Immigration marriage fraud crackdown raising concerns about domestic abuse

Posted by admin on Jul 22nd, 2012

By Tobi Cohen, Postmedia News

OTTAWA — A new policy aimed at cracking down on marriage fraud in the immigration system is poised to take effect by early fall, Postmedia News has learned — and despite an attempt to alter the plan in the wake of widespread criticism, many concerns persist.

The plan to create a two-year conditional permanent resident status for sponsored spouses and partners has faced considerable criticism, particularly over its potential impact on victims of domestic abuse, according to government records obtained by Postmedia News through access to information.

The proposal requires couples to “live together” in a “legitimate relationship” for at least two years or risk having the sponsored individual’s permanent residency revoked, which could lead to deportation or even criminal charges.

After first posting notice of its intent to change the rules in the Canada Gazette on March 26, 2011, the federal government received 84 written comments — just eight of which expressed unqualified support for the proposal.

“In contrast to views expressed at town hall meetings and through earlier online consultations, most responses to the Notice of Intent were not supportive,” said the summary of comments submitted during a 30-day comment period by lawyers, immigration consultants, academics, shelter workers, community associations and non-governmental organizations.

Given that the background document on the proposed regulatory change indicated “firm figures on the extent of relationships of convenience are not available,” a dozen critics questioned the relevance of the proposed measure given the lack of empirical evidence that immigration marriage fraud is a serious problem in Canada.

Eight raised concerns about the impact on children who could be separated from a parent if he or she is deported, and about the risk of fostering domestic abuse should a parent decide to put up with an abusive household rather than risk breaking up the marriage.

A handful raised concerns about the fate of those who “entered bona fide relationships” only to have them break down prematurely — but legitimately — suggesting that some might be stigmatized and cut off from their families and communities if they are shipped home to countries that don’t accept divorce.

“The proposal to review cases ‘targeted for fraud’ raised concerns of ‘racial, national or ethnic profiling or stereotyping and discrimination,'” the summary further noted.

“Respondents indicated that this would need to be clarified and criteria would need to be transparent and objective. Some also warned it could invite false allegations from a sponsor.”

The bulk of concerns, however, centered around the vulnerability of spouses and partners — primarily women — in abusive relationships. Critics argued the new measure would exacerbate problems abused immigrant women already face.

“Many believe that if they leave their sponsor or report abuse, they will lose their status and be deported,” the summary noted, suggesting it’s a “myth” that could prove true under the proposal.

Critics said it already was very difficult to get accurate information on rights and services to immigrant women facing abuse as “cultural, religious, linguistic and economic barriers” often prevent them from reporting it.

“For these reasons, respondents . . . believe the process that would be put in place for women in abusive situations would be ineffective and would not constitute a realistic solution,” the summary said.

When the government posted the proposed regulations that effectively would create a conditional permanent resident status in the Canada Gazette four months ago, it took note of the concerns and insisted the proposal would not apply in cases where there is evidence of abuse or neglect.

The government also noted at the time that it was developing guidelines to assist newly sponsored spouses and partners who find themselves in abusive situations.

A second public feedback process resulted in just 35 comments, the bulk of them neutral or off-topic. That said, 13 critics remain unconvinced that the measures are necessary and that they would exempt victims of domestic abuse.

“Submissions stated that victims would not make use of the exception because, among other things, abuse is hard to prove, the burden or proof is on the sponsored spouse or partner, new immigrants have a lack of knowledge of their rights, the fear of being deported, language barriers, costs, etc.,” said the most recent summary compiled from comments received as of April 9.

While the government has argued that the measures would bring Canada in line with countries like Australia, the United States and Britain which have similar policies in place, critics further complained the measures have not effectively deterred marriage fraud in those countries. Even those with similar exemptions for domestic violence, they say, are struggling to apply them.

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