Newlyweds who move to Canada to live with a spouse will have to stay in the relationship for at least two years – or risk being kicked out of the country – under new rules that came into effect Friday.
The rules were announced in the Canada Gazette earlier this year and are part of a suite of changes meant to crack down on immigration fraud.
The probationary period will apply to couples in a relationship of two years or less who have no children together when the sponsored partner moves to Canada. The couple must prove that they have a "legitimate relationship" and live together during the sponsored partner's first two years in Canada for that person to receive permanent residency.
"The problem is, that when a foreign-sponsored spouse arrives at the airport from abroad, having been approved, and they are stamped in as a permanent resident here at Pearson Airport there is virtually nothing – there is very little – that can be done to address their fraud," Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said during an announcement in Mississauga, Ont.
He said the rules will help prevent Canadians from becoming victims of fraud and make it harder for people to sponsor immigrants for commercial gain.
Enforcement of the rules will be complaint-based, Mr. Kenney said, adding "The [Canada Border Service Agency] is not going to be going to peoples' bedrooms."
The changes stirred controversy when they were first proposed earlier this year, after some immigration lawyers and outreach workers suggested they could make it more difficult for immigrants in abusive relationships to leave their partners.
The two-year probationary period won't apply in cases where evidence of abuse or neglect exists, Mr. Kenney said. If someone is mistreated during their first two years in Canada, they will be expected to report the abuse to immigration authories so they can investigate.
"We will do the assessment and if it's a bona fide case of abuse we will ensure they are not penalized," Mr. Kenney said.
But Raj Sharma, an immigration lawyer in Calgary, said he still worries the new rules could make abused spouses more vulnerable. He said he hopes the government considers an outreach campaign to make sure newcomers are aware that they won't be deported if they leave an abusive relationship.
"We don't need this to be another tool in the hands of abusers," Mr. Sharma said.
Sam Benet, president of a group called Canadians Against Immigration Fraud, said his organization has been pushing for the regulatory change for the past five years. He pointed out that Canadians are on the hook if a partner they sponsor ends a relationship and collects social assistance. "We want to shift the responsibility," Mr. Benet said in an interview.
He said he became involved in advocating for tougher rules on spousal sponsorship after the woman his son sponsored left him immediately after she arrived in Canada. "Once she arrived in the airport she told us, 'Goodbye, I don't need you anymore,'" Mr. Benet said. After she went on welfare for a year, Mr. Benet's son received a bill for $10,000 to cover the cost, he said.
There are no clear statistics on the prevalence of marriage fraud in Canada. Of the 46,300 applications to sponsor spouses that were processed in 2010, 16 per cent were rejected, according to an analysis of the proposed regulations in the Canada Gazette. "It is estimated that most of these cases were refused on the basis of a fraudulent relationship," the analysis states.
Similar rules on conditional residency for sponsored spouses exist in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom.
Last March, the federal government introduced another preventing sponsored partners from bringing another spouse to Canada for five years after they become a permanent resident.