OTTAWA — It is one of the unsavoury secrets of Canada’s immigration system. Each year hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Canadian women and men marry foreigners and agree to act as sponsors for them in Canada, only to find themselves abandoned once that spouse is in the country.
This past weekend, however, one of those marriage fraudsters got his just desserts thanks to a spouse who refused to be a victim. Lainie Towell’s ex-husband, Fode Mohamed Soumah, was by all accounts deported back to his native country of Guinea in West Africa.
He had walked out on his 2007 marriage to Towell three weeks after uttering his wedding vows, but it took more than three years for the Canadian Board Services Agency to get him on the airplane after he used every avenue of appeal.
Officials in the office of Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, who is responsible for the CBSA, did not respond Monday to queries about the deportation. However, Towell said Monday she heard from “a couple of good sources” that Soumah had left the country. “I’m confident he’s gone, based on information from people who would know.”
What does she think now? “It’s not something I would have wished for,” she said. “This was the man I married and I thought we would build a life together. But it was worth it if this outcome is going to change the system to help others.”
That the system needs change is unquestionable. Estimates are hard to come by, but Julie Taub, a long-established immigration lawyer, estimated the number of cases of immigrant marriage fraud ran into “thousands.”
“I get about two or three calls a week on this, but I can’t take them all on,” Taub said. “I have many clients whose complaints I have passed on to the CBSA. These cases are a rip-off of the Canadian taxpayer.”
They are also emotionally wrenching. The fraudsters prey on and betray the fundamental human need for love and companionship without, as it seems, any moral compunction. “It’s all about playing on human frailty,” Taub said. “All of (the clients) without exception are lonely, susceptible and want to meet somebody.
“There are older Canadian men who fall for young Russians or Chinese and agree to marry them despite the huge age discrepancy, and then the women walk out on them. There are women who are divorcees, never been married, older, and who are thrilled that they have found someone who is romantic and courts them. All these people are victims.”
Towell’s experience is likely typical. A well-known Ottawa dancer and performance artist, she married Soumah in April 2007 in his hometown of Conakry. She had come to know him after first visiting Guinea in 2004 to study dance traditions. Subsequent trips demonstrated their devotion to each other, or so she thought. As Towell later discovered, Soumah had fathered a child with a 15-year-old girl before leaving Guinea to come to Canada.
After they got married, Towell started the application process to bring her husband to Canada. He arrived on New Year’s Eve 2007. Three weeks later, he left for Montreal, saying he wanted a divorce and warning her that if she made a fuss, he would start collecting welfare which she would have to repay to the government. As Soumah’s sponsor, Towell signed a contract with Citizenship and Immigration Canada that made her financially responsible for Soumah for three years even if the marriage failed. If he received any form of social assistance, she’d be on the hook.
“Imagine what it was like,” Towell said. “I brought this man home and introduced him to all my friends and my family, all my dance students. Then my prince turned into a frog, and I’d been defrauded. I felt completely ashamed and embarrassed.”
Perhaps so, but Towell did not play the passive victim. She complained to the immigration ministry, but it wasn’t until she went public that government officials began to pay attention. At one point, she donned her white wedding dress, strapped a door on her back and crawled up the steps of Parliament Hill.
Not surprisingly, the stunt attracted attention. Towell soon heard from others who had also been victims of marriage fraud, asking for help and advice. Women’s groups and other advocacy organizations started showing up at Immigration Minister Jason Kenney’s town hall meetings to demand regulatory changes.
The wheels started to turn. The immigration ministry enlisted border services enforcement officers to investigate cases of alleged marriage fraud. According to news reports, the border agency opened nearly 40 criminal cases of suspected marriage fraud from 2008 through to the end of 2010. It also received roughly 200 leads on possible marriage fraud cases in that same time period.
Last year, Kenney proposed new regulatory measures to prevent people from using marriages of convenience to circumvent Canada’s immigration laws. The proposed changes include a five-year ban on the sponsored spouse being able to sponsor another mate in order to stop people from engaging in cyclical marry-sponsor-divorce schemes. There would also be a two-year conditional residency requirement to ensure relationships were legitimate before granting permanent residency to the sponsored spouse. As well, the minister said he would increase the number of investigators and resources to go after fraudsters. These regulatory changes are under review.
Kenney’s press secretary, Candice Malcolm credited people such as Towell who came forward with their stories for helping to bring about the regulatory changes. “Minister Kenney became aware of marriage fraud through some high profile cases, as well as from individuals who came forward during various town halls and consultations to alert the minister of this problem and the suffering it causes for victims.
“Our government takes the issue of marriage fraud very seriously. We have no tolerance for those who abuse our system, who lie and cheat to jump the immigration queue, and who prey on innocent and vulnerable victims.”
Regulations similar to those in the works in Canada have long been in place in other countries such as the United States and Australia.