Canada's border agency has opened more than three dozen criminal investigations related to marriage fraud in the last few years, newly released documents show.   

The Canada Border Services Agency has also begun a probe of possible organized criminal involvement in arranging marriages of convenience to attain status in Canada.   

Information from the government's immigration case processing centre in Alberta revealed similarities among marriage sponsorships that led them to suspect phoney relationships.    Citizenship and Immigration officials enlisted border services enforcement officers to investigate the cases in an effort known as Project Honeymoon.

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A Canada Border Services Agency officer stands behind Minister of Public Safety Vic Toews and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney in July. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

   

Overall, from 2008 through the end of the last year, the border agency opened 39 criminal investigations of suspected marriage fraud.   

However, the internal border agency documents — disclosed under the Access to Information Act — acknowledge the cases require considerable resources, and many never make it to court. 

Release of the internal statistics comes as the Conservative government pursues a regulatory change that would require people coming to Canada to join their partner to stay in the relationship for two years or more before being formally granted permanent residence.   

There are two types of marriage-of-convenience cases. In the first, a foreign national victimizes a well-intentioned Canadian sponsor by using the relationship to gain status in Canada. Usually such cases are handled by the Immigration and Refugee Board, and can result in the offending party being ordered out of Canada.   

The second kind involves the knowing participation of both parties — cases the border agency considers "organized fraud" to be pursued criminally.   

"These cases require resource-intensive investigations in order to obtain sufficient evidence to support the laying of criminal charges and successful prosecution," says a December 2010 memo prepared for Public Safety Minister Vic Toews by agency president Luc Portelance.

'It's virtually impossible for us to get successful convictions on marriage fraud cases after the fact. Which is why we need an additional tool.'—Jason Kenney, immigration minister

   

The border agency carries out regulatory and criminal investigations of marriage-of-convenience cases "as available resources permit," adds the memo. While the agency does not have "specific funding" for marriage fraud enforcement, it has shifted resources to help address cases.   

Between 2008, when the agency began compiling figures, and the end of last year, it had received some 200 leads on possible marriage fraud from various sources.   

Of these, 39 warranted a formal investigation, with charges laid in seven cases, including three convictions. As of December 2010, 17 of the cases remained open.   

The border agency said Monday that more recent statistics were not immediately available.   

The internal memos indicate the agency bristled at media coverage last year suggesting "a lack of action" on marriage fraud.   

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney did little to dispel that notion recently, telling the CBC it's not up to him how many cases the border agency pursues.   

In an interview with The Canadian Press, Kenney did commend overseas border agency officers for helping screen out fraudulent marriage cases at the application stage.   

But Kenney said when cases slip through and the parties make it to Canada, it's tougher for authorities.   

"Right now we have very few tools to deal with that. Because we need to be able to go to a court and prove that they entered into their marriage with bad faith," he said.   

"So it's virtually impossible for us to get successful convictions on marriage fraud cases after the fact. Which is why we need an additional tool."   

Under the proposed regulatory move, a partner from abroad who has been in a relationship with their Canadian sponsor for less than two years would be granted only "conditional permanent residence."   

The newcomer would then have to remain in a bona fide relationship with their sponsor for a period of two years or more following arrival — or risk having their permanent resident status revoked.