Families with children who have a disability and are trying to become permanent residents of Canada say they’re forced to confront an immigration system that’s unfair and discriminatory.
Kara Sharp and her husband Alastair have spent nearly four years going through the immigration process, waiting to find out if they and their two children — one of whom is Canadian — will be allowed to stay in the country.
“I don’t know how many times I have sat on the couch and cried at night while the kids are sleeping,” Sharp told Global News. “There’s a lot of unknowns. Are they going to give us permanent residency? Are we going to have to uproot our family?”
Sharp, originally from Michigan, and her husband, from Australia, met while working overseas. They arrived in Canada in 2010. Sharp is a stay-at-home mom, while her husband is a journalist.
They have a daughter, Tallula, 4, who was born in Canada and a son, Sebastian, 9, who was born in the U.K.
WATCH: Toronto mother on what she wants to see change in Canada’s immigration system
Sebastian was deprived of oxygen during birth and has cerebral palsy. He also has a seizure disorder, Sharp says, adding that Sebastian needs a wheelchair to get around and full-time care. Still, she says he’s just like every other boy.
“He loves playing soccer, he loves chocolate ice cream, he is really funny,” Sharp said. “He’s just a typical nine-year-old kid. But he needs to access the world around him a little bit differently.”
Immigration Canada has told the couple they need to move Sebastian from the school he currently attends in the Toronto District School Board, just a five-minute walk from their home to a private school roughly one hour’s drive from their home to reduce the “burden” the government says he puts on Canada’s social services.
“I’ve definitely felt anger through this process,” she said. “It’s been really hard. It’s really hard to not just be able to live your life.”
Sharp said they have the financial ability to cover the costs but feel their son is being discriminated against because of his disability.
“When you have a law that weeds out people with disabilities from immigrating to Canada, that takes away from some of the diversity,” she said. “I believe that’s discriminatory because it’s based on a diagnosis on paper, not necessarily the individual themselves or the family that they make up as a whole.”
Families and advocates who spoke with Global News say the process of singling out persons with disabilities and forcing them to go through a different immigration process is “textbook” discrimination.
And while the government has a responsibility to ensure the country’s immigration policies are not abused, immigration lawyers say setting aside persons with disabilities and subjecting them to additional screening for no reason other than they are disabled is a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Known as “medical inadmissibility,” the practice of segregating disabled applicants for permanent residency and those with long-term medical conditions from ordinary applicants is meant to ensure newcomers to the country do not place “excessive demand” on Canada’s publicly funded health and social service programs.
In 2017, Immigration Canada set the limit for excessive demand at $6,655 – a figure that is supposed to represent the average amount spent on health and social services per Canadian in the most recent year. If the anticipated costs of caring for a person’s disability or medical condition are higher than this limit, the applicant and all family members are denied permanent residency.
A Global News investigation has raised questions about the legitimacy of this figure and found the federal government doesn’t potentially account for up to $40 billion in provincial spending when assessing social service spending in the country. This means the figure used by Immigration Canada for excessive demand could be off by as much as $1,105 in annual per capita spending.
Immigration lawyer Ron Poulton said Canada’s immigration policy also fails to account for the many contributions people with disabilities make to their communities. He says the system only sees their disability, and by performing such crude mathematical calculations, fails to acknowledge the contributions of disabled Canadians to society as a whole.
“What that is saying to me is it’s all about their disability, it’s not about cost at all,” said Poulton. “It’s about the fact there has been a decision made, whether it’s conscious or [an] unconscious one, that we are not going to accept somebody who has got a disabled child.”
“That is reprehensible,” he said.
These types of cases, often involving children, are complicated by the fact that federal officials decide on immigration cases, yet the provinces and territories are responsible for providing health care and education.
Hadayt Nazami, an immigration lawyer, acknowledged there are legitimate reasons for refusing an application — like someone going through cancer treatment — but refusing someone based on a disability is discriminatory, full stop, Nazami said.
He also said the way immigration officials handle cases — often using outdated and inflammatory language to describe persons with disabilities — is a problem. He says this is an affront and causes a great deal of stress and discomfort for persons forced to go through the process.
