Review: “It Is Hard Not To Be Cynical”

There is no cruelty like bureaucracy. Sociologist Dr. Victor Satzewich explains why Syrian boys don’t get into Canada without ever mentioning “Syrian boys” by name. Satzewich’s first-hand account of the inner workings at the Department of Immigration is not merely timely, it is excellent.

Satzewich visited 11 Canadian visa offices abroad, interviewed 128 staff and witnessed 42 interviews with immigrants. It was unprecedented access. Points Of Entry neither condemns nor patronizes the department; it is what it is. As one officer puts it, “You could train a monkey to do it.”

Canada prides itself as generous and welcoming, to the point of misstating facts. No, we do not let in record numbers of immigrants. No, we do not accept more refugees per capita than any other country. If most refugee applicants are accepted, it’s also true 99.9 percent of the world refugees never get a chance to fill out Form 17-b. Citizenship Canada “could have written the manual on how to design a truly nameless and faceless bureaucracy,” Satzewich writes.

Big, rich Canada still has lower population density than Bolivia, and today admits 35% fewer immigrants than we did in 1913. “Doing the right thing is not always easy or even always obvious,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in 2008 on accepting a B’nai Brith International Gold Medallion for human rights; “Canada’s history is not without its scars,” Harper added. “For example, the decision to turn away hundreds of German Jewish refugees aboard the SS St. Louis was both tragic and indefensible.”

Moral certitude is expedient in hindsight. In 1939 cabinet dismissed a petition to admit 937 German refugees aboard the St. Louis. “It is much less our problem than that of the U.S.,” wrote Prime Minister Mackenzie King; “It appears there were some fraudulent transactions which account, in part, for the situation.” Jews, like Syrian boys, had failed to fill out the correct paperwork.

Immigration officers process more than a million applications a year, meaning the department works like a factory where quotas or “issuance targets” must be met. “A last-minute request to increase a target because another office has not met its own quota means that something has gone awry,” writes Prof. Satzewich of McMaster University.

One visa officer processes forms at the rate of 1 every 3 minutes without ever meeting applicants: “It’s always about the numbers.” Then there are interviews, typically granted in suspicious cases. “It isn’t rocket science,” says a program manager.

Interview rooms have bulletproof glass to separate officers from applicants; many do not even have chairs, so that prospective immigrants must stand. “The micro-level ritual that unfolds in the interview booth also tends to reinforce the unequal status of applicants,” Points Of Entry notes.

Officers try to determine if an applicant is lying. They act on hunches or a “gut feeling” or pour through documents looking to find fault. Some officers are bored and polite, others are “bullying” and clearly enjoy themselves. “It is very hard not to become cynical,” says one.

Points Of Entry depicts an immigration department overworked and buried in paper, reduced to cheese-paring over regulations in the manner of a Motor Vehicle Branch. Satzewich recalls, “A program assistant explained how a track record once played a starring role in determining the fate of an application. When a woman dropped off her paperwork at the embassy, the receptionist noticed that she was pregnant and recorded it on the cover of the file. A subsequent check of the departmental database disclosed that the woman had previously applied for a visitor visa, which had been granted. During her trip to Canada, she gave birth to a child. Sensing that history was in danger of repeating itself, the officer refused the application.”

Readers are left to ask, so what? What national purpose was achieved in denying a poor woman the privilege of making her baby a citizen of the best country on earth?

Points Of Entry is crisp and compelling, written with objectivity and an extraordinary eye for detail. To read it is to understand why Syrian boys died on a beach, and why politicians lament that “doing the right thing is not always easy” — and then feel slightly ashamed.

By Holly Doan

Points Of Entry: How Canada’s Immigration Officers Decide Who Gets In by Vic Satzewich; University of British Columbia Press; 306 pages; ISBN 9780-7748-30256; $32.95

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