Colombia’s years of left-wing insurgency and drug-cartel violence are mostly in the past, but Leonardo Hortua Herrera still wanted a new life somewhere else for his family.
With his wife’s love of the French language, they decided on Quebec and found an immigration program they thought would make the move possible, and benefit their new home.
Hortua, an investment consultant for construction companies, gave the province $800,000 in 2018 after passing the intense vetting process for its investor-immigrant program. He sent his son to college in Quebec and made plans to start a business there and buy a house in Gatineau.
But four-and-a-half years later, the family is still in Bogota — and waiting. Despite its accord with Quebec, Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) has yet to decide on the last and most crucial step in the process — providing permanent resident (PR) status here.
Meanwhile, Hortua held off on investing in new ventures at home in the hopes he and his dentist wife would soon make it to this country.
“Considering that Colombia has one of the most devalued currencies, our dream of arriving, creating a company and buying a nice house is getting harder every day,” he said. “Over the years, that dream is now almost a nightmare.”
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But Hortua’s predicament is far from unique. Lawyers who handle such applications say numerous foreign citizens have made hefty investments and cleared Quebec’s onerous approval process, only to wait years for word from Ottawa.
In fact, the wait time at the federal department for investors already approved by Quebec is 65 months — more than five years — easily the longest of numerous immigrant classes, according to the IRCC’s own website.
The Quebec program has approved less than 2,000 applicants a year since 2016-17 and was suspended entirely in 2019 for a review. Yet about 13,000 investors are still waiting today for federal approval, says the provincial immigration, Francisation and integration ministry. IRCC says the number is just over 10,000.
Not surprisingly, those years in limbo are maddening for would-be immigrants who have handed a good chunk of their wealth to Canada, says lawyer Marc-André Séguin.
“They have this impression that Canada is behaving like a crook,” he said. “They take this money, hundreds of thousands of dollars, and then they don’t give anything in return … It feels as if they’re being defrauded by the government.”
Some tread a careful path in hopes of winning a positive decision. One American applicant who’s been waiting two years for word from Ottawa backed out of participating in this story after a Liberal MP he consulted warned that appearing in the media could hurt his case.
Mathieu Julien, a Quebec-certified immigration consultant based in Mexico, said most of his clients have been waiting for years to get approval from Ottawa after Quebec accepted them as investor immigrants.
“Obviously they are annoyed,” he said. “They made the investment, then they are just hanging and waiting for three to six years … I just think that IRCC is overwhelmed with the quantity of PR applications they have to process. It got worse with COVID.”
But in a statement Tuesday, the federal department turned the tables on Quebec, saying Ottawa receives more applications for permanent-resident status in the investor category than the province allows under its own immigration thresholds.
The level determined for the investor group this year was reached by the IRCC in October, it said. The remaining requests will be held until Quebec allocates more space for the category.
“IRCC cannot process more applications than the number accepted by Quebec,” said the statement.
That doesn’t jibe with what the Quebec immigration ministry told the Post. A spokeswoman said the federal process was log-jammed by shut-downs during the pandemic and “the backlog of requests and processing times for investor immigrants has not been reduced as much as hoped.”
Séguin said the federal statement is “ludicrous” given the number of investor approvals has rapidly fallen off since Quebec stopped taking any new applications in 2019.
Over the years, that dream is now almost a nightmare
The Quebec investor program, though, is not without its controversies. Evidence emerged in 2013 that as many as 90 per cent of the successful applicants gave Quebec their investment and within five years had moved to another province, often British Columbia. Critics called it a passport-for-money scheme that profited one province and led only to higher real-estate prices in another.
The federal government closed a similar program in 2014 and no other province has one.
But lawyers for later applicants say Quebec largely fixed those problems, with both the province and Ottawa now going to considerable lengths to ensure people put down roots in Quebec.
Séguin says many of his clients in the program have bought homes or businesses in Quebec, have children attending school there or plan to join extended family already living in the province.
There’s even been a spike recently of Francophiles in New York City anxious to settle in Quebec specifically because it is French-speaking, he said.
Regardless, when asked about the issue, IRCC did not indicate that it was causing the extended waits. In fact, lengthy delays have plagued the immigration process generally in recent years.
Under Quebec’s program, investors hand over a sum that at the time Hortua applied was $800,000. It’s invested by the province for five years, the income used to fund small and medium-sized businesses and pay for French classes and other integration services for newcomers. It’s then returned without interest. The amount rose to $1.2 million before Quebec put the program on hold.
But to first get approved by the province, prospective immigrants must provide arguably the most extensive array of documentation of any such program in the world, says Séguin. That includes information on the source of all their income since graduation and certified French translations to accompany the paperwork.
Once approved by Quebec, IRCC then is supposed to conduct security checks and a medical evaluation to ensure applicants won’t be a burden to the health-care system, before granting PR status.
That process once routinely took a year to two years, not today’s 65 months, said Séguin.
Hortua said he and his wife were so convinced they’d gain PR status soon after Quebec’s approval in 2018, they had their son attend an aviation program in the province, expecting to join him shortly. But not only did federal approval fail to come, the pandemic severely restricted travel.
“Imagine sending a 17-year-old to study in a strange country … Your child is left alone (living in a private room) in the middle of a quarantine, where we all feared the worst.”
The positive news is that in response to an access-to-information request, IRCC said earlier this year the family had cleared security and criminal-record checks.
Still, it galls Hortua that immigration wait times are longest for the Quebec investor class.
“The paradox is that this is the category where applicants are rigorously researched, the category that must give the most documents to both the province of Quebec and the federal government,” he said.
“It’s beyond frustrating. It’s very, very unfortunate that the IRCC has been silent for … almost five years.”