“At the end of the day this isn’t an issue about cost to Canada,” Nazami continued. “When we say to someone that they are going to be a burden on our society because of your disabilities, then we are telling Canadians with disabilities ‘we don’t like you and you are all burdens on us, but we tolerate you because you’re Canadian citizens.’”
WATCH: Family from Bangladesh say Canada’s immigration law discriminates against their disabled son
Ruhee Raihan Ahmed and his wife, Rini, are 38 years old and living in Bangladesh. Both speak English and have advanced university degrees.
The couple, speaking to Global News in a video call, say navigating Canada’s immigration system has been terrible, that it’s an unfair process and has discriminated against them because their 10-year-old son, Raheed, is disabled.
“The stress, it’s something that cannot be explained,” said Ahmed, describing his efforts to bring his family to Canada.
Raheed was deprived of oxygen at birth. He has advanced developmental delay and cerebral palsy – meaning it’s difficult for him to speak and function like an average child his age. His condition will require lifelong care.
“We met all the criteria except the one,” said Rini Ahmed. “We cannot do anything to improve my son, who is in no way responsible.”
The couple has been trying to immigrate to Canada for the past four years. They’ve hired lawyers, both in Bangladesh and Canada, met with numerous medical experts and spent thousands of dollars trying to prove to the government they’re capable of providing for their son’s needs.
“It should not happen. It must not happen,” Rini Ahmed said, worried that her family might be denied. “Canada is a country, which as a society is equal in everything. People cannot be treated negatively for their age, religion, gender or sexual orientation – ethnicity and disability as well.”
WATCH: Toronto Immigration lawyer explains why she believes Canada’s immigration law is discriminatory
But the couple is fearful their application for permanent residency might be denied because of their son’s disability. They also say Immigration Canada failed to follow its own rules by not disclosing the estimated cost of care their son will need once in Canada.
In a “fairness letter” from Immigration Canada to the Ahmed family in late 2016, officials indicated Raheed would require a number of social services once in Canada — special education, speech, physical and occupational therapy — but the government failed to outline the anticipated costs of these services.
Adrienne Smith, a former analyst at Immigration Canada and the lawyer representing the Ahmed family, said this is just one of many examples of immigration officials not performing their responsibilities. She says failing to outline the anticipated costs makes it impossible for families to counter the government’s arguments in denying their applications.
“More often than not, what I find is the costs that are listed in the letter from the government are either not accurate, not specialized to the applicant or they’re simply outdated or often wrong,” Smith said. “I’ve had [immigration officials] say that you’re going to need this type of service, and my client has never needed that type of service in the past.”
Other “fairness letters” reviewed by Global News indicated similar problems, where costs were not identified or their sources could not be found.
Smith said the language used in letters often causes panic and anxiety in the applicants who receive them.
“Worry that they’ll be removed from Canada immediately, worry that their child is never going to be able to come to Canada,” she said. “Sometimes we will see clients who propose the plan of care on their own without any immigration advice, without a lawyer, without any kind of expertise and most often those cases can be refused.”
Smith and other experts are calling for changes to the immigration act and for government officials to see beyond disability.
“Yes, the child has cerebral palsy, a more severe form of developmental delay perhaps, and they may need a lot of educational support and support within the community, but you also need to consider the support within the family and the contributions the parents are making to the economy,” she said. “The problem with this policy, is it kind of narrows down by just looking at this child as undesirable, without looking at all of the positive attributes his family is bringing at the same time.”
Meanwhile, Ruhee Raihan Ahmed says a refusal would be devastating to his family. He says he and his wife, as well as their three-year-old daughter, Raaina, would be strong, contributing members of Canadian society for decades.
“We know there is a chance of refusal,” he said. “We cannot think about it. A refusal will be heartbreaking. A big setback for us. The money spent does not matter. But you can’t get those times and opportunities back.”
It’s been four months since the Ahmed family responded to Immigration Canada’s letter saying their application may be denied and they’re hopeful the government recognizes the strength of their application and their willingness to pay for their son’s needs.
The Sharp family is also waiting for a response from Immigration Canada. They’re hopeful their son will be allowed to remain at his school, a place they say he feels at home and is among friends.
“We fight every day for our son,” said Kara. “I want people with disabilities to feel included, to feel like they are not going to be shipped out or not allowed in based on their diagnosis.”