Many years ago, a friend in Europe told me her brother was about to commit marriage fraud. Only we would never have called it that. We were in our 20s and thought it compassionate and noble, not fraudulent, that a gay man was marrying a straight female friend to secure her status in a certain European country. Their daring made a certain kind of sense: she was being refused residency for obtuse bureaucratic reasons that had nothing to do with her integrity, her employability or her already successful life in her adopted country. The friends knew each other well, they went into the arrangement with eyes wide open and, to add a touch of fabulous to the situation, she let him wear the wedding dress.
Fast forward a few years, to a Canadian friend describing being grilled by immigration authorities over her sponsorship of her new British husband. We laughed at the ominous warnings from the Citizenship and Immigration officer that she would be financially responsible for her husband for years to come, and rolled our eyes at his persistent probing for evidence that she was a victim, rather than a blissful bride.
I thought of those stories this week as I read several reports by the Migration Intelligence Section of the Canada Border Service Agency (CBSA), the agency in charge of managing our borders. At the request of the Citizenship and Immigration Department, the CBSA also investigates threats to the immigration system – in this case, marriages of convenience (MOC) by would-be Canadians. The reports, two of a larger series, assess the prevalence of sham marriages in China and India, identified by the government as hotspots for the swindle.
The reports were released by Vancouver immigration lawyer Richard Kurland, who routinely files Access to Information requests for government documents and shares them with journalists. They were written for wide distribution among frontline officers of the CBSA, as well as visa officials and policy makers. The operational information on the methods and scenarios scammers use – aka the juicy bits – have all been censored and there is much that we are not allowed to see about the government’s data and evidence on spousal sponsorships.
Thankfully, there is still a lot we can see, specifically the sobering estimate that “as much as 36% of the spousal caseload may be fraudulent.” Canada admits approximately 39,000 people as spouses or partners each year, roughly 10,000 of which Kurland estimates are overseas sponsorships. So it’s not a stretch to say the reports are calling into question the validity of thousands of permanent residency applications and certificates. Elsewhere the report notes that the majority of the fraud is “believed to be concentrated in about 10 to 15 countries,” including India and China, the top two source countries for immigrants to Canada, as well as Haiti, Cambodia and Pakistan.
The methods of arranging fraudulent marriages are “constantly evolving and creatively testing the bounds of the Canadian immigration system.” The pages detailing those creative schemes have been withheld. Nor can we glean any details of the “project” the CBSA report says was initiated to reduce the number of marriage scams, but the number of applicants from China has decreased in the past five years, and the number of rejected applicants has dropped as well.
The lack of transparency about the data and evidence makes it nearly impossible to challenge the conclusions, but it’s clear that the government isn’t just concerned with cases where both partners are in on the scam – although a 2013 story in the Toronto Star demonstrated they do go to great lengths to ferret out the marriages of convenience already on Canadian soil, including dropping in unannounced to ask about socks and toothbrushes. As immigration lawyer Max Berger told The Star, “whether a marriage or a relationship is genuine is the most difficult decision that an immigration officer has to make in any category of immigration.”
It’s even harder to spot when a Canadian has unwittingly married a hustler abroad and is now enduring the agonizing 8 to 36 months of waiting for the government to let their partner come to Canada. How do you unmask a fake when one partner is deeply in love, or when a new bride in an arranged marriage can’t be expected to know the habits of her spouse, an acknowledged stranger to her? Still, there’s no shortage of highly-publicized cases of betrayal and deception, and Kurland says anecdotal evidence from his own practice and from the government’s public consultations on marriage fraud, which he attended, support the contention that the practice is widespread and the damage in human terms is real.
“Sadly what all too often happens is that the sponsor, the Canadian, is duped and loses both their wallet and their heart,” Kurland told me. “Most often they have no clue that something bad was going to happen. And sometimes the Canadian has been screaming to get a visa to allow the spouse in,” only to have the spouse turn out to be a hustler who bolts at the first opportunity.
(Another marriage-related problem getting increasing attention is the growing backlog of inland spousal sponsorships, in which both spouses live in Canada. It currently takes about 14 months just to complete the first stage of the application, according to a group lobbying for faster processing times for foreign spouses. During that time the foreign spouse can’t work or receive care from the public health system. There’s also an Indiegogo campaign to secure funding for a documentary on the issue, called The Backlog: Life Doesn’t Wait.)
In 2012, the Conservative government introduced changes to tackle marriage fraud through deterrence. It announced that “sponsored spouses or partners will have to wait five years from the day they are granted permanent residence status in Canada to sponsor a new spouse or partner,” according to a CIC statement. “Until now, a sponsored spouse or partner arriving in Canada as a permanent resident could leave their sponsor and sponsor another spouse or partner themselves, while their original sponsor was still financially responsible for them for up to three years.” The government also introduced the concept of conditional permanent residence: in a nutshell, if you have been together for less than two years and you have no children, you must remain with your partner for another two years before your permanent residency status is confirmed. Leave before two years is up, and you risk losing your status and being deported. When it introduced the new measure, the government also launched a public awareness campaign about sham marriages and produced a video in which victims told their stories of swindle and heartbreak.
Kurland thinks the government is on the right track, but others say there’s no evidence the two-year rule will deter con artists. At least one group, the Canadian Council for Refugees, fears the regulation will trap spouses in abusive situations because they fear deportation if they seek help. The federal government has said it will provide training to staff to improve handling of cases involving abuse and ensure exemptions are offered to victims, but it is unclear if that will be enough.
The jury is out on both views, as we’re only now approaching the end of the initial two-year period of the new policy. But now when I think of marriage fraud, I don’t just think of two friends sticking it to an unthinking bureaucracy. I think of the Canadian men and women betrayed by someone they fell in love with on holiday or married by parental arrangement, only to be abandoned mere days or weeks after their new spouse arrived in Canada. Or the marriage brokers rounded up by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, in one case for facilitating hundreds of fake marriages – only getting a light sentence of house arrest as punishment.
I am not lining up with the alarmists, for whom even just a handful of fraudulent marriages is further evidence that our immigration system is swamped by smooth-talking con artists. But I hear the stories of the jilted brides and the swindled bridegrooms, and I long for transparency and trustworthy data: just how prevalent is the problem? What does it really the cost the system, and what does it cost the people duped?