Why we founded the Canadian Immigration Lawyers Association (CILA)


The Canadian Immigration Lawyers Association (CILA) has been formed amid one of the most eventful periods in Canadian immigration history. In March 2020, just days after his immigration minister, the Honourable Marco Mendicino, tabled the ambitious Immigration Levels Plan 2020-2022, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Canada was shutting its borders to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

From the government’s perspective, managing the immigration system during the largest global public health crisis in a century has undoubtedly been daunting and has resulted in a flurry of changes to Canada’s immigration policies, processes, laws, and regulations. As Canadian immigration lawyers have experienced, making sense of the changes and communicating the implications to immigrants themselves has also been daunting.

Enter CILA.

Earlier in 2021, a group of prominent Canadian immigration lawyers thought the time was right to form a new organization to complement other associations. What role does CILA seek to play in Canada’s immigration system? CILA’s founding members recently sat down for an interview to answer these questions and more.

Why was CILA established?

Vance Langford: Put simply, to have a positive impact on what we feel is an overly complex immigration system with policy and operational impediments.

When you think about it, maintaining a healthy immigration system is a lot like maintaining a healthy lifestyle. For humans to be healthy, we need to eat well, exercise, rest, limit stress, and avoid vices. We need to do this constantly. Similarly, to maintain our excellent immigration system, we need to constantly review our policies, laws, and regulations to ensure they correspond with our nation’s diverse interests. Canada has key immigration policy goals such as supporting the economy, reuniting families, helping refugees, preserving our Francophone character, and addressing the needs of our provinces and territories. Are we meeting these policy goals? This is a question we need to ask ourselves every day as we seek to preserve our already excellent immigration system.

It’s also important to remember that Canada has not always been successful at immigration, and in our early years as a country, we were a nation of transients. However, we became adept at welcoming, settling, and retaining immigrants through a mix of trial and error, dialogue, debate, and innovation.

CILA believes it has a lot to add to this mix. Our founding members have identified gaps in information-sharing, collaboration, research, technology and government relations efforts that we strongly feel need to be addressed. We have embarked on an initiative that may enable Canadian immigration lawyers to have profound influence for generations to come. Our strengths include our independence, thought leadership, and willingness to act and advocate for some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

Why do we need CILA when there are other professional organizations in the immigration sector?

Barbara Jo Caruso: Great question. CILA’s founders have  benefited from being part of other organizations, not the least of which has been the lasting friendships with so many colleagues across Canada. However, despite the many contributions and achievements that other organizations have made to the evolution of immigration policy, processes, and legislation, too often the voice of the immigration bar was not heard, usually because we were have been unable to get our ideas and opinions to the government or media in a timely way or we have often had to speak in our personal capacity.   

As Vance briefly mentioned, CILA believes there are notable areas it can complement and support the work of other associations and stakeholders which will contribute to our voice being stronger.

CILA will offer timely responses and analysis to the media and government departments regarding policy developments and proposed legislative changes. We plan to issue press releases and other public commentary while issues are live. The pandemic has illuminated the reality that time does not stand still for any issue and that organizations have to be able to pivot quickly and respond to the issue of the day. CILA’s more targeted mandate allows us to be nimbler and more responsive.

We also plan to be a body of knowledge and expertise. We will produce a steady array of articles, backgrounders, commentaries, policy papers, and letters on the most important Canadian immigration issues of the day. We want to tap into the minds of not just those members that have years of experience but also the many young lawyers from different backgrounds that make up our diverse bar and create a think tank that will put big bold ideas forward that will push the envelope to support improvements to the immigration system not just for lawyers but for the public and other stakeholders.

Similarly, we believe that litigation is another way to drive positive reforms, although this approach is currently under-utilized. CILA plans to establish a charity division to solicit donations and fund litigation on important matters to immigration lawyers, stakeholders and applicants themselves. We hope to do this with the collaboration and support of other organizations.

CILA also intends to develop coalitions and build momentum with other groups so that joint positions and submissions can be developed in a timely manner. We believe this will make our voice stronger and even more credible. Too often, government is quick to conclude that lawyers are self-interested, when in fact the reality is far from the truth. Immigration lawyers are caring and generous members of society that often give of their time without charge or at rates that are much below market. CILA will be well-positioned, where appropriate, to bridge coalitions quickly and supplement the broader voice of immigration lawyers on certain issues. CILA plans to build coalitions with other immigration legal organizations in Canada and with the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA).

Finally, I want to mention CILA plans to be “The Voice” for immigration lawyers and immigrants themselves. We will stand up for immigrants and the important work of our profession.

On that note, a skeptic may argue that Canada’s immigration system does not need another vested interest group looking out for itself. How would you respond?

Ravi Jain: That’s a fair question. We are aware of this characterization of immigration lawyers but let me explain the limitations of this view.

Let’s start from the top. Why do immigration lawyers exist? We exist to protect the public interest. The Canadian government operates this large and sophisticated immigration system to achieve our country’s various economic, social, and cultural objectives. To achieve these objectives, federal and provincial governments have many rules in place. They also operate hundreds of streams for immigrants, temporary residents, and visitors. Navigating the world’s most complicated immigration system is difficult for all involved stakeholders, including us lawyers, and governments themselves. Imagine how difficult it is to navigate for prospective immigrants, who may know little about Canada, or may have other barriers such as disabilities or a weaker command of English or French. In fact, I do not need to imagine the difficulties newcomers face, since I encounter them on a daily basis.

