When Manmeet Kaur applied to sponsor her newlywed husband to come from India to join her in Canada, it seemed like a no-brainer to submit the application online rather than to send the paperwork by courier.

Electronic application through new government portals was supposed to be faster and keep important documents — such as wedding photos and personal identification — from getting lost in the process or mixed up with others’ files.

And so, Kaur applied last September.

As she watched applicants she had met through social media groups, and who had applied around the same time, start to get their acknowledgment of receipt, better known as their “AOR,” the Brampton woman says, she expected that immigration officials would soon open her e-application and that her day would come.

She says she got nervous when others who had applied months after her were getting their AOR, which is only issued once a thorough check by officials ensures an application is complete — with no missing forms, documents and signatures. That’s when an applicant receives a file number and the actual processing starts.

“Many of the September applicants have gotten their passport requests and decisions made in January and February. While we’re still waiting for our AORs, some already have their spouses with them. Now January and February applicants are getting their AORs, too,” said Kaur, 27, a medical lab technician, who last saw her husband in India in July.

“The people who applied first should get processed first. I completely understand each file is different and some take longer than others. But we are talking about just checking if an application is complete or not. It should make no difference. Now, we’re lagging further and further behind.”

Few other federal services have seen so much disruption as the immigration system during the pandemic, with the operation grinding to a halt; staff working remotely with antiquated infrastructure; and travel restricted for newcomers abroad due to border closures.

Inconsistency in immigration processing times has always baffled — and annoyed — applicants anticipating that each application would be processed on a “first-in, first-out” basis.

However, with immigration backlogs skyrocketing — more than 1.8 million across programs — and older applications piling up amid the operational disruptions, the frustration among applicants has reached a boiling point, as Canada scrambles to digitalize the application process.

The digitalization of applications for some immigration programs — up to a total of 17 out of more than 60 by this summer — and proliferation of social media groups has made it easier for people to keep track of files and compare notes to keep an eye on the system for transparency and accountability.

In the past, officials always stated immigration processing times varied depending on complexity of the case and completeness of the file. The Star reached out to the immigration department to ask how AOR is processed and why applicants are seemingly not being dealt with in a chronological order, but didn’t receive a response before press time.

“The immigration department is ignoring files that are old and is processing files that are new,” opined Maninder Aulakh of Abbotsford, B.C., who applied on Feb. 8, 2021 to sponsor his wife to Canada from India.

“It breaks my heart to see this kind of treatment.”

A former colleague and a relative — both submitted the same paper applications from India after his — have already had their spouses in Canada as permanent residents.

“I can give you more examples,” sighed the 31-year-old engineer from Punjab, whose application was finally approved and finalized in May, after 15 months.

“These officials just play by their own rules.”

Ottawa immigration lawyer Tamara Mosher-Kuczer said the department’s processing times are spotty across programs. In March, she and other colleagues with the Canadian Immigration Lawyers Association launched their own tracker to trace citizenship and permanent residence processing times.

For instance, she said, spousal sponsors who submitted paper applications have been receiving AORs two months ahead of those who applied online around the same time.

(Due to COVID-19, the immigration department has had to scan paper applications into the system so staff can process files from home. Hence, officials have warned that paper applications are expected to take longer to get into the hand of an officer.)

“It also appears that they’re processing new applications much faster than they’re addressing the inventory,” said Mosher-Kuczer. “The inventory is paper (applications). So they are saying it’s difficult because we have digitized, but that doesn’t make sense because they’re processing new paper applications first.”

She said the same thing also happens to other applications, such as the issuance of initial permanent resident cards for freshly minted immigrants, which is supposed to be an automatic process without the involvement of a decision-maker. Yet, these applications are not processed in the order they come in. As a result, wait time varies.

“So why are these applications not being processed on a first-in basis? What is the rationale for that?” asked Mosher-Kuczer, who has tried to get answers from immigration officials with no success.

“People who are applying to immigration have an understanding that Canada is a fair country, a democracy where everybody is treated equally. They have an understanding that there would be no reason that their application would fall behind somebody else’s application.”

Burlington software engineer Tejas Ghutukade has been involved in multiple immigration groups on Facebook and WhatsApp that include spousal sponsorship applicants left behind in the process — some online and others who mailed in applications the old way. They came from Brazil, Egypt, France, Germany, India, the Middle East and Pakistan.

A former international student from Mumbai, Ghutukade said he never had problems with his own immigration applications before and was convinced those complaining about delays must have other complicating issues and were at fault.

“I have gone through multiple stages of immigration. I got my study permit on my own. I got my work permit and permanent residence on my own. I did have a certain level of trust in the system,” said the 31-year-old, who submitted his spousal sponsorship application in January and this week received an AOR after the Star inquired about his case.

“But this time, I can see that it doesn’t always work. If you’re stuck in the system, it’s a really bad situation. There has to be a time limit they take to issue an AOR and process an application.”

Marco Antonio Marques Valim, an immigrant from Brazil, said he still has no idea if the immigration department has received the spousal application he submitted in early December. His worst fear is the file would be returned and has to go back to the end of the queue if screening officials find any missing signature or document.

“We don’t know if they got it and if everything is correct. We’re going to wait to find out, and then wait again. In the meantime, I am not sure if I will be able to live with my wife at some point during my life in Canada,” said the 33-year-old Toronto bartender, whose spouse has been refused a visitor visa to see him.

“Having a first-in, first-out system would provide us some comfort that we may get there by certain time and plan our lives a lot better. At this point, it is just all frustration and uncertainty. It is not a good mental health state to be in.”

Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung