Why does Cultural Competency in the Immigration System Matter?


This article was authored by Maryam Markaryan, JD Candidate, Windsor Law.

In the tricky world of immigration law in Canada, understanding different cultures is not just a must-have skill for the job; it’s essential for doing the right thing. It means more than just knowing that people come from diverse backgrounds. To understand the certain challenges and unique experiences people face, it is crucial to delve deeper into the underlying reasons. Take the case of Essa v Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration), 2011 FC 1493 (CanLII) as an example of how important it is to be culturally aware of immigration matters and the impact this can have on real life.

Essa, a man from Jordan, found himself caught in the intricate web of the Canadian immigration system, not due to any fault of his own but because of a systemic lack of cultural understanding. Having been granted permanent resident status as a dependent of his parents, Essa’s life was turned upside down when his father failed to meet residency obligations, resulting in the loss of his own status in Canada. The situation took a more dire turn when Essa applied for a refugee claim, seeking protection on the grounds of his homosexuality, a deeply personal and sensitive aspect of his identity. Essa, who is not connected to any LGBTQ communities, was wrongly thought by the immigration officer to be lying about his sexual orientation. The officer did not understand that it is often taboo to talk about such things openly in Eastern cultures. This misunderstanding led them to believe Essa was not being truthful and resulted in his application getting denied.

At a crucial point, it became clear that there was a big gap in cultural competency during the immigration process. Essa’s application was picked apart from mostly a Western perspective. This led to wrong assumptions and judgments about his sexual identity, all based on Western standards. Because they did not understand his culture or show much empathy, they ended up denying his application and the issuance of a deportation order. The applicant’s legal representation adeptly challenged the deportation decision, appealing to the Court of Appeal. Recognizing the cultural complexities at play, the court ruled in favour of Essa and subsequently granted him refugee status.

The importance of raising the issue of cultural competency in administrative settings, particularly in immigration proceedings, cannot be overstated. First and foremost, it ensures fair and just decisions by preventing misunderstandings that can have life-altering consequences for applicants. It highlights the need for diversity among decision-makers, enabling a more comprehensive and empathetic assessment of an applicant’s situation from multiple cultural perspectives. Moreover, it fosters respect for the diverse experiences and backgrounds of applicants, promoting a more inclusive and equitable immigration process.

Thinking about this case really drives home how crucial cultural competency is. It’s not just a nice-to-have; it’s essential for a fair and just immigration system. This whole situation pushes lawyers and immigration officers to step outside their own views and biases, opening each side’s eyes to the rich diversity of people’s lives. While the professionals continue working in immigration, whether as advocates, practitioners, or policymakers—they must ensure that understanding different cultures is at the heart of their work. This will help avoid misunderstandings and unfair treatment, sure, but more than that, it will deepen their connection with everyone who comes to Canada looking for a fresh start.

Adding this kind of knowledge does not just help immigration officers be fairer; it actually makes their jobs richer and helps applicants trying to help even more. The case with Essa is not just about one person winning against tough odds, it is a clear signal that embracing cultural differences should be a key piece in how immigration laws are shaped. It is a reminder of how powerful understanding and valuing diverse cultures can be when dealing with complex immigration issues.

In conclusion, it is imperative for immigration professionals to ensure that cultural competency becomes a cornerstone of their practice as they advance in their roles as advocates, practitioners, and policymakers within Canada’s immigration landscape. This is crucial not only for preventing misunderstandings and injustices but also as a guiding principle to enrich their understanding and treatment of all individuals seeking a new life in a new land.

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