Immigration and Refugee Decision-Making: The Vavilov Effect?

It has been a while since I’ve blogged. The last few months have been—in a word—chaotic. I’m hoping to blog more regularly going forward now that some of these things have settled

One of the areas where administrative law really comes to life is in immigration decision-making, particularly front-line decision-making like visa decisions or humanitarian and compassionate decisions [H&C]. This is where the pressures, incentives, and moral worldview of “street-level bureaucrats” in particular contexts can tell us about how decisions affecting all-too-real rights and interests are made. The area, though, presents all sorts of challenges for those studying the law of judicial review.

First, immigration visa decision-making is also just one particular iteration of a broader reality: the inexplicable diversity of administrative decision-making. That diversity leaves monist accounts of the administrative state wanting. Expertise—advanced by the Progressive school as a core reason for delegation and deference—presents a different empirical reality in these contexts. In other words, this is not the labour board or the human rights tribunal where we might have more confidence in the “expert” nature of the decision-maker. In this context, not only is “expertise” not to be assumed, but what it means on the frontlines escapes easy definition.

Second, emerging democratic theories view the administrative state either as a place to facilitate and channel democratic deliberation or a place to encourage contestation (agonism). These theories are deeply insightful and may have resonance in other areas. But in some of these immigration and refugee cases, it is hard to say that there is anything substantively democratic happening. The only democratic argument is entirely formal: the delegation of power to officials to make decisions. This delegation of power must be respected, but the chances for contestation or facilitation seem far off.

Other features of front-line immigration visa decision-making present problems from the perspective of the law of judicial review. Notwithstanding what I say below, it was typically the case that visa decisions did not—and still, do not—require extensive reasons: Persaud v Canada (Citizenship and Immigration), 2021 FC 1252 at para 8. And in theory, this remains true post-Vavilov. What’s more, there was, and remains, a presumption that decision-makers considered all the evidence before her: Cepeda-Gutierrez v Canada, 1998 CanLII 8667. 

The combination of these rules, to my mind, creates an important tradeoff. On one hand, given the backlogs in this area of administrative decision-making, we may think that officers should not spend time writing extensive reasons. On the other hand, a paucity of reasons or an adequate record that “immunizes” decisions from effective review presents problems from the perspective of legality, but more directly, to the individuals who wish to seek judicial relief: see Canada (Citizenship and Immigration), v Canadian Council for Refugees, 2021 FCA 72 at para 102.

There should be some balance struck here. Post-Vavilov, courts in some cases are beginning to strike this balance. They have done so in favour of more substantive reasoning that addresses the legal and factual stakes to the party affected by a decision. In other words, in these cases, the courts are not abiding boilerplate and rote recitation of the facts. Nonetheless, they are not expecting long, involved reasons in every case, and they need not be perfect: the reasons can be short, but should be directed to the actual stakes facing the individual. In my view, this decisively moves the balance towards the ideal of legality, understood in this case as enhancing the role of the courts to ensure compliance with administrative law.

Here are some examples of what I am describing:

  1.  Singh v Canada (Citizenship and Immigration), 2022 FC 692

Here, Justice Diner describes well the post-Vavilov position on reasons:

[22] Visa officers are certainly entitled to deference, but only where their findings have at least a modicum of justification. That was entirely absent here. In the age of Vavilov, the Court cannot defer to reasoning missing from the Decision, or fill in that reasoning for administrative decision-maker. Lacking justification, the matter will be returned for redetermination

2. Rijhwani v Canada (Citizenship and Immigration), 2022 FC 549

This was a denial of a permanent residence application where the applicant plead H&C grounds. The applicant specifically pointed to establishment and hardship as supporting her application. The Officer did not address these factors in detail. The Court says, at para 17: “It is particularly important that when there are few factors raised—in this case only hardship and establishment—that the Officer addresses the rationale clearly for each.”

This did not occur here. Noting, at para 10,  that “brevity cannot excuse inadequacy” the Court takes issue with the “two significant errors…in under a page of reasons” that characterized this decision.

3. Gill v Canada (Citizenship and Immigration), 2021 FC 1441

Gill was found inadmissible to Canada for five years by a visa officer because of misrepresentation; he failed to disclose an unsuccessful tourist visa application to the United States. Gill advanced the argument that his “misrepresentation” was actually an innocent mistake. He argued that the officer did not reasonably explain why he rejected the “innocent mistake” argument.

Specifically, the officer in this case apparently took—word-for-word—reasons that were given by a separate officer in another case that was reviewed in the Federal Court. Speaking of the Cepeda-Gutierrez presumption, the Court said, at para 34:

I note, however, that the use of identical template language to express not just the relevant legal test or framework, but the reasoning applicable to an applicant’s particular case undermines to at least some degree the presumption that the officer has considered and decided each individual case on its merits.

The Court did note, however, that templates can be useful tools in high volume-decision-making [33].

I do not present these cases to make an empirical claim about what any number of courts are doing post-Vavilov. This is impossible to do without closer study. But I can say that there are many more of these cases, and I recommend you consult my weekly newsletter if you are interested in reading more. In the meantime, I think we can draw some conclusions from these cases:

  1. There is something to be said for a signal sent by a judicial review court to administrators about what they should expect. Prior to Vavilov, decision-makers may have expected strong presumptions of deference and courts claiming that inadequate reasons did not provide a standalone basis for review. Now, decision-makers may expect a closer look if their decisions are reviewed, particularly in this front-line context. One hopes that this incentivizes structural solutions within administrative bodies. This should not be hard to expect from Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada, which houses Canada’s largest administrative decision-maker.
  2. No one should take this to mean that reasons need to be extensive in every case. But it should be taken to mean that boilerplate is presumptively problematic. This is because boilerplate, by its nature, does not respond to the individual stakes raised by many of the decisions in the immigration realm. This is, in part, the thinking behind the Vavilovian constraints. If the constraints bind differently in different cases—if Vavilov is truly contextual—then boilerplate is a non-starter because it will generally fail to account for the context of various decisions.
  3. Nor is this emerging line of cases overly onerous for administrative decision-makers or front-line officers. Again, the reasons need not be perfect, need not look like a judicial decision, and need not be extensive. But they must address the actual legal and factual issues at play. If a decision-maker cannot do this, then one should wonder why they were delegated power in the first place.

At any rate, this is an area that I hope receives more attention going forward.