Points of Entry: How Canada's Immigration Officers Decide Who Gets In by Vic Satzewich (review)
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Reviewed by
Vic Satzewich. Points of Entry: How Canada's Immigration Officers Decide Who Gets In. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2015. 291 pp. Appendix. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $32.05 sc.

The visa-issuing machinery is a unique phenomenon: it is situated in a narrow space between two countries; operates in the boundary area between two systems of rights, obligations, privileges, rules, and regulations; serves the two different constituents of citizens and aliens (actual and potential residents); and works with incomplete information. All of these make for a very unique logic of operation that could be prone to instability, and may look to an outsider as too chaotic, volatile, random, arbitrary, and even lawless. Studying a phenomenon like this, whose limbs are stretched all over the globe, is not an easy job. But, that is exactly what Vic Satzewich has managed to do masterfully in his book, Points of Entry.

Through tedious work and massive background research for the book, Satzewich has engaged in a successful exercise in institutional ethnography of a subsystem that, as he suggests, has become "far more complex, dynamic, and differentiated than it was a decade ago" (64). He presents the results in an engaging, story-like narrative. The Introduction chapter describes the challenges involved in launching a project of this nature, given the inherently closed nature of the visa issuance bureaucracy. The chapter reveals how the author's persistence, seasoned with some luck, helped him overcome a sub-culture of semi-closed operations. Chapter 1 provides a context for the research that might not offer much insight to those already in this research field, but it could be very useful for those who are having their first encounter with this issue. Chapter 2 addresses the widely believed assumption that the visa officers have too much discretionary power. Indeed, Satzewich does not really reject that assumption– and indirectly acknowledges its presence by frequent using of the phrase "at least in theory [things are such and such]"–but adds to it a series of forces other than the officers' personal biases and discretion that can influence the outcomes. The chapter brings to life some of the serious challenges that visa officers face in determining the credibility of the information in an application, the degree and nature of the risk involved in making wrong decisions (in both accepting or rejecting an application), as well as a subtle conceptual slippery slope: should the decision establish the admissibility of a person or, rather, reject his/her inadmissibility. I found this distinction to be fascinating and worthy of much more scrutiny, [End Page 141] as I think it can influence the nature of the visa decisions greatly; unfortunately, however, the chapter does not go into much depth about this. Chapter 3 provides a very useful survey of the enormous amount of changes in the immigration policy that happened mostly under the Conservative minister, Jason Kenney, who was "the longest-serving minister in the history of the department" (63).

Chapters 4 through 9 demonstrate a shift in the style and content, as we start seeing more frequent and longer direct quotes from the interviews conducted with visa officers and unit managers. While the contextual information provided in the first third of the book could be more or less found in other books, including some of Satzewich's previous works, the latter two-thirds of the book constitutes the heart of its unique contribution. Through direct quotes from the interviewees, the reader can put a human face on this previously mysterious organization, and can develop a better sense of the changes and challenges in the ways in which the system works.

One of the major changes that seems to have happened during the past 1.5 decades—and the book does a good job at documenting it—is that the system, the decisions, and the processes have become much more centralized, more black-and-white, and less discretionary. The two sides of this change are: the addition of the Ministerial Instructions, which give much more power to the minister, and the removal of Personal Suitability points, which took away the discretion that officers could use in assessing the cases close...