Marriages of convenience are a continuing issue for Canada's immigration system, despite internal warnings by immigration officials in 2007 that they were a serious concern, the CBC has learned.

In February 2007, officials with Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) requested an investigation into "the high number of potential fraud cases related to possible marriages of convenience" in the Punjab region in India, according to internal documents obtained under the Access to Information Act.

At the time, CIC was fielding a growing number of complaints from people who had married foreign nationals and paid for them to get into the country, only to have them leave the marriage upon arriving in Canada. In some cases, the new spouses took off as soon as they landed at the airport.

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Marriages of convenience, in which one person weds another just to gain entry to a country, are a growing problem for Canadian immigration officials. ((Tom Hanson/Canadian Press))

The investigation produced shocking revelations about the number and nature of the marriages, including ties to the sex trade, narcotics trafficking, embezzlement and human smuggling.

The reports identified problems that made investigating these cases difficult. They cited a lack of "consistency between regions and offices," and found the "interpretation of regulations greatly varies between regions, and even from one officer to the next."

In a memo released in December 2007, advisers offered a number of solutions, including:

  • Increased training for CIC investigators.
  • Creating dedicated positions for proactive and analytical anti-fraud activities.
  • Allowing CIC employees to conduct field investigations.
  • Reaching out to communities that practise arranged marriages.

"It is essential that efforts begin now to quantify the department's needs and then to utilize the appropriate vehicle to secure them," the memo reads. "It is time to begin."

Three years later, it is unclear what steps have been taken to cut down on the marriages, despite repeated claims by Jason Kenney, the minister for citizenship and immigration, that he wants to find out the seriousness of the problem and what should be done about it.

Town halls

CIC has increased its attention to marriages of convenience in recent months.

It recently launched an online survey about the issue. And in October, Kenney attended town halls in Vancouver and Montreal focusing on the marriages.

"While we want to keep the doors open for legitimate spouses or partners, we also want to make sure the doors are not open to those who would break our laws and exploit Canadians," Kenney said on Oct. 31, before a town hall in Montreal.

At a town hall in Vancouver, one woman described how her husband, whom she'd married in the Punjab in 2008, left her almost immediately after his arrival at the Vancouver International Airport in March.

"He didn't even talk to me," the woman told the town hall. "He came to my house and told me, 'I don't want you. I just married you to come to Canada.' "

The woman said she complained to the Canada Borders Services Agency (CBSA) and the police, but "nothing happened."

"Every time I go to CBSA they are telling me lack of evidence. He's married. He has a wife and five-year-old daughter in India."

'An understandable complaint': Kenney

In an interview with CBC News, Kenney acknowledged frustration with the border services agency.

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Immigration Minister Jason Kenney rebuffed suggestions his department needs to hire more staff to investigate marriages of convenience. ((Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press))

"It's an understandable complaint," he said. "I told the president of the CBSA that I didn't think it was acceptable [that] people who make complaints to the CBSA haven't even got the courtesy of a response.

"And we have told the CBSA that marriage fraud and violations by crooked immigration consultants should be an enforcement priority."

But immigration lawyer Julie Taub suggested it's unfair to blame CBSA for the immigration issues.

"They can't do the hiring," Taub told CBC News. "They don't control the budget. I believe they're doing the best they can with their limited staff and limited resources."

Taub, a former member of the Immigration and Refugee Board, tried to sue the government in 2008 after clients complained that even well-documented cases of fraudulent marriage were taking too long for CIC or CBSA to investigate.

"We were simply stating that if it's … a reasonable complaint that is well-documented, then they [CBSA] should at least start an investigation," she said about the lawsuit.

"We're talking about hundreds of complaints where no investigation was ever started and I believe there may be thousands of complaints where no investigation was ever started."

When asked about officials within his own department, Kenney told CBC News his officials are working hard. He said there are now agents — called migration integrity officers —  working out of major offices around the world, for example, helping the CIC identify fraud cases.

Kenney rejected the suggestion, made in the 2007 internal documents, that his department needs to hire more staff.

"You can make an argument of any government department to keep hiring more staff and growing the budget," he said.

"The reality is we have a $50-billion deficit that we need to eliminate. Rather than increasing our budget to hire more staff, let's just find more ways to innovate and provide service more quickly through better use of technology."

Safety, security top priorities

Opposition members have questioned CIC on its handling of marriages of convenience.

On May 5, Liberal MP Ruby Dhalla submitted a formal request for information asking:

  • How many permanent residency applications the government had refused based on fraudulent marriages.
  • How many permanent residents had been deported because of fraudulent marriages. How much CIC had spent investigating fraudulent marriages.
  • How many government employees were assigned to investigate fraudulent marriages. What incentives are offered to report fraudulent marriages.
  • How much money the government had spent to train immigration officers to identify fraudulent marriages.

In its response, CIC said: "Although investigations are possible, CIC is required to prioritize the use of resources. Cases involving the safety and security of Canadians, such as criminality, are our top priority."

On the issue of training, CIC said it had "no specific course that deals with the topic of marriages of convenience."

Border services echoed CIC in its response to Dhalla's question. 

If you have information you’d like to share about marriages of convenience and marriage fraud, please contact David McKie at david_mckie@cbc.ca

"The priorities for enforcement action are: those who pose a threat to national security, those involved in organized crime and crime against humanity, criminals and those who do not comply with the immigration legislation, including those who misrepresent themselves through fraudulent marriages," it said.