Genuine couples punished by 'fake marriage' crackdown, say experts.
The Canadian Press
July 13, 2008
OTTAWA Greg Hamon chuckles to himself as he recalls how he began his courtship with his wife, Sonia, by writing letters to her in El Salvador.
“She didn't have a computer and we had friends to help us translate,” he says.
Their correspondence began in January 2003 after Sonia spotted Hamon in a photograph taken by her childhood friend, who was a co-worker of Hamon's.
After more than two years of translated letters and phone calls the couple decided to marry in March 2005.
“We had to use dictionaries at first, but that didn't matter . . . whatever it takes to communicate,” says Hamon.
More than 10 years in age separates the couple, but age didn't matter – they were in love.
It mattered, however, to the Canadian government.
The marriage was not deemed “genuine” by Citizenship and Immigration Canada and Sonia was unable to join her husband in his hometown of Regina.
Hamon believes it was because of the age gap.
“As soon as they saw the age difference, right there it was end of story.”
More than 45,000 new immigrants enter the country each year as spouses of Canadian citizens.
But an increased focus on marriages of convenience has sparked a government crackdown on bogus nuptials.
In May, it was reported the Conservative government was deploying five-person teams abroad – nicknamed the “fraud squad” – to investigate how fake couples were scamming the immigration system.
Most recently, the immigration department circulated a letter to the Canadian Bar Association asking for input on changes to rules on overseas marriages.
The association will issue its response this week, but sources say it's not expected to be favourable.
The changes are “basic,” according to the government, but immigration lawyers worry they will exclude even more genuine couples like the Hamons.
“As a lawyer I see lots of refusals that are ill-founded,” says the couple's former counsel, immigration lawyer David Matas.
“The problem isn't acceptances of invalid marriages, it's the refusals of valid ones.”
The Immigration and Refugee Protection Act currently states that a spouse can be denied entry to Canada if the union “is not genuine and was entered into primarily for the purpose of acquiring any status or privilege under the act.”
“The policy change that's under consideration is to change the 'and' to an 'or', so that either of those criteria would be the basis for consideration as opposed to both of them,” said Karen Shadd, a spokesperson for Citizenship and Immigration Canada.
So what's the big deal?
Matas says this simple word change is more significant than it appears.
Immigration officials would be able to subjectively determine a marriage was not genuine, without having to also make a case on the motives for the union. For instance, a marriage based on dowry – not permanent residency – could be rejected.
“The intent is to tighten things up . . . . The message is that it's going to be easier to refuse,” said Matas.
“The problem, as I see it, is when you make refusals easier you also make it easier to refuse the people that should get in.”
Discussion groups, blogs and websites on the issue show many immigration lawyers share Matas' fears that too many genuine couples will be turned down by visa officials if the change goes through.
Immigration lawyer David Cohen says the criteria was problematic before the proposed changes, but this could open a “can of worms.”
“We are putting a lot of power in the hands of the first line immigration officer . . . subject to the biases that all humans have,” he says.
“You think in more evolved democracies you move away from things that can be abused and this has the potential to be abused.”
Some suggest adopting a more American approach would be the way to toughen the regulations without increasing the amount of refusals.
In the U.S., newly arrived spouses are given “conditional resident” status for two years before they can apply for permanent residency.
Canada grants the person permanent status upon arrival.
As for Hamon, the soft-spoken phone company worker appealed the government's decision and fought for three years to sponsor his wife to come to Canada.
Sonia arrived this past April and has already landed a part-time job while continuing to take classes to improve her English.
Hamon says he understands there have to be restrictions on who is allowed permanent residency.
“But it's kind of tough when the innocent get swept up with the guilty.”