The federal government has started the process of revoking the citizenship of 3,100 people suspected of lying to become Canadians.

Speaking at a news conference on Ottawa Monday, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said the federal government is "applying the full strength of Canadian law" to crack down on individuals suspected of obtaining citizenship fraudulently or falsifying information required for permanent residency.

"Canadian citizenship is not for sale," Kenney told reporters.  "We are taking action to strip citizenship and permanent residence status from people who don't play by the rules and who lie or cheat to become a Canadian citizen."

CBC News has learned cabinet has revoked the citizenship of 19 out of the 3,100 people using cabinet orders so far. The orders in council do not include the names of the individuals and the government will not release the names.

To date, letters have been sent to at least 500 of the 3,100 or so citizens suspected of fraud.  Individuals may appeal to the Federal Court to stop the process.  

If they don't respond to their letters, requests to revoke citizenship go to cabinet. The entire process is expected to take months.

This crackdown on fraudulent citizenships is part of an investigation into some 11,000 people who may be lying to apply for citizenship or maintain permanent resident status.

Kenney's department is working closely with the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and Canadian offices abroad to track down suspicious cases.

No word on cost of investigations

Of these, nearly 5,000 people with permanent resident status have been flagged for additional scrutiny should they attempt to enter Canada or obtain citizenship, a departmental release said Monday. The majority of these individuals suspected of residence fraud are believed to be outside the country.

An additional 2,500 files have been flagged by Kenney's department for other concerns and will be "watched closely" should the individuals make additional applications, the department's release said.

Almost 1,800 applicants have abandoned their citizenship applications since the investigations began.

Speaking to Evan Solomon, host of CBC News Network's Power & Politics, Kenney said the work is being done within the budgets of the RCMP and CBSA and will save hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars in the long-term.

"I believe it will clearly save taxpayers money because we're talking about folks living abroad, often in tax havens, who fraudulently get the citizenship so they can get a free pass into our publicly funded health care, their kids can get subsidized tuition rates at our universities, they can eventually get seniors' entitlement," he said.

"When police bust a narcotics ring, the first question isn't how much did this cost... That's their job."

Crackdown on 'crooked immigration agents'

Kenney first announced a little more than a year ago that the government planned to take away the citizenship of 1,800 people it thought had used fraudulent means to become Canadians. Most of them lived outside Canada, he said at the time.

To become Canadian, permanent residents have to live in Canada for three out of four years prior to applying for citizenship. Permanent residents must be physically present in Canada for two out of five years with few exceptions.

It's possible to fake evidence of Canadian residence so that applicants can maintain their permanent resident status and apply for citizenship.

According to information provided by the Immigration Canada, the government's criminal investigations have found that a family of five may pay upwards of $25,000 to an "unscrupulous immigration representative" over four or more years to create the illusion of Canadian residence.

"We will continue to take strong measures to combat the industry of crooked immigration agents here and abroad who seek to devalue Canadian citizenship by creating fake proof of residency and committing other forms of fraud," Kenney said.

Kenney also revealed plans for further amendments to the Citizenship Act to require immigration consultants to join a regulatory body.

Kenney also encouraged provinces to enforce a waiting period for new arrivals, such as asylum claimants, before they can receive government benefits like welfare.

"We do know from all of the intelligence we have gathered... that many of, if not most of, the asylum claimants coming from the European Union are attracted in part because they immediately qualify for welfare benefits when they get to Canada," Kenney told reporters. Kenney said 95 per cent of EU asylum claimants abandon or withdraw their own claims or have their claims rejected by the Immigration and Refugee Board.

"We have asked Ontario to review the eligibility rules for welfare," the minister said. "We don't think it's helpful to create a 'pull factor' for false claims."

To date, the Harper government has removed or denied admittance to over 600 former permanent residents and denied about 500 citizenship applications.

Up until last year, fewer than 70 citizenships had been revoked since the Citizenship Act was passed in 1947.

With files from Laura Payton