I've been reading “Points of Entry: How Canada's Immigration Officers Decide Who Gets In” by Vic Satzewich. The author managed to - after obtaining with some difficulty the necessary bureaucratic blessings - interview over a hundred visa and case officers, and attend and examine the inner workings of a number of overseas visa offices. Reading the book confirmed many of my own experiences both as a former immigration officer and now for more than a decade, an immigration lawyer charged with facilitating my client's interactions with Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada - formerly known as Citizenship and Immigration Canada.
In this post, I'm going to focus on the Visa Office Interview. Interviews are rarely scheduled for most temporary resident visas. After two recent TRV's were refused, I sought judicial review challenging those decisions. After succeeding, both were sent back for re-determination by different officers and interviews were convoked for both. They are often not necessary for an economic class application, although I've seen them for the self-employed class. The interview is far more common for family class, and specifically spousal sponsorship applications.
Unfortunately, the visa office interview can feel akin to first defeating the Minotaur and then finding a way back out of the Labyrinth (without Ariadne's thread).
In the chapter “The Interview” Satzewich notes that applicants “can be described as “non-voluntary” clients”, that is “if they want a visa, they have no choice but to deal with the [immigration] bureaucracy because it holds a monopoly on a “benefit”. Further, applicants are necessarily and “generally in a subordinate position…” they are forced to “adopt a deferential manner.”
Of course applicants get that they are in an inferior, subordinate position and they have to watch what they say or do lest they jeopardize reunion with a loved one. This results in anxiety, nervousness. An applicant that is on pins and needles may well be mistaken for someone being not forthcoming.
The reality is that “A general air of distrust frames the face-to-face encounter in the interview booth.” and “…caution and doubt hang over both sides of the interaction.” Satzewich notes the “climate of disbelief” and that this climate “forces [applicants] to adopt a cooperative or compliant stance.” Applicants “must be acquiescent and deferential…”
I understand that Visa Officers can get jaded and cynical quickly. That being said, there should be some degree of empathy, some understanding that while interviews in such formal settings are routine and old hat for the Officer, this may be the first time a young girl from a village, or an uneducated farmer from a provincial town is speaking to a person in authority.
As Satzewich notes, “Compliance also entails keeping a firm hold on emotions, even if the interview seems to be going badly…”; that “applicants probably feel that directing an emotional outburst at an officer could potentially torpedo it…controlling their emotions is critical, even when an officer essentially tells them to their face that they are not being truthful…they have no choice but to appear compliant in the hope that they can satisfy the officer’s doubts, and venting indignation is obviously incompatible with deference…”
In my opinion, this puts the applicant, to put it lightly, in an unenviable position.
If the applicant is deferential or acquiescent, that may be viewed as being disinterest; if the applicant is emotional, that too may be viewed negatively.
Visa Officers do not get specialized training for demeanor; the range of human response to stress is wide and too much stock is being placed on body language or other subjective findings. Visa Officers are also dealing with applicants from all ages, from varying educational achievement levels and cultural background and some with (justifiable) concerns and trepidation in dealing with state actors.
Satzewich notes that “Many officers claim that they know within a few minutes after an interview begins whether a spousal relationship is real…” and “In forming their impressions, officers focus on demeanour, body language, and even how applicants enter the room, and they claim to develop a “gut feeling” about how people with nothing to hide step into a room and answer questions.”
What's the solution? Better, formal training for Visa Officers so that they don't have to rely so much on stereotypes, anecdotal tips on cultural practices (how someone, or a particular group behaves or should behave) or body language tips that they've picked up from others. This training should also canvass logical fallacies, the pitfalls of relying on stereotypes and risks in thin-slicing.
Visa Officers should recognize that their "gut" is a poor substitute for good questioning and reasoning; that a false negative results in separation and hardship for a family.
My advice? Avoid an interview. Put together a good, complete application that addresses both the strengths and weaknesses of the application. If an interview is convoked, prepare for one.
 Satzewich, page 218.
 Ibid, page 220.
 Ibid, page 226.