her final profession with the Sisters Adorers in Calgary isn’t until 2022, Espena is worried about her prospects.

“I told my superior this . . . I also need to be realistic because if I go back to the Philippines at my age, yes, I could still work… but I really have this desire to religious life in this congregation,” she said.

Espena is 59. A single person at that age is at a significant disadvantage when applications enter the Express Entry process. The point system generally favours younger, highly skilled candidates. Espena not only loses points due to her age, but also due to her level of education, language skills and Canadian work experience.

Members of religious communities with apostolic ministries often work in hospitals, schools, bookstores, shelters, etc. This work qualifies as Canadian work experience. However, that’s not the case for those in monastic and contemplative communities that focus on prayer and community service.

“I am not sure what the solution should be,” said Fank. “Could there be a specific category for (religious workers)? Maybe that could be one of the ideas. I am not sure but it’s up to the government to decide.”

Foreign priests, religious brothers and sisters and consecrated lay people can work in Canada under a religious worker visa indefinitely. This type of visa provides religious workers with health care, social insurance and other social services. Many priests and religious can remain on this visa for their entire careers as opposed to a regular work permit, which is limited to three renewals.

Permanent residence status is most commonly required when a priest wishes to be incardinated permanently into a diocese and when a religious order’s constitution requires permanent residence status before a candidate takes the final profession of vows.

Shannon Ker, communications advisor at Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, said one avenue for religious workers might be to support their permanent residence application with an offer of arranged employment. That could help navigate Express Entry, she said.

“Provinces and territories can also extend their nomination to religious workers,” said Kerr.

“Such nomination guarantees that an individual will be invited to apply for permanent residence.”
In Ontario, however, candidates eligible to be nominated by the province must meet provincial median wage levels based on occupation and region. Religious workers with modest or no salary would not qualify.

For consecrated men and women at Madonna House, education levels and work experience can be huge obstacles. McGough said many foreign members arrive with only a high school diploma. Before applying for permanent residence they typically live and work in the community for two to four years with no salary.

McGough has a template letter which she submits for Madonna House applicants in three different stages of the online process. The letter explains the candidate has no salary but performs full-time work as required by their religious commitment.

“I also put a little disclaimer at the bottom of the application to explain why the person doesn’t have enough points,” said McGough. “Even then, there’s no guarantee because the immigration officer on the other side has to decide if that’s enough.

“The system has no understanding of religious vocation.”

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