July 9, 2006
Runaway spouses get golden ticket
Jilted partners, scammed by foreign lovers, want immigration laws changed
By MICHELE MANDEL
When he first saw the front page of the Sunday Sun about a woman abandoned shortly after sponsoring her Cuban groom here, Shah nervously joked to his bride, “but you wouldn't leave me, right?”
She gave him a big hug. “What a stupid question,” she assured him. “Of course not.”
But the very next day the Cuban woman had vanished as well, joining an epidemic of foreign brides and grooms who are ditching their Canadian spouses soon after using them to get to this promised land.
And there is virtually nothing the jilted can do about it.
Cindy first told her story here June 25, of how she had spent nearly $60,000 and three years of her life on a love affair that turned out to be nothing more than a calculated, cold-hearted bid by her spouse to get into Canada.
VANISHED WITHOUT WORD
She came home early from work last month to find that he had vanished without so much as a note or even a warning that he would not be at the bus to pick her daughter up from school.
After she bravely told her tale, we were deluged with e-mails and calls from others who also thought they had found true love overseas, only to discover they had been duped into marriages of convenience.
The Canadian Marriage Fraud Victim Society has already documented 200 cases and believes there are many, many more. “Most of those that we have involve spouses from India because we deal largely with the Indo-Canadian community but I think it's happening in all immigrant communities,” says spokesman Navdeet Dhillon, an abandoned bride living in Vancouver. “We believe there are thousands of cases but people are too embarrassed to come forward.”
In her case, Dhillon married her husband in India in April 2004 and sponsored him here in October of that year. He stayed just one day before telling her that he had used her to immigrate and wanted a divorce.
“It is very difficult. Nobody listens to you,” she says. “Immigration is still investigating for over one year and I don't know what's happening.”
These runaway spouses come from every possible nation — from the Dominican Republic and China to India and Pakistan, even Fiji — with one common intent, to use a short-term Canadian marriage to escape poverty back home and enjoy the good life here.
Their unwitting Canadian sponsors invest not only their hearts but thousands of dollars in paperwork, long-distance phone calls and airfare. They also mortgage their future: To sponsor their immigrant spouses here, they must agree to financially support them for three years. If the newcomer draws on social assistance — even if they have run out on their spouse — their Canadian sponsor is still on the hook to pay that money back to the Canadian government.
In any overseas marriage, says immigration spokesman Melanie Carkner, “they are counselled that this could happen. It's on their application.”
In 2005, 45,403 immigrants were sponsored here as spouses or partners. Citizenship and immigration does not keep track of how many complaints they receive about fraudulent marriages but insists that “for the vast majority, it's a positive program.”
The Canadian Marriage Fraud Victim Society argues that the program doesn't do enough to protect Canadians from unscrupulous paramours. They have presented a 20,000-signature petition to Parliament requesting that permanent residence should no longer be automatic for immigrants sponsored here by their Canadian spouses. Instead they want Canada to follow the example set by the United States and Australia, where the marriage must last three years before foreign spouses can attain their permanent papers.
With that kind of time frame, many of the con artists out there may be dissuaded from using marital fraud to get into Canada. And women like Harv might not fall victim to the lout she married.
In her Indo-Canadian community, it is traditional to seek an arranged marriage in India. Her father chose a young man from a good family in Punjab and went on to spend more than $40,000 in showering her fiance and his parents with a gold dowry and even a car. They wed in December 2004 with 600 guests in attendance and Harv returned home a month later to begin sponsoring her new husband to Canada.
“I was totally blind in his love,” says the attractive young woman. “I couldn't even think that he could do that to me.”
She could never suspect that after he was finally approved and issued his visa, he would slip into Canada and not even notify her. She only learned of his betrayal accidentally when she went to an immigration office to check on the status of her application.
“Oh, he's already here,” they told her after checking their database. “He arrived June 30 at Terminal 1.”
The shock, she says, landed her in the hospital.
“They say fraud is a crime,” argues Harv, who says the shame in her community prevents her from using her last name. “This is fraud. Why is there no punishment? Why are they not deporting them back?”
When she tried to find out where he was living or a phone number to contact him, immigration officials refused to give her any information, citing privacy laws.
