Shah Moayedi called the police, fearing the worst when his wife vanished. Officers turned up a telling piece of evidence of a crime: A note in his wife's handwriting, saying that she was sorry for leaving him. She said Mr. Moayedi was a nice person but she was expecting something more when she married him two months earlier in Cuba.
The crime? Marriage fraud. She used him to get into Canada.
"I thought she was my soul mate, the only person in the world for me," the Canadian airport baggage handler says today, two years after his Cuban wife left him. "But not only did she defraud the government, she defrauded me, playing with my emotions. It's humiliating."
Although the Canadian government says it keeps no figures on it, immigration officials and lawyers say foreigners are increasingly using phony marriages as a way to gain entry to Canada.
The federal government has quietly been ramping up its training programs for immigration officials and has formed a working group to try to figure out how to crack down on sham marriages. Department of Citizenship and Immigration Minister Diane Finley returned from India six weeks ago where she investigated some of the methods used to dupe Canadian officials.
"We take marriages of convenience and fraudulent marriages very seriously," she told reporters at a news conference. "Canadians want an immigration system that helps legitimate immigrants and we plan to make sure that all immigrants to Canada are legitimate."
More than 20,000 people enter Canada as new immigrants each year in the spousal category.
The federal Tories, members of the Conservative Party of Canada, have also recently floated a controversial discussion paper to overhaul existing overseas marriage laws. Many immigration lawyers are opposed to the changes because they would result in too many genuine marriages being rejected by immigration officials. The Canadian Bar Association plans to respond to the discussion paper this week.
While the government has been loath to reveal which countries are being targeted in their ongoing investigations, immigration lawyers and concerned politicians say the vast majority of marriage fraud is being perpetrated in countries like India, Vietnam, and China.
Roy Cullen, a federal Liberal politician who represents a district outside Toronto with a large Indo-Canadian population, says he's been agitating for a crackdown for years. "I'm really only taking cues from my constituents," Mr. Cullen explains. "They are very concerned about this attack on the credibility of our immigration system and the destabilizing effect that fraudulent marriages have on their community."
Many fraud cases involve a Canadian with good intentions who sponsors a spouse in a foreign country, only to later be betrayed once the new couple arrives in Canada. But immigration officials have also noticed a surge in phony marriages in which both parties are willing conspirators.
For example, an alarm bell went off in the Canadian immigration department's New Delhi office when officials began to notice that the same guests were inexplicably turning up at different weddings in photos that had been submitted as supporting evidence for sponsoring foreign brides and grooms to Canada. Upon further investigation, immigration officers then discovered that several local Hindu temples were setting up wedding ceremonies for immigration purposes and offering "rent-a-guest" services replete with garlands and traditional wedding finery arranged by unscrupulous consultants.
Indian officials have been concerned about the rise in marriage fraud for years. In 2004, Indian police arrested a serial-matchmaker who had been duping women of large dowries after "marrying them" off to his brothers in Canada.
Just-married foreigners can enter Canada within nine months and gain permanent resident status immediately. In so doing, they are able to bypass skill requirements and queues for economic-class immigrants that can involve waits of up to six years.
Countries such as the United States, Australia, and New Zealand take a more restrictive approach. In the US, for example, a foreigner marrying an American is given a "conditional resident" status for two years. Then, the couple is interviewed to determine whether the marriage is genuine and only then is the spouse granted permanent resident status.
While victims, lawyers, and officials agree something must be done to prevent sham marriages, they say there are few easy solutions.
Toronto immigration lawyer Cecil Rotenberg sees a growing number of marriage fraud victims, but worries that more government scrutiny may result in genuine marriages being rejected as fraudulent. "Sometimes immigration officers may use their Judeo-Christian values in their assessment of whether a marriage is real or not. They may not understand the cultural tradition of arranged marriages in which love comes after marriage, as people get to know each other." Good-faith marriages also fall apart, he adds.
In arranged marriages, often the couple will only meet a day or two ahead of a marriage. Without a period of courtship, it often makes it difficult for immigration officials to know whether the marriage is legitimate. If a marriage is deemed to be a fake, a visa is denied. If a spouse is already in Canada after committing marriage fraud, they may lose their permanent residency status.
Meanwhile, the Canadian government has also begun an information campaign in immigrant communities to warn sponsors that they will be on the hook financially if their new spouse flees and applies for social assistance.
For his part, Moayedi says he's discovered that his estranged wife had a boyfriend back in Cuba during their entire courtship. Moayedi says he hopes he'll find a new love soon. In the meantime, he wants to help educate other unsuspecting Canadians. "I want people ... to know that they're not the only ones out there, and we can get justice if we change the system."