Seek advice before 'flagpoling' immigration status


Laura Stairs Head Shot

Foreign nationals who “flagpole” to validate their status in Canada may be putting themselves at risk due to a pilot project by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), Windsor immigration lawyer Laura Stairs tells

Stairs, an associate with Shibley Righton LLP, explains that flagpoling allows those already in Canada to obtain and validate their immigration status by briefly travelling to the United States and back. While it can take months for the immigration department to process the same application, border officials can do it in about 30 minutes.

“I'm working with someone on a work permit application right now, and online processing takes 84 days,” Stairs says. “You can be sitting there waiting for that long, or you could actually have a decision on the same date that you finish your application. For people who can make it work, going to the border is much more efficient.”

She says the CBSA has limited the practice at some land ports of entry which has been chaotic for temporary residents in Canada, according to reports. Stairs says the change is another reason to consult a lawyer first.

In a pilot project that began in June 2017, CBSA started to limit flagpoling, restricting it to Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at the Queenston-Lewiston, Rainbow and Peace bridges in Ontario. Quebec is now also part of the project.

The agency says high volumes and excessive wait times at ports of entry necessitated the change.

Stairs advises people planning to flagpole to be aware of the potential risks.

“The first thing that's important for people to understand is that you are actually crossing the Canadian border, going to the United States and asking the U.S. officer to turn you around,” she says. “We always warn our clients that those officers don't always understand what it is you are doing, and it can actually result in someone receiving a refusal order, which can have implications on future immigration applications to the U.S.”

The pilot project has caused consternation among immigration lawyers because many foreign nationals were left in the dark about the change, Stairs says.

“We have a number of concerns, but one of the main issues we are seeing is that CBSA hasn't publicly advised people of these changes to the periods in which they are able to flagpole,” she says. “What happens is an individual shows up and is told that their application will not be processed if they are outside of those designated times.”

If that happens, Stairs says there are implications for people's health and social insurance cards.

So far, she says there is no indication if the policy will end or be implemented at other border crossings.

“It's been two years, so I don't necessarily expect it will change soon," Stairs says. "However, we see with immigration issues that the policy changes all the time, so I would not be surprised if this project is either expanded to more borders across Canada or eventually cancelled due to the number of complaints that they're receiving from lawyers and people trying to flagpole.”

She advises foreign nationals to educate themselves.

“Understand which border you're working with and the hours they are open,” she says. “That information isn't readily available. Lawyers have access to information through our networks and experience, so I would recommend speaking with a lawyer given the frequent changes.”