Spousal Sponsorship Process Recent Changes

Last week, in the spirit of Valentine’s Day, Canada’s Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen announced that the spousal sponsorship applications backlog had drastically been reduced by his department since 2016. Stressing the importance of family reunification, Minister Hussen said that under the current administration, average processing times for these applications have also been reduced from 26 months to 12 months. While this is good news for those seeking to have their foreign spouses join them in Canada, the reality of making a spousal sponsorship application remains the same: the application is far from simple, the process isn’t transparent and the whole ordeal is more intrusive than one may think.

At first glance, applying to sponsor a foreign spouse for permanent residence to Canada looks easy. Spousal sponsorship is not restricted to formally married couples, and is also available to common-law and conjugal partners. A common-law partnership requires a couple to live together for at least one year, while a conjugal partnership is a marriage-like relationship where a couple was not able to live together due to some extenuating circumstances. Unlike parental sponsorships, there is no cap on the number of spousal sponsorship application that can be approved in a single year. Similarly, there is no specific income requirement for people who sponsor their spouses. As with most immigration-related matters, the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) website provides a detailed step-by-step guide for completing spousal sponsorship applications.

This guide, however, conspicuously makes no mention of section 4 of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Regulations (IRPR), which is the most common reason for spousal sponsorship applications to be denied. Section 4 of the IRPR talks about “bad faith” in a marriage or long-term relationship. It specifies that a relationship will not be considered a spousal relationship if it was entered into primarily for immigration purposes or if it is not genuine.

Genuineness is assessed at the time of the application, while purpose behind the relationship is gleaned from the relationship’s past. While a relationship can start off questionably but become genuine as time goes on, if it is found that a relationship was entered into primarily for the purposes of immigration, the couple will never be able to overcome this obstacle, regardless of the current genuineness of their love and their union. For this section to come into play, only one party in a relationship needs to be ingenuine or have an improper purpose. For instance, even if a sponsor is madly in love with an applicant, the application can still be denied if it is found that the applicant (the sponsored spouse) does not share those feelings.

The purpose of this section is clear and commendable. Canada does not want spousal sponsorships to become an illicit back door to gaining permanent residence through phony marriages. Allowing such conduct would undermine the integrity of the immigration system as a whole and would in no way further Canada’s goal of facilitating family reunification.

Although section 4 is not itself problematic, its implementation often is. By virtue of this section, visa officers routinely approach spousal sponsorship applications with scepticism, intent on busting fake marriages. Unbeknownst to the couple, their relationship is put under the microscope from the moment their application is submitted. Visa officers zero in on relationship “red flags,” taking issue with things applicants were never asked to address or explain. Married within a short time of meeting each other? Red flag. Parents didn’t attend the wedding? Red flag. No honeymoon? Red flag. The couple met online? Red flag. The applicant is from an impoverished country? Big red flag. Anything that deviates from what the officer considers to be part of a “normal” relationship is seen as an indicator of fraud.

Some applications are refused outright due to these concerns, without the spouses being given an opportunity to address them. In other cases, visa officers give the spouses a chance to show that their relationship is genuine – either through documents or an interview – but even then officers are often vague about the particulars of their concerns, hurting the couple’s chances of addressing them properly.

It is therefore common for decisions rejecting spousal sponsorship applications for lack of genuineness to be rife with factual errors and improper speculation. While this makes appealing these decisions easy, many couples can’t afford the added expense of an appeal or are discouraged from appealing by the additional months (or sometimes years) of further delay that comes with filing an appeal. Couples sometimes choose to forgo the appeal and simply re-submit their applications with additional documents, but these applications are rarely successful.

So what can would-be spousal sponsorship applicants do to prevent this from happening to them? To start, would-be applicants should build a record of your relationship from the very beginning. Some things that can be done include:

  • Keeping all text messages and emails throughout the relationship;

  • Keeping all gifts and personalized cards received throughout the relationship;

  • Taking many pictures together, especially during trips and special occasions;

  • Introducing the other party to friends and family members, who can later write letters of support;

  • Ensuring that the other party is listed on official documents (For instance, as a beneficiary on an insurance policy);

  • Keeping a joint bank account with the other party.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. Anything that shows commitment to the relationship and openness about the relationship to friends and family is helpful.

When applying, couples should include all of this proof of the relationship with their initial application and not count on the visa officer to give them an opportunity to submit more documents later. Any obvious potential issues –such as a marriage that happened very soon after an initial meeting –should also be explained from the outset. This can be done by way of a letter enclosed with the rest of the application. In essence, applicants should aim to pre-empt genuineness concerns from the get-go, even though the IRCC guide directs them to do no such thing.

Love comes in all shapes and sizes. Love born of unlikely beginnings can burn just as brightly and be just as lasting as a true romance. In its rigid attempt to guard its immigration system from abuse, Canada lost its ability to appreciate the different ways in which love can manifest. Anything that does not fit neatly into the traditional North American understanding of a proper relationship becomes suspect. It is an unfortunate reality, but it is a reality nonetheless, and every couple applying for spousal sponsorship must appreciate it if they want to have the best chance of being reunited in Canada.

Leo Rayner is an immigration lawyer with Legally Canadian. Reasonable Doubt appears on Mondays.

A word of caution: You should not act or rely on the information provided in this column. It is not legal advice. To ensure your interests are protected, retain or formally seek advice from a lawyer. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Legally Canadian or the lawyers of Legally Canadian.

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