What factors influence immigration visa decisions?

When visa officers issue visas to enter Canada, administrative logic may cause individuals from certain regions to be at a systematic disadvantage. Organizational culture, efficient client processing, and understandings of motivations to migrate play a greater role than ethnic or racial background of applicants in obtaining a visa.

McMaster Researcher


Vic Satzewich, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies (2013): Visa Officers as Gatekeepers of a State's Borders: The Social Determinants of Discretion in Spousal Sponsorship Cases in Canada, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, DOI: 10.1080/1369183X.2013.854162

Vic Satzewich, 2015. Points of Entry: How Canada’s Visa Officers Decide Who Gets In. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

What is this research about?

Most countries require people who wish to move or work there to obtain a visa. Visa officers must apply abstract rules and procedures to ‘real world’ cases and are part of the process of gatekeeping of Canada’s borders. Family Class visas are the second most common types of visa issued and they are given processing priority. To obtain a visa, spouses must submit an application with detailed relationship history. Visa officers are required to determine if their relationship is genuine and warrants a visa. Officers use experience of what authentic relationships look like and use various investigative techniques to make their decision.
Visa officers are often characterized as arbitrary and uncompassionate, and as making decisions based on their personal biases. The purpose of this research is to examine what influences the decisions behind who receives a visa and who does not.

What did the researchers do?

The researcher conducted interviews with individual visa officers and observed 11 overseas visa offices. The visits lasted between 3 and 5 days to study how decisions are made in the visa office. The researcher used this data to examine how organizational culture of visa offices influences visa officers' decisions.

What did the researchers find?

Interviewing visa officers revealed that understanding the region's socio-economic conditions from where the applicant originates can have affect visa judgements. Candidates who come from more economically advanced countries with are perceived by visa officers as unlikely to enter a fraudulent marriage solely to gain a visa to Canada. When a country does not have visa restrictions to enter Canada as a visitor, visa officers perceive fewer incentives to enter Canada under fraudulent conditions.  If an area has had a history of using false documents, candidates from that region are more likely to be scrutinized further to ensure their marriage is genuine.
Administrative restrictions imposed on visa officers also influence visa issuance. Visa officers have a yearly target they must meet for issuing permanent visas. This compels officers to work quickly and actually creates a bias towards accepting visas, as it is quicker to accept an applicant than reject them. In addition, officers are aware certain visa rejections get appealed, which helps create a professional detachment from the cases.

How can you use this research?

This research contributes to the conversation of what biases a visa officer may have when making decisions. Managers in border control can use this research to address and mitigate the biases that do exist. Decision makers in similar roles may be interested in this research to help question if these biases exist in their line of work, or what type of biases they seem to follow. Citizenship and Immigration Canada may also find this research of interest, as they deal with complaints about visa rejections.  Immigration consultants will find this research useful because it sheds light on the inside workings of visa offices.  This research could also be used by the general public, those who have immigrated or are considering immigration.

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