Canadians who’ve fallen for Cubans are grappling with the suddenly higher cost of saying “I do.”
Dozens of newlyweds have recently been faced with paying a hefty price to bring their foreign spouses to Canada because of a service disruption at the Canadian visa post in Havana, where a number of staff had earlier fallen ill with a mysterious illness.
Although the office reopened in August and services have been partially restored after a three-month closure, permanent residence applicants must still fly outside of Cuba to have their medical exams and sometimes attend interviews — causing further financial hardship and months of delay for couples who have already invested so much emotionally and monetarily in their long-distance relationships.
“This is a money grabber,” said Liz Judd of Toronto, who met her husband Noel Diaz in Cuba in July 2015 through a mutual friend before getting married two years ago. She submitted her spousal sponsorship application in 2018 and her husband was asked to schedule an interview in August. A date has yet to be set. “This is so painful for us. This is financially costly and emotionally draining.”
In May, Ottawa shut down the Havana visa post after Canadian diplomats reported mysterious neurological issues with concussion-like symptoms such as memory loss, trouble sleeping and hearing strange buzzing noises. All files in Cuba were transferred to Mexico for processing. In August, the Havana office resumed services in fingerprint and photo collection as well as passport drop-off and visa pickup.
However, permanent residence applicants must still travel to Trinidad and Tobago or Mexico for interviews, and to Trinidad, Ghana or Barbados for medical exams.
These interviews and medical checkups used to be done locally at the Havana visa post and the additional travel can cost as much as $1,500 per trip with flights, accommodation, translation and cab services. The cost is a fortune for Cubans, many of whom make less than $50 a month, and adds to the burden on their Canadian spouses, said Shirley Deveau of Toronto, spokesperson for an online group of Canadians whose Cuban spousal sponsorships are affected.
“The costs just keep going up,” said Deveau, who met Abel Sarmiento Sosa in February 2017 during an overseas school trip for her MBA program at Cape Breton University. He was the group’s coach bus driver. The two married at the end of that year and applied for sponsorship in May 2018. “We didn’t go there looking for a husband. You don’t pick where you meet your spouse.”
According to the immigration department, as of the end of June there were almost 932 Cuban permanent residence applications under the family reunification stream — 720 of them spousal sponsorships — and another 969 cases in the economic stream.
“Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada has been working diligently to ensure that the processing of applications from Cuba continues smoothly and that applicants have access to the services they need to come to Canada,” immigration department spokesperson Peter Liang said in an email.
Deveau, whose online group has about 400 members, wondered why immigration interviews couldn’t be done by video-conferencing and asked Ottawa to subsidize applicants’ trips or fly in officials to interview Cuban applicants in Havana.
But Liang said the department cannot offer financial assistance to applicants and will continue “to explore other mitigation measures and alternative service channels” for the Cubans.
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Ottawa-based immigration consultant Kathryn Martinez Lopez, who had some 30 Cuban files at different stages in the system when the Havana visa post closed in May, said it is difficult for Cubans to get visas to Mexico for their medical exam and interview, leaving clients with no choice but to go to Trinidad and Tobago, where some applicants have recently complained about being denied entry even though a visa is not required.
“It is not just the costs as there also has been an increase in the amount of time it now takes to process a file,” said Martinez Lopez, who is married to a Cuban. “The financial hardship is heartbreaking as some clients have had to put their processes on hold until they have sufficient time to save for the additional costs.”
Not all Cuban permanent residence applicants are required to have interviews, but Liang said immigration officials referred 180 applicants for interviews between May 2018 and June 2019.
“You need a deep pocket book. This is not a short haul,” said Roberta Sanchez, an emergency medical responder from Edmonton, who met her husband Yaser Sanchez Tudela at a resort in 2015 and married him the following year. Their application is still being processed.
“I will have to use my credit card for the trip to Trinidad. I don’t get paid when I don’t work. Yaser and I text and message each other all the time, but it’s not the same when you don’t have that somebody there to comfort you.”