(The following is an article that I wrote for Policy Options.)
On April 13, 2017, the Trudeau government fulfilled a campaign promise from the 2015 federal election by eliminating the status of conditional permanent residency from Canada’s family reunification immigration programs. From 2012 to 2017, under rules implemented by the previous Harper government, immigrants who were married or in a common-law relationship with a Canadian citizen or permanent resident for less than three years before being sponsored by their partner for permanent residency would become conditional permanent residents. The “condition” was that if they separated from their partner within two years of immigrating, they could lose their status and be removed from Canada.
The Trudeau government’s decision to end conditional permanent residency was treated with jubilation by most Canadian immigration lawyers and observers; many stakeholders remarked how callous and draconian the Conservatives were to have introduced such a measure in the first place. Indeed, the Liberal government stated when it repealed conditional permanent residency that it was taking this action to uphold its commitment to family reunification, support gender equality and combat gender violence. The implication, of course, was that the Conservatives did not care about any of these things.
Although I supported the repeal of conditional permanent residency, I believe that some of the criticism of the previous government has been unfair. Now that the dust has more or less settled, I hope to offer a more balanced summary of why the Conservatives introduced conditional permanent residency, why its repeal was a good thing and why those who are concerned about marriage fraud should have confidence in Canada’s immigration system.
Why conditional permanent residency was introduced
When the Conservatives introduced conditional permanent residency in 2012, their objective was to combat marriages of convenience. According to a regulatory impact analysis statement published in 2012, Canada’s immigration department processed approximately 46,300 applications in 2010 from people who wished to immigrate because they were the spouse or common-law partner of a Canadian. About 16 percent of these were refused, mostly because immigration officials determined that the marriages were not genuine and were instead entered into primarily for immigration purposes. As shown in tables 1 and 2, the separation rate for recently sponsored immigrants was much higher than the overall Canadian divorce rate during the years following a marriage.
Although the two tables offer a flawed comparison in that they measure different things, it is apparent that the separation rate for recent immigrants under Canada’s family reunification program was high from 2000 to 2010. This was especially so for relationships that the immigration officials had initially suspected were fake but where the prospective immigrant had won an appeal before an independent administrative tribunal. Therefore, it seems at least reasonable for the Conservatives to conclude that many people were slipping through cracks in program integrity safeguards and immigrating to Canada through fake marriages.
These statistics also matched what the Conservative government was hearing from ordinary Canadians. Jason Kenney, then Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Canada, conducted a series of town hall meetings in 2010-11 in which Canadian citizens and permanent residents lamented the treatment they had received from the immigrant partners they had sponsored. Some appeared to have been victims of organized crime. At a town hall that I observed, one woman even showed a scar from a bullet wound that she had sustained when she confronted the extended family of the person she had sponsored. I left the town hall with the clear impression that, rightly or wrongly, many Canadian sponsors were angry at an immigration system that they felt left them vulnerable to being victims of marriage fraud.
The Conservatives, in response, researched ways to strengthen the integrity of Canada’s family reunification programs. Noting that many other Western countries, including the United Kingdom and the United States, had (and still have) conditional permanent residency programs for sponsored spouses and common-law partners, they implemented something similar.
How conditional permanent residency worked
In Canada, conditional permanent residency applied from 2012 to 2017 to spouses or common-law partners who were in a relationship of three years or less with their Canadian sponsor and had no children in common with their Canadian sponsor at the time that they submitted their sponsorship application. The condition required the sponsored spouse or partner to cohabit in a conjugal relationship with their sponsor for two years following receipt of their permanent resident status, regardless of how long the immigration application took to process. If they did not, they could lose their permanent resident status and be removed from Canada, unless there were significant humanitarian or compassionate reasons to let them stay.
Conditional permanent residency ceased to apply if there was evidence of abuse or neglect by the Canadian sponsor, or of a failure by the sponsor to protect their immigrant partner from abuse or neglect by the sponsor’s family members. Abuse was broadly defined and included physical, emotional and financial mistreatment.
A 2017 regulatory impact analysis statement reports that, from 2012 to 2017, 94,400 people were admitted as conditional permanent residents, representing approximately 52 percent of spousal and common-law partner sponsorship immigrants. During this time, 597 people requested an exception to the requirement to cohabit with their Canadian sponsor, due to abuse or neglect. Out of the 528 cases for which a decision had been made when the Trudeau government repealed the law, 78 percent of abuse exemption requests were approved.
Problems with conditional permanent residency
As soon as conditional permanent residency was implemented, it was clear that there were problems with the law, many of which were clearly unintended consequences. By far the most severe shortcoming of conditional permanent residency was that many people did not know about the abuse exception to the two-year cohabitation condition and, sadly, stayed in abusive situations to avoid deportation.
The second issue with the abuse exception was that some recent immigrants would make false allegations of abuse in order not to lose their status. In some cases the Canadian sponsors felt so terrible about ending a marriage or common-law relationship with a recent immigrant, knowing that this outcome would lead to the possible deportation of their partner, that they were even willing to participate in the fabrication. During one memorable consultation, a Canadian sponsor who wanted to amicably end his common-law relationship but did not want his partner to face removal from Canada went so far as to ask me how hard he would have to hit her in order for her to qualify for the abuse exception to conditional permanent residency. Frankly, I don’t think the Conservatives realized how far some people would go to stay in Canada, and how difficult it would be for immigration officials to adjudicate whether there was abuse.
Finally, the problem with conditional permanent residency that impacted the largest number of people was that it applied to those who were already inside Canada and who could have obtained permanent residency through economic immigration programs, but instead chose Canada’s family reunification stream because of faster processing times and the ability to work on open-ended work permits during processing.
For example, an international graduate who had been living here with her girlfriend for one year and working for a Canadian employer might have qualified under both the economic and the family reunification programs. From 2012 to 2015, however, the Conservatives frequently imposed application caps on certain economic immigration programs, and in some cases they even terminated whole classes of applications that were in processing. So it was not uncommon for many individuals to submit immigration applications under both economic and family reunification programs. Applicants who succeeded in being admitted through family reunification were then subject to conditional permanent residency, even though they had been working and living in Canada well before they had applied to immigrate. Unfortunately, the rules left some people trapped in relationships that they did not want to stay in. Such outcomes made it clear that the solution to marriage fraud should not be to impose hardship on all in order to catch a few.
While the repeal of conditional permanent residency might have caused some to think that the Liberals are soft on marriage fraud, it is important to note that the Trudeau government is maintaining two other significant measures that the Harper government introduced to address the issue.
The first Conservative reform that remains in place is the requirement that applicants must show that their marriage is genuine at the time of the visa officer’s assessment and that it was not entered into primarily for an immigration purpose. Before 2010, prospective immigrants had to prove only one or the other.
Second, in March 2012 the Conservatives introduced measures prohibiting immigrants who had been sponsored by a Canadian spouse or common-law partner from sponsoring a new spouse or common-law partner within five years after they immigrated. This change has prevented people from marrying a Canadian, immigrating to Canada, quickly divorcing the Canadian, travelling abroad, marrying someone else and then sponsoring that person to immigrate.
Given that both these reforms remain in effect, the Trudeau government’s approach to combatting marriage fraud can perhaps best be described as “three steps forward, one step back.” Supporters of both parties should have confidence that Canada currently has a system to combat marriage fraud that, while not perfect, generally works.