Immigration lawyers, hence, play a crucial role in making our immigration system as accessible as possible, which again, enables Canada to achieve its immigration policy goals. Believe me when I say that us lawyers prefer a simpler system. I have long argued that I wish the system was so simple that immigration lawyers aren’t even needed. And I mean that.

That’s why CILA wants to work with Canada’s governments and build coalitions to make immigration laws and programs simpler and fairer. Everyone that meets the criteria of their desired stream should be able to submit their applications to immigration authorities as seamlessly as possible. All applicants should be treated with respect. CILA plans to raise equity issues with government officials at every possible opportunity.

Why should a single mother working in an essential occupation need to take a day off work to submit an application, when there is a professional, trustworthy, and competent immigration lawyer willing and able to do so on her behalf on a pro bono basis? These are questions that sometimes get lost in the shuffle as Canada’s governments deal with multiple immigration priorities. CILA will work hard to bring such equity issues to the fore.

Why is now the right time to form CILA?

Betsy Kane: My colleagues have already touched on this but let me elaborate.

The past year-and-a-half have been the most challenging of my 30-year career. The pandemic has forced immigration lawyers to dedicate an extraordinary amount of time and effort simply to keep on top of the perpetual changes to the laws, policies, departmental messaging and operations. Never before have my colleagues, connections, and friends played such an important role in helping me understand the transformation taking place in the field. Knowledge sharing amongst the immigration bar was the lifeline that kept me whole over the duration of the most severe travel restrictions.

At CILA we understand the need for mentorship and collegial support especially when things are constantly in a state of flux. This is why CILA will offer a mentorship program available to lawyers at all stages of their career. We will evaluate the needs of our members and develop the program incrementally as we onboard mentors. We hope to support a new generation of immigration lawyers.

We feel now is an opportune time to start afresh by creating a new and more responsive organization that will serve the needs of the immigration bar in different ways. Our area of the law is critical to building the Canada of tomorrow. We believe a visible and discernable presence is needed to raise concerns about policies and laws that govern how citizenship and immigration programs are delivered. As Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) mobilizes to attract over one million permanent and temporary residents each year, now is the time to ensure our voice is heard.

Why did you join CILA as a Founding Member?

Jennifer Nees: I joined CILA as a Founding Member after more than 15 years as a Canadian immigration lawyer, having represented people from all over the world and all walks of life, including refugees, students, workers, entrepreneurs, businesses and families. I have always had a strong desire to volunteer for the betterment of my community, profession and the people we serve. 

I have volunteered at the local, provincial and national level to advocate for fairness and predictability in the Canadian immigration system. I have had the opportunity to consult with Canadian government representatives both on the political and bureaucratic sides, as well as other stakeholders. 

I have been impressed by the importance of relationships and trust, as well as stewardship and sharing of institutional knowledge. I have also collaborated with colleagues and made many friends among immigration lawyers across Canada. I am constantly amazed at the resilience, generosity and creativity in this profession. 

I have also seen first-hand the challenges and shortcomings in the profession as currently represented. I am aware of the good work done by other organizations and their volunteers, as well as the opportunities to cooperate. I am involved with CILA as a Founding Member because of the people involved, their shared experience and foresight in building an association that will serve future generations of immigrants and Canadian immigration lawyers.

Finally, this question is to each of you. Where do you envision CILA to be 50 years from now?

Jennifer Nees: The success of our immigration system is due to the countless number of people who are committed to making Canada a better country. I hope that many of the immigration thought leaders that emerge over the next 50 years are CILA members, who have benefitted from their affiliation with our association.

Ravi Jain: I am not too concerned about where CILA will be in 50 years. It’s important to stress our goal is to support the operations of our immigration system. I hope that 50 years from now, CILA’s insights and expertise will play a modest role in ensuring Canada continues to operate the world’s best immigration system.

Betsy Kane: I hope that CILA continues to support the growth of many young and committed immigration lawyers for generations to come. I don’t know about you, but I’m not getting any younger. Earlier in my career, I benefited from mentorship and comradery from older, more experienced immigration lawyers. I’m now at the stage of my career where I want to pay it forward, and my fellow CILA founding members are in the same boat. We want to mentor younger lawyers so they can have a lasting positive impact on citizenship and immigration law. Hopefully they too will continue the virtuous cycle.

Barbara Jo Caruso: I want CILA to be recognized as a center of thought leadership and excellence. Hopefully 50 years from now we will have produced lots of high-quality literature and we will have secured important court judgments. I hope such achievements will be recognized by newcomers, Canada’s governments, the media, academics, and others as having contributed to substantive improvements to our immigration system. I also hope that CILA will be an organization that can continue to grow and evolve to meet the ongoing needs of the immigration bar and immigrants.

Vance Langford: The American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. They grew from 20 lawyers based out of New York to now a vibrant membership of 16,000 lawyers from across the United States. I would love for CILA to grow and flourish over the next 50 years with a vibrant and national network of lawyers working hand-in-hand to make formative contributions to Canadian citizenship and immigration law.

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