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I do ... and I'm gone

Many Canadians who sponsor a foreign spouse find themselves jilted and on the hook financially - sometimes within a few weeks

From Thursday's Globe and Mail

Cindy Green met her husband in the lobby of a Dominican Republic hotel: She was on vacation, he was on shift. There was chemistry, and the two would go dancing at a local discotheque. Ms. Green, a Toronto child-care worker, returned home single but soon racked up a hefty Visa bill, visiting the man every three months. After 19 months of long-distance dating, they wed in October, 2004, in the Dominican.

He landed in Toronto that December, securing permanent-resident status, as well as a social-insurance number and a health card through his marriage.

Shortly after he got his cards, Ms. Green says, her husband started picking fights. She wrote it off as an adjustment phase. He was experiencing his first Canadian winter, after all. But after she refused to send money to a family minding his apartment in the Dominican, her husband grew abnormally angry.

Several days later, he disappeared.

"The only thing he left was the key on the dresser," she recalls.

In the weeks that followed, Ms. Green says, she called her husband's cellphone frantically, but he would hang up or speak only in Spanish, which she does not understand. Increasingly agitated, Ms. Green hired a private investigator in the Dominican. She learned that the family her husband so desperately wanted her to send her earnings to was his own: a common-law wife and four children.

Ms. Green is just one of 1,500 Canadians who fall victim to marriage fraud each year, according to an advocacy group called Canadians Against Immigration Fraud. Falling in love with foreigners, they are jilted weeks - if not days - after the vows are exchanged.

Commenting on this issue last week, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said: "I would say it's one of the most frequent forms of immigration fraud."

Victims say such marriages of convenience stigmatize and humiliate them before their family, friends and peers. Worse still is the depression that follows the sudden marital abandonment. And there is a financial burden: Sponsors are on the hook financially for any social assistance their spouses might receive for three years - 10 years if they've also sponsored children.

Now, defrauded sponsors are fighting back. Canadians Against Immigration Fraud recently set in motion a federal class-action suit: They want errant spouses stripped of permanent-residence status and deported within a reasonable amount of time. In documents recently filed in Federal Court, Mr. Kenney stated that waiting nearly two years to open an investigation is "a short time period."

Last week, Ottawa performance artist Lainie Towell drew attention to the issue by putting on her wedding gown, strapping a full-size red door to her back and marching on Parliament Hill.

"The door was red, my dress was white - the colours echoed the Canadian flag," Ms. Towell says.

She said the door was supposed to represent the burden she bears for giving her husband, a musician named Fodé Mohamed Soumah (nicknamed Akra), entry into Canada on New Year's Eve, 2007.

The two met in Guinea in 2004; he was the drummer in a dance troupe she performed with. They married in the spring of 2007. Not two weeks after Mr. Soumah arrived in Ottawa, Ms. Towell discovered e-mails on her laptop that revealed he had fathered a baby with a 15-year-old girl in Africa. Two weeks later, Mr. Soumah disappeared, leaving only his wedding ring behind.

"That was probably the worst day of my life," Ms. Towell says.

It was difficult to accept that her husband had meticulously conned her, but when reality set in days later, Ms. Towell did not hesitate to call immigration and border officials.

"On one hand, you love this person, you married this person. And on the other hand, you're picking up the phone and you're turning them in. It's a very strange place to be in."

Last month, the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada found that her husband misrepresented himself when he claimed he was single and childless. Mr. Soumah was issued a removal order, which he has appealed, a process that could take years. In the meantime, Ms. Towell remains his sponsor, which leaves her financially responsible if he claims social assistance.

As in other cases, Ms. Towell's claim that her husband committed marriage fraud was more difficult to prove. Mr. Soumah insists he married Ms. Towell in good faith, but that the relationship disintegrated after she became controlling.

The government has cited this "he said, she said" element as one reason the cases take so long to process: Public servants are charged with deciding whether breakups are evidence of fraud or simply a romantic falling out.

Because of this inherent complexity, critics are agitating the government to adopt conditional residency laws such as those found in the United States and Australia, which require immigrant spouses to live with their husbands or wives for two years before they get full permanent residency.

"Isn't it easier to set up legislation that prevents the fraud in the first place?" asks Julie Taub, the Ottawa lawyer leading the class action. "We obviously can't deal with the fraud afterward."

Ms. Taub argues that those who cynically say Canadians marrying foreigners deserve their ordeals are missing the point. "When fraudsters become permanent residents, then they too have the right to sponsor family members. They're entitled to health care, social assistance, housing and all the benefits that Canadians are entitled to. ... The investigation trying to stem this fraud, it's not borne by the victim: that's all borne by Canadian taxpayers."

Ms. Green did not encounter such cynicism from her friends and family, who were supportive. "They thought he was a great guy. He was a good actor."

Even so, she says it has taken her years to recover from the experience, especially since her husband still lives somewhere in Toronto, his permanent-resident status intact.

"Even a year and a half after he left, I was just consumed with that. I would leave the house and get panic attacks, afraid that I would see him," Ms. Green said.

"I'm not going to forget what he did, and I won't forgive what he did, but in order for me to find peace, I don't think about those things any more."

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