Marriage of Convenience

Posted by admin on Apr 6th, 2011

Published On Wed Apr 06 2011. Toronto Star. Avvy Yao-Yao Go, Anita Balakrishna and Atulya Sharma

In this federal election, all major political parties are waving the “family friendly” flag. The Conservatives are particularly eager to win what they call the “very ethnic votes” as well as “women” votes. But while their campaign slogans say one thing, the Conservatives’ policies have been something else altogether, especially when it comes to immigration. The Harper government reduced the intake of parents and grandparents under family class immigration, especially from countries like India, while doing little to reduce excessive delays in processing time. Since the Conservatives took over in 2006, the number of family-class immigrants has gone down by 15 per cent, in contrast to the 31 per cent increase in the number of temporary foreign workers who entered Canada over the same time period.

But what has yet to capture public attention is the move by the Conservatives to introduce “conditional visas” on women who come to Canada as sponsored spouses. Conveniently, the notice about this new proposal was made just one day before the government fell.

The proposed measure, if passed, would apply to spouses and partners who have been in a relationship with their sponsor for two years or less at the time of the sponsorship application. The period of conditional status under consideration could be two years, or longer, from the time that the sponsored spouse or partner becomes a permanent resident in Canada. Officially, the stated objective of the proposed conditional visa is to deter so-called “marriages of convenience.”

While its timing is suspect, the fact that these regulations are being proposed should come as no surprise. Last year the concept of conditional visas was tested in a government online consultation on so-called marriage fraud. At the same time, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney was busy drumming up public sympathy for sponsors — most of whom are men — who complain about women they have sponsored using marriage as a ticket into Canada.

For every sponsor who feels genuinely betrayed by the person he or she has brought here, there is a sponsored immigrant — most likely a woman — who finds herself in a controlling and sometimes even abusive relationship after landing in Canada.

These women often are too ashamed and mostly too afraid to speak out for fear of losing their immigration status. Abusive partners, often men, who cry “marriage fraud” after the relationship breaks down have all the power and privilege to access support and legal assistance.

On the other hand, sponsored women who have been abused often are isolated and alone. By characterizing the issue as “marriage fraud,” the government has shifted attention away from the wider systemic problem of violence against women and in so doing laid the blame on the victims.

The vast majority of the people who want to bring their families to Canada just have one goal in mind — to be reunited with their families. Yet many Canadian immigration officials (particularly those stationed in India and China) routinely treat every sponsorship application as a fraudulent case, until proven otherwise.

Viewed through such a biased lens, many genuine marriages are being unfairly rejected. While sponsors have the right to appeal and often win, the resulting delay forces a much longer period of family separation, causing considerable financial and relationship stress.

Indeed, the conditional visa is nothing new. It was part of the Canadian immigration law once before. Back then, a woman who came to Canada as a sponsored fiancée had to marry her sponsor within 90 days of arrival. Failure to do so would result in her status as a permanent resident being revoked.

In no time, the requirement became a tool for all too many male sponsors to control their sponsored spouse. After years of advocacy by immigrant and women’s groups, the provision was finally removed. Reintroducing conditional visas will not only set our law back 20 years, it will create a subclass of immigrant women who are forced to choose between a life of servitude and deportation.

Marriage is never convenient. The majority of marriages in Canada do fail. That does not mean, however, those who enter into it do so with fraudulent intent.

Canada’s immigration legislation already has provisions that can be used to charge (even criminally) immigrants for misrepresentation in their applications. If marriage fraud were indeed a widespread problem, more charges should have been laid. Already, the Conservatives have spent significant sums on beefing up scrutiny at visa offices abroad to combat so-called fraudulent marriages. Adding another layer of with the “conditional visa” is not only harmful to women but a waste of taxpayers’ money.

Rather than proposing a one-sided solution to a problem that is multi-faceted, the government should try to facilitate immigration through other means, including expanding the definition of family class and relaxing other types of immigration rules. Canada needs immigrants, and if there are more ways than one to immigrate to Canada, getting married would likely to be the last resort for most people.

Reuniting families has long been one of the core objectives of Canada’s immigration legislation. Family reunification is an integral part of the settlement process. Immigrants who have family support within Canada are better able to cope with challenges of migrating to a new country.

If political parties are serious about promoting family values, then they should be working on promoting family reunification for immigrants.

Avvy Yao-Yao Go is director of the Metro Toronto Chinese & Southeast Asian Legal Clinic. Anita Balakrishna is staff lawyer and Atulya Sharma is a community legal worker with the South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario.

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