Harv could not believe her runaway groom had all the rights — while she had none.
“I am the one who sponsored him,” she told them. “I am the one who brought him to this country. And you guys can't tell me his telephone number?”
Harv soon learned she was not alone. Another woman in the South Asian community was on her way to Pearson airport to meet her Indian groom, her arms filled with flowers, when she got a call on her cellphone.
“Don't bother waiting for me,” he told her. “I've just landed in Vancouver and I'm staying here.”
Now that he was in Canada, he no longer needed her. He was free to apply for welfare and there was nothing she could do.
“Everybody wants to come to Canada and they know that once they're here, nobody sends them back,” Harv argues. “This was a lottery for him. I was the ticket for him to get into the country and now he can bring his whole family here, even his girlfriend. They ruined my life to get into this country.
'SO MANY GIRLS'
“I know so many girls here in Toronto like me,” she laughs bitterly. “You can make a whole building with these kind of girls.”
Until now, most of these men and women have kept their despair to themselves. After coming forward, Cindy found the response from others so overwhelming that she has formed a support group and wants victims to reach her at StopMarriageFraud@ yahoo.ca.
“People feel scared, alone, and have no idea how to pick up and try to continue with their lives,” she says. “I strongly believe that we need each other, which is why I am now working on setting up a safe place where victims can meet a couple of times a month to talk openly about their experiences. From there we can work together to build up our lives again.”
Until now, jilted Canadians have had little recourse. Immigration says it will investigate marital fraud but little is done. “This inaction is occurring,” says immigration consultant Al Moini, “solely due to the sad reality that CIC does not have an adequate budget to deal with the high costs associated with enforcement and removal of foreign spouses who enter Canada under false pretenses. Plain and simple.”
Prosecutions are rare. In 2004, a newly arrived bride from India told her husband at Edmonton airport's luggage carousel that she married him just for his Canadian citizenship. She was sentenced to four months in jail for communicating false information, a little-used charge under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.
With immigration charges so rare, though, more and more duped Canadian spouses are drawing hope from a B.C. bride who successfully sued her Fijian ex-husband for inducing her to marry him under false pretences.
The recent landmark B.C. Supreme Court decision awarded Madhavi Raju $11,376 for the costs of the wedding reception, the ring, the government fees, some of her long-distance calls, and another $10,000 in damages for “hurt feelings, humiliation, inconvenience and postponement of opportunity to marry another man while still capable of bearing children.”
The court agreed that Rajendra Kumar had used Raju to get to Canada even as he was carrying on a five-year affair with another woman.
For Shah, the man who lost his Cuban bride shortly after reading the Sunday Sun story, he is left with a broken heart and a litany of unanswered questions.
FLOWERS EVERY DAY
After knowing her for five years, he married his bride in Havana on Feb. 28, 2005, and immediately started the paperwork to bring her here. After months of sending her money and gifts, she finally received her visa and arrived here May 6 of this year. For six weeks, he brought her flowers every day and took her to movies, restaurants and city attractions.
And then with no warning, she was suddenly gone.
“To see her do the same thing to me, it hurts, it really hurts. I'm physically wounded, emotionally destroyed. I'm so confused,” the 39-year-old says, weeping. “I never imagined someone who you have loved and showed love would be capable of doing such things to another human being.”
He now believes that she had it planned from the start of their courtship. Even the police told him as much. “I was so naive. She played me,” he says. “They told me, 'This looks like immigration fraud and she used you just to get into Canada.'”
He cannot believe that their entire romance was a lie. He had promised her the world and she had repaid him with the cruelest of betrayals. “She just sent me an e-mail: 'I'm all right. Just go on with your life.' How am I supposed to go on with my life?”
He loves her still, but he believes our lenient immigration system must change to discourage these runaway spouses.
“They give you this privilege to come to Canada and expect you to do something for your society,” says Shah, an immigrant himself. “If they are breaking the law like this, taking advantage of people to come to Canada and breaking their matrimonial vows, they have to be responsible for that. They should have to pay. They should not have all the privileges of a permanent resident if they lied to get into the country.
“They committed fraud,” he argues. “They have to face the consequences of playing with people's lives.”
And surely that should mean losing their golden ticket to stay in this country.