Canadian-Cuban family kept apart for nearly a year due to delays in visitor visa application

Greg Skinner says he’s frustrated with the federal department, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), for sitting on his common law wife’s visitor visa application for almost a year, which has resulted in a lengthy separation for his family.

Skinner spoke to CBC news from his home near Langdon,  Alberta. His wife, Daylen Garcia Lopez, and their two children are in Cuba, where Garcia Lopez is from.

“The kids are wondering what’s going on? How come we can’t come home? You know, it’s difficult,” said Greg Skinner. 

Daylen Garcia Lopez has been in Cuba waiting for her visitor visa application to be approved for nearly a year. She’s been told the delays are related to COVID-19. (Greg Skinner)

Skinner says he wrote the federal Immigration minister  and his MP in the hopes they could intervene, but he says when that didn’t resolve the issue, he decided to hire an immigration lawyer.

The lawyer, Peter Wong, says he’s seen a lot of delays with the processing of visa applications this past year due to COVID-19, but he says this case is extreme.

“This one is particularly egregious because it separates couples,” said Peter Wong, immigration lawyer. “And also 11 months is outrageous, in my view.” 

CBC news reached out to IRCC and was told that the pandemic has had a significant impact on Canada’s immigration system but that its “providing additional resources where they are needed most, streamlining our processes and ramping systems back up.”

The IRCC spokesman also says the department is trying to prioritize certain files, including ones involving spousal sponsorships.

And he says this case is under review and the department is still considering Garcia Lopez’s request for a waiver on her biometrics.

But both Skinner and his lawyer say her biometrics were done last November.

“It’s been a year and they don’t even know what’s going on, it’s ridiculous,” said Skinner.

How they got here

Skinner met Garcia Lopez  in 2013 while he was working in Cuba. He was a manager at an oil and gas facility run by a Canadian company.

The couple has two children together, Stephen, five, and Kristen, three. Skinner also has a 10-year-old daughter from a previous relationship.

In 2019, Skinner retired and wanted to move back to Canada with his wife and their two kids. Garcia Lopez is a Cuban national and needs a visitor visa to enter Canada. Their kids have dual citizenship and do not.

Skinner says the family had been to Canada several times prior to his retirement and therefore Garcia Lopez already had a visitor visa — but it was set to expire in August, 2019. 

In preparation for the move, Skinner says his wife tried to renew her visa in Havana, but he says the Canadian embassy office in Havana was closed.

They then moved to Canada anyway in July, 2019 where he says IRCC granted her a visa extension that  expired in May, 2020.

Skinner says the problems began in February, 2020 after Garcia Lopez flew home to Cuba, with her kids, for a family situation.

A few weeks later, Garcia Lopez wasn’t allowed to return to Canada, Skinner says, because he says the visa extension didn’t allow it. Rather, he says, she needed to get a new visitor visa while in Cuba.

Skinner says it should have been a routine application, but that the Canadian embassy office in Havana was still closed and not processing applications so she had to apply through the Canadian embassy office in Mexico City. 

But, because the Havana office was closed, Lopez wasn’t able to get her biometrics done — which include fingerprints and photograph — so she asked if they could be waived.

Skinner says his wife never heard back from IRCC on her request for a waiver.

In November 2020, Skinner says the Canadian embassy in Havana stated it could start doing biometrics, so she got them done and they were sent to Mexico City.

Daylen Garcia Lopez is seen here at the Calgary Zoo with her two younger children, who are with her in Cuba, and her husband’s daughter from a previous relationship. (Submitted by Greg Skinner)

It’s now March, 2021, and Skinner says the couple still hasn’t received an update on her application.

Daylen and their two children have been staying with her parents at their home in Matanzas, about 30 minutes west of Varadero.

“There’s no light at the end of the tunnel as far as we can see as far as something happening,” said Skinner.

Pandemic no longer acceptable excuse

Wong says applications such as Garcia Lopez’s  would normally take one to two months to process, pre-COVID.

Now he says whenever he inquires about a client’s delayed visa application he’s told the same thing, embassies are understaffed and overworked due to the pandemic.

“It’s no longer an acceptable response — they’re a year into this, and they should have figured out how to deal with visa processing,” said Wong.

Wong says if the federal government plans to keep taking visa applications, then it needs to properly staff these offices to process them in a timely manner.

Otherwise, Wong says, the federal government should suspend visa applications until it’s ready to do so.

“What Greg has is a special form of immigration hell, which people have been going through all year,” he said.

Immigration lawyer Peter Wong says its been more than a year since the pandemic hit, and COVID-19 is no longer an acceptable excuse for visa application delays. (Ron Switzer)

Wong says he recommends people don’t apply for a visa until wait times improve.

Meanwhile, Skinner says he and his wife will continue to press for answers, in the hopes they’ll be reunited soon.

“I haven’t seen my kids grow for that year, I  haven’t been able to share any of their experiences,” he said.

Skinner says his wife also applied for permanent residency in early 2020. He says that application is on hold until she is able to return to Canada to complete biometrics and a medical.

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