They went abroad seeking wedded bliss. Now they say their marriages were a fraud
By MARINA JIMNEZ
Saturday, July 29, 2006 Page A1
The year Mehul Parikh turned 27, he decided it was time to marry. He had immigrated to Canada a few years earlier, was making good money working in a factory on the outskirts of Toronto and taking night classes to become a medical lab technician. All he needed was a wife.
Following his family's tradition, he flew to India to look for one. The serious young man met several prospects through a marriage bureau in Baroda, in the western state of Gujarat, and finally settled on an attractive 21-year-old woman with short dark hair, brown eyes and a bachelor of science degree: a fellow Hindu in perfect health who came highly recommended by the woman running the bureau.
After two brief meetings, they wed on July 27, 2002. She arrived in Canada a year later, but the marriage was troubled from the start and the couple didn't stay together.
Today, Mr. Parikh says he is broke, disillusioned and on antidepressants. He is going to court, accusing his ex-wife, Pinal Shah, of using him to get into Canada and to access the medical system to treat her ailment. He alleges that he married a woman with a severe medical condition that she hid from him.
“It is very, very painful,” Mr. Parikh says. “I'm still trying to recover.”
For her part, Ms. Shah is waiting for a hip replacement, suing her ex-husband for $1,200 a month in spousal support and has denied in court documents that she did not enter into the marriage in good faith. She maintains in those documents that she became ill only in 2005.
But Mr. Parikh, according to his court filing, counts himself a victim of marriage fraud, a new kind of immigration offence that is bringing humiliation, financial ruin and distress to a growing number of immigrants from India, China, the Philippines and other countries.
Marriages of convenience, where two people wed so one can obtain immigration status, are common — and often difficult to detect due to the prevalence of arranged marriages among certain immigrant communities.
In cases of marriage fraud, however, only one spouse is in on the hoax. The other is dumped once the foreigner obtains the requisite visa and/or immigration status. Often this person goes on to marry and then sponsor their girlfriend or boyfriend from back home.
The phenomenon has become so widespread that Liberal MP Roy Cullen and a group of Indo-Canadians have brought it to the attention of Immigration Minister Monte Solberg.
Mr. Cullen is lobbying the Immigration Minister to change the Immigration Act to require foreign spouses to be “on probation” for a time before they become permanent residents. (Foreign spouses now get permanent residency as soon as they arrive in Canada.)
About 15 per cent of the 60,000 Canadians who marry overseas every year and file international spousal sponsorships have their applications rejected. In India the rejection rate is 23 per cent, prompting applicants to complain that Canadian visa officers are suspicious of all Indian marriages — even genuine ones.
It is often difficult to get to the bottom of these cases, with each spouse telling wildly different versions of events — sometimes with supporting documentation issued by overseas registration offices and government institutions.
“It really is buyer beware when you marry overseas,” says Marina Wilson, a spokeswoman for Citizenship and Immigration Canada.
In India, the National Commission for Women has expressed alarm at the growing number of disputes involving non-resident Indian marriages. More than 1,800 complaints have been registered in the past year, the majority from Canada, the United States and Britain. The commission and the country's Ministry of Overseas Affairs held a two-day conference last month on the controversial issue.
“It can have tragic results,” says Lorne Waldman, an immigration lawyer who has had several clients complain that their foreign spouses disappeared once they received a visa.
Adds Toronto lawyer Inderbir Arora: “It is always hard to sort out matrimonial disputes. Many clients say they've been tricked into marrying someone who only wanted to come to Canada. The day they got their permanent resident card, they took off.”
When Mr. Parikh met Ms. Shah in person, he says he noticed right away that she walked with a pronounced limp. According to court documents, she told him that she was recovering from an injury caused by an accident.
“I trusted her. You have to trust your wife,” he said in an interview.
He returned to Canada, applied to sponsor her, and she arrived a year later on July 10, 2003.
The good will and agreeable manners Ms. Shah had displayed in India quickly evaporated, says Mr. Parikh, whose version of events is outlined in court filings.
According to those documents, their home soon turned into a battleground, as his suspicions about her limp grew, and she became increasingly demanding.
“When he advised her to see a doctor, she said she'd be fine and the pain was the result of a minor accident,” the court documents allege.
She obtained a student loan from the Ontario government and signed up for postsecondary classes to become a medical lab technician, according to documents. But he says the pain in her leg forced her to stop attending college classes.
Mr. Parikh then found papers in his wife's files that said she has a disease called avascular necrosis in her leg. According to a document from the Baroda Homeopathic Medical Hospital in India, she was taking homeopathic medicine for this disease, which causes bone tissue to die and bones to collapse. He also believed she had used a wheelchair on her flight to Canada. He felt cheated. “He was shocked that the pain in her leg was not a temporary condition but . . . chronic,” the court documents note.
After the couple separated, Mr. Parikh discovered his wife was already on a Canadian waiting list to have surgery to replace her hip — the result of “severe osteoarthritis,” according to a doctor's note from the Etobicoke Medical Centre.
He also stated in court documents that he learned that the woman running the marriage bureau in Baroda was a relative of Ms. Shah's.
Last summer, after the couple had agreed to separate, Ms. Shah returned to India on a one-way ticket, according to the court filing.
Mr. Parikh alleges in documents that she then flew back to Toronto without her husband's knowledge, entered the couple's basement suite with the help of the landlord and called Mr. Parikh on his cellphone.
