Sunday, August 12, 2007

Sacrificing accuracy for brevity

A couple weeks ago I heard a story on the evening news that didn't make sense to me. It concerned a statement in a letter sent by the Canadian High Commission in New Delhi to candidates for immigration to Canada.

Part of the story that was "news" to me is the fact that Sikh boys are given the name Singh and Sikh girls are given the name Kaur when they are baptized. According to the news stories I've read about it since, Sikh children are given these names to symbolize unity and to remove other names that could be used to identify social standing in India's caste system.

Though that information was interesting to me, that was only part of the story that was intriguing. The other part was about the wording of the letter itself. Here's an excerpt of the letter in question (as it appeared on page A23 of theToronto Star on July 26, 2007) -- it was sent to Singh Jaspal:

This refers to your application for permanent residence in Canada. In order to continue the processing of your application, please send the following documents and RETURN THIS FORM WITH THE REQUESTED DOCUMENTS.

1. ORIGINAL passport for yourself after getting your surname endorsed on it (submit only after medical examination is completed). Please note that your surname must be endorsed on your passport. The names Kaur and Singh do not qualify for the purpose of immigration to Canada. Please note that a request for your passport(s) at this time is not a guarantee of visa issuance …

What on earth does it mean that a name does not qualify for the purposes of immigration? The sentence makes no sense.

The wording of the letter became a news story when the husband of a Sikh woman living in Calgary sought to join his wife here. According to the news story, the woman's husband was forced to legally change his name in India so his immigration application would be processed in time for the birth of their child here in Canada.

The issue behind the letter is the policy that the Canadian High Commission in New Delhi had been applying for about 10 years that required people to legally change their name. (As many commentators noted, a likely reason few complaints about the policy have been publicly registered is that would-be immigrants might fear that a complaint could jeopardize their chances of being granted immigration.)

The initial response by Immigration Canada was that applicants were asked for a different name simply to help speed up application processing and to prevent cases of mistaken identity due to the commonness of Singh. A day or so after Immigration Canada's initial response, the World Sikh Organization raised the issue with the Canadian government.

Ultimately, Immigration Canada announced it was dropping the policy, calling the whole thing a misunderstanding based on a "poorly worded" letter. Poorly worded is quite an understatement! Not only does the sentence, "The names Kaur and Singh do not qualify for the purpose of immigration to Canada" not make sense (names do not immigrate -- people do), it also left most readers with the belief (allegedly mistaken) that persons with the surname Singh or Kaur must legally change their name in order to seek immigration to Canada.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada eventually released a formal statement explaining it administrative process regarding applications filed in New Delhi. The information set out in this public statement was much clearer. Besides noting the confusion caused by the earlier correspondences, the statement (excerpted below) offers an explanation of the rationale behind the earlier policy and makes it clear that applicants are not required to legally change their name, they are merely encouraged to include a family name in addition to Singh or Kaur.

Not only was the bad press surrounding the wording in the letters from New Dehli well deserved from a an immigration policy and procedural perspective, it clearly shows the perils of sacrificing accuracy for brevity.

[Here's the except from the statement printed in the Toronto Star under the heading: WHAT THE GOVERNMENT SAYS

Citizenship and Immigration Canada, in response to recent media interest in our administrative process regarding applicants for permanent residence in New Delhi using the surnames Singh or Kaur, provides the following information:

Permanent resident applicants with the surnames Singh or Kaur are not required to change their names in order to apply.

In no way did CIC intend to ask applicants to change their names. The letter that was previously used to communicate with clients was poorly worded. We are making changes to ensure there will be no misunderstandings in the future.

* * *

Asking applicants to provide a surname in addition to Singh or Kaur has been an administrative practice used by our visa office in New Delhi as a way to improve client service and reduce incidents of mistaken identity. This was not a mandatory requirement. There is no policy or practice whereby people with these surnames are asked to change their names.

* * *

Most applicants affected have a family name in addition to Singh or Kaur, even if it is not used, that can be easily added to their passport.

CIC’s visa office in New Delhi receives a high volume of permanent resident applications from people with the surnames Singh and Kaur.

We hope that this will provide the information you require. Our media line is available at 613-952-1650. Thank you.

(Toronto Star, page A23, July 26, 2007)]


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