‘Rent-A-Guest’ Schemes Tipped Off Immigration

'Rent-a-guest' schemes tipped off immigration
Investigators reportedly probing marriage scams

May 23, 2008 04:30 AM
Nicholas Keung

When Canadian immigration officials in New Delhi began to notice the same guests appearing in photos of different weddings submitted as evidence for sponsoring overseas brides and grooms to Canada, an alarm went off.

Officers at the visa post pulled out all the other spousal sponsorship files to compare notes, and further investigations would discover several local temples were actually involved in “rent-a-guest” operations, setting up wedding ceremonies for immigration purposes.

“At a price, you could get packaged services with a wedding ceremony where people stand in as guests and relatives, posing for photos as in a real marriage,” said immigration lawyer Richard Kurland, who obtained an internal government report on these allegations through an access to information request.

“The officials started to see the same faces over and over again. They called in people for questions. When they couldn't answer these questions, it became apparent that something was not right.”

To crack down on those using phony marriages to come to Canada, Citizenship and Immigration Canada, according to news reports, is now sending investigative teams around the world, especially to high-fraud regions such as India, China and Vietnam, to gather intelligence on staged marriages.

Immigration officials would not confirm the establishment of such overseas teams.

“The government is concerned about marriages of convenience and is currently engaged in the investigation of these cases,” said department spokesperson Danielle Norris. “We regularly review and examine our practices and procedures to further enhance our policies and action is taken to address concerns associated with marriages of convenience.”

Until now, Canadian officials could do little to go after Canadians who knowingly enter into a marriage of convenience to bring foreign nationals here, except to reject their sponsorship applications.

While fraudulent marriages are not a new phenomenon, the investigative team, said to be made up of five undercover investigators, is a new tool for potential prosecution against the Canadian collaborators.

Kurland said these Canadian investigators can serve as expert witnesses in trials here, and their intelligence information can be used to obtain search warrants for evidence, such as email correspondence and phone bills, as well as arrest warrants to pursue Canadians involved in such scams.

Some who enter such marriages may be innocent victims, dumped by their foreign spouses as soon as they've arrived in Canada. But “this is an organized criminality that also rips off people's hearts and purses, and the (intelligence) team is an excellent use of public resources to facilitate the prosecution of immigration violations,” Kurland said.

Whether in a marriage of convenience or not, a Canadian sponsor is stuck with the financial obligation to a foreign spouse required under the sponsorship for up to three years. If the spouse ends up on government assistance, the sponsor must repay the government and could risk being denied future sponsorship applications.

However, genuine couples could be paying the price for the increased scrutiny.

Toronto immigration lawyer Avvy Go has had applicants who were denied but later successfully appealed and had their cases sent back to the visa posts for reassessment.

“There is no time limitation on that. Some of my clients ended up being separated from their spouses for three, four years before they were joined in Canada,” said Go, of the Metro Toronto Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic.

Immigration's Norris said a survey and a case assessment tool have been created to help the regional offices identify gaps and a staff anti-fraud manual has been updated.