He also alleges that she took all of their possessions, including gold jewellery, a computer and printer, furniture and household appliances, worth an estimated $16,700. (She denies this.) “She taunted me and told me I couldn't prove anything because she had destroyed [all written evidence of her disability],” he states in court documents.
As her legal sponsor, Mr. Parikh is still responsible for her.
Under Canada's immigration law, Canadians must support a foreign spouse for three years, regardless of whether they separate. (It used to be 10 years until the new Immigration Act was introduced in 2002.) If the spouse goes on welfare, they are responsible for repaying the government.
In March, Mr. Parikh, who cannot work due to depression and anxiety, received a letter from Ontario's Ministry of Social Services advising him to repay the welfare money his ex-wife had thus far collected ($3,008.51). “You sponsor someone on the basis of trust and family values. Once you realize the person is cheating you, you should be able to get out of your sponsorship,” Mr. Parikh complains.
Ms. Shah's version of events is that she began to experience “excruciating pain” in her legs only in June of 2005. In court documents, she alleges that Mr. Parikh tried to “ship her to India as damaged goods,” and that it is “better for a married woman to be dead than to be sent home and be a burden to her family.” But Mr. Parikh says he was misled from the start. “She perpetrated a fraud and premised the relationship on lies and misled [me] into believing she was fit to be a wife and one day a mother,” he states in court documents.
“I would tell Indo-Canadians, don't marry in India,” he says in an interview.
Bhavita Shah, a recent immigrant from the same Indian city as Mr. Parikh — with long, dark hair and luminous green eyes — has a similar story of woe. Though her estranged husband, Sub Shah, vehemently denies it, she accuses him of using her to obtain Canadian citizenship.
“I have been left with nothing,” says Ms. Shah (no relation to Pinal Shah), sitting on a mattress on the floor of her north Etobicoke flat. Three coloured posters of Hindu Gods decorate the walls of the apartment, which is otherwise bare save for a few scattered baby toys, a stroller, a fax machine and a homemade hammock. “I complained to the Women's Association in India. Non-resident Indians are being cheated,” Ms. Shah says.
Mr. Shah says in an interview that their marriage broke down despite his efforts to make it work, and that he left a good job to come to Canada because he believed in the couple's union.
Ms. Shah immigrated to Canada six years ago after marrying a Indo-Canadian in 1999. The couple separated just a few months after she arrived in Canada — due to his problems with alcohol, she says — and divorced in 2003.
Ms. Shah returned to her hometown of Baroda in 2004 in search of a second husband. She placed matrimonial advertisements in two local newspapers and screened several candidates before settling on Sub Shah, a handsome 29-year-old textile engineer.
On Jan. 26, 2004, they wed in a Hindu temple. After a 10-day honeymoon in Ooty, in south India, Ms. Shah returned to Canada. Her husband joined her in October, 2004.
Their son Aarav was born on Nov. 6, 2005. She flew back to India in January to show both families the healthy baby boy. She says that during the trip to India, her husband filed for divorce.
A big surprise was yet to come. When she tried to obtain a copy of their marriage certificate, she discovered the marriage had never been properly registered. (An official letter from the registrar's office in Bagoda confirms that no memorandum of their marriage was ever filed.) “I couldn't believe it,” Ms. Shah says.
She returned to Canada and on April 24, wrote to CIC informing them that the marriage was a fraud and asking the Canadian Border Services Agency to take action against her husband.
Mr. Shah maintains the marriage was registered, and has a letter from the same Bagoda registrar's office noting that the certificate has been misplaced. “Why would I not register the marriage?” Mr.
Shah says. “We suffered from a marital breakdown and not from marital fraud.” His lawyer, Pathik Baxi, says he has seen many similar cases where a sponsor complains he or she was cheated after a marriage doesn't work out. He said it is easy for someone to obtain supporting documentation from India.
Ms. Shah wants the marriage annulled, and her husband deported.
He wants a divorce, and has just won a case awarding him supervised access to their son for three hours every two weeks.
Ms. Wilson, the CIC spokeswoman, says Canadians must take responsibility when marrying abroad to ensure their spouses' intentions are sincere.
“There are always people who try to outsmart the system,” she says.
Ms. Shah received an e-mail July 19 from CIC's ministerial inquiries division encouraging her to provide documentation to support her fraud allegations, and noting that steps may be taken against those who misrepresented themselves to gain entry into Canada.
It is difficult to get a marriage annulled, although a British Columbia Supreme Court judge annulled the marriage of an Indo-Canadian couple in 2004, noting that the union was never consummated and that Surmeet Singh Sohal, a lawyer from India, misrepresented himself when he married Jyoti Grewal.
Last week Mr. Cullen, Liberal MP for Etobicoke North, sent a letter to Mr. Solberg, the Immigration Minister, outlining his concerns about marriage fraud, which he says is destabilizing the Indo-Canadian community. “This issue is complicated by the fact that many marriages are arranged so it is hard to know if they are legitimate,” he says. “I suggest that applicants who arrive in Canada be put on probation.
If they fail to remain with their spouse for a certain period of time, they would have a hearing in front of a panel of individuals appointed by CIC.” Irwinder Pannu, with the Marriage Fraud Victims Committee, has also asked Mr. Solberg to change the Immigration Act, so that those who sponsor and then divorce a foreign spouse are not permitted to sponsor another spouse for seven years. Mr. Pannu believes this would get to the root of the problem, and force Indo-Canadians to start marrying from within their community in Canada, instead of going back home in search of a spouse.