A Markham woman was accused of marriage fraud after failing to produce her husband’s socks and underwear.
The immigration officer pondered the woman’s older age, better education and large family — and denied 21-year-old Sarem Soomro’s application to sponsor his wife to Canada.
To the shock of Soomro and his parents, his arranged marriage to 25-year-old Ghulam Fatima Soomro in Pakistan was deemed a fake.
“We have worked very hard to give Sarem a normal life,” said his upset mother, Armaghan Soomro, a support worker for the Red Cross and a CPR instructor for St. John Ambulance.
“We just want him to have a family and a complete life.”
As the Canadian government cracks down on marriage fraud, concern is being raised on both sides that officials are being too harsh, and in other cases too lenient, in deciding what is a genuine relationship.
“The law is there, but there is no will to enforce it,” said Sam Benet, founder of Canadians Against Immigration Fraud.
Benet’s group successfully lobbied Ottawa to strengthen the law on spousal sponsorships, but he says border service officials have done little to pursue the 85 formal complaints filed by his members.
Immigration officials say investigating marriages of convenience is now a priority, but Benet argues not enough is being done to catch the bad apples looking for a back door into Canada.
The government receives thousands of spousal applications every year, each of which is reviewed by an assigned immigration officer who pores over documents and interviews the sponsored spouse. An assessment might also include an interview with the sponsoring party.
Soomro, a Canadian citizen who lives in Georgetown with his parents and sister, submitted wedding photos, receipts, their wedding certificate, a DVD, and the couple’s communication on Facebook. His wife was interviewed in Pakistan. He was not.
Soomro’s family, who moved here from Pakistan in 2001, said it is not unusual for Pakistani men to have older, educated wives. He is a high-school graduate and she has a university degree in economics.
However, the officer also wrote: “(The wife) is the second of six children; the elder sibling is married, but the younger ones would be dependent children of her parents. This provides a potential benefit for the family, were a child to become a permanent resident of Canada.”
Soomro, who is deaf and works full-time as a baker at Tim Horton’s, is appealing the decision. His family does not believe his deafness factored into the rejection.
In some cases, where a spouse is already in Canada, the investigation may also include a surprise visit to the couple’s home.
That occurred in a case where border officers noticed the address on Xiu Yi Xuan’s driver’s licence was different than the address of her Canadian husband.
In a scene reminiscent of the 1990 romantic comedy Green Card, about a marriage of convenience, the Canada Border Services Agency made an unannounced visit to the couple’s Markham home to investigate.
Xuan, a failed refugee claimant from China, was home at the time and unable to produce her husband’s toothbrush (she claimed they shared one). She couldn’t say whether her husband used an electric razor or a disposable one, nor could she show the officer any evidence of his socks or underwear.
Despite other indications it was a genuine marriage — joint bank accounts, joint insurance, joint donations and ownership of a Stouffville property — Xuan was arrested. The couple’s spousal sponsorship was rejected and, most recently, their appeal to Federal Court denied.
“The choice to assign greater weight to the less prepared, extemporaneous evidence lies within the discretion of the officer,” Justice Michael Phelan said in his January ruling. “It is a reasonable choice, given the nature of the inquiry, which is to determine how a person lives — not merely how they say they live.”
Xuan and her Canadian husband, who have a baby, declined to be interviewed.
Max Berger, the couple’s lawyer, would not discuss the case, but commented that “whether a marriage or a relationship is genuine is the most difficult decision that an immigration officer has to make in any category of immigration.”
Citizen and Immigration refused to reveal the specific criteria used to decide if a marriage is real or fake, but a federal ‘operational manual’ for processing family class members, obtained by the Star, outlines in detail the questions an officer must consider. Among them:
Do the spouses have good knowledge of each others’ personal circumstances, background and family situation?
Is there a history of multiple marriages and divorces?
Have previous relationships clearly ended?
Do the applicants speak a common language?
Where was the wedding and who attended?
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has brought the issue of marriage fraud to the fore after media reports of foreign brides and grooms leaving their Canadian sponsors upon arrival, and revelations of a “rent-a-guest” scheme in India that set up bogus wedding ceremonies for immigration purposes.
The new law, enacted in October, now requires sponsored spouses to remain in a relationship for two years before they can obtain permanent status, and bans the sponsored spouse from sponsoring a new spouse for five years.
In March, Kenney made fighting marriage fraud the theme of this year’s “fraud prevention month” at Citizenship and Immigration Canada, and launched an ad campaign to warn Canadians about being duped by foreign would-be spouses.
There are generally two types of marriage fraud, one where sponsored spouses prey on emotionally vulnerable or gullible Canadians, and another involving collusion by both parties.
“Cases that involve a sponsored spouse/partner misrepresenting him or herself to their spouse in Canada . . . are challenging to pursue, as it pits one partner against the other partner (‘he said/she said’) and evidence of fraud can be difficult to prove,” said Vanessa Barrasa, a spokesperson for CBSA.
To deal with that type of fraud, officials focus on detecting suspect relationships at the sponsorship application stage, she said.
Of the 46,300 immigration applications for spouses processed in 2010, 16 per cent of cases were refused.
“After a sponsored spouse or partner arrives in Canada, the only way for CIC to become aware of potential marriage fraud is when allegations are brought forward, or when the sponsored spouse or partner makes an application to sponsor a new spouse or partner,” said immigration spokesperson Nancy Caron.
Although difficult to pinpoint the extent of immigration marriage fraud, there is an assumption that only genuine couples would appeal a negative decision.
In 2010, 7,400 or so applications were denied. That same year, just over 3,000 were appealed. About 1,200 won their case.
According to CBSA, since 2008, criminal charges have been laid in over 10 cases, resulting in six convictions in the eight cases that went to court.
In 2012, 134 people were removed from Canada for misrepresentation, some of which include sponsored spouses involved in marriage fraud. That’s double the number deported in 2008.
Said Alexis Pavlich, a spokesperson for Kenney:
“These measures combined will have a practical effect on maintaining the integrity of our immigration system, and serve as a deterrent to those trying to cheat the system to get into Canada.”