By Norma Greenaway, Canwest News Service
New immigration rules could strip children of some Canadians living abroad of their citizenship, critics say.
Photograph by: Handout, np
OTTAWA -- In the Canadian visa office in the northwestern Indian city of Chandigarh, one wall is plastered with everything from fake death certificates and doctors' notes to bank statements and transcripts from non-existent colleges.
Known to the staff as the "wall of shame," it stands as a daily reminder of what Immigration Minister Jason Kenney portrays as the tough job the mission's five immigration officers have in trying to separate legitimate applicants for visitors' visas to Canada from those backed by phoney claims and documents.
Kenney said he was "floored" to discover the extent and frequency of the fraud perpetrated in Chandigarh by unscrupulous document vendors, counterfeit artists and fake immigration consultants who charge people thousands of dollars to help put together visas that get rejected by officers who are becoming increasingly wise to the fakery. The going rate is between $12,000 and $15,000, officials say.
At the Chandigarh mission in the first nine months of 2008, more people had their applications for temporary visas to Canada rejected than accepted. The split was 9,781 rejected, and 8,641 accepted - a rejection rate of 56 per cent, according to immigration department figures. By contrast, the rejection rate in New Delhi, where more than 53,000 applications were processed during that period, was only 19 per cent.
Those who advocate making it easier for Indians to travel to Canada don't make light of the problems in Chandigarh, which, they agree, damage the integrity of the Canadian immigration system.
However, they say the government should respond by opening more immigration offices and putting more people on the ground.
New Delhi and Chandigarh are the only visa processing centres in India, although there are nine centres spread around the country where people can drop off applications.
Manoj Pundit, a spokesman for the Canada India Foundation, says the visa processing facilities fall far short of what is needed at a time when the two countries are engaged in enhancing relations, especially in the area of trade.
Pundit, a lawyer who travels to India several times a year on business, says he knows of Indian business executives who have skipped joining a trade mission to Canada because they couldn't be bothered with the hassles of getting a visa.
"I don't for a moment tolerate or trivialize or minimize the importance of investigating a fraudulent transaction," Pundit said in an interview. "But I also don't want to miss the real issue, which is that historically Canada has not been able to, or not seen the light or importance of instituting more effective, and a larger number of visa processing centres in the country."
Temporary visas are designed for those wanting to travel to Canada for a defined period, such as students, tourists and business representatives, people wanting to attend weddings and funerals, or those wanting to care for an ailing loved one. To get the visa, applicants must provide evidence they are going to Canada for the purpose stated in their application, and that they will be returning to India.
This means filing supporting documents that say, for example, the person has had a bank account in India for many years, that the person owns property, or that the person has strong family ties that will bring him or her back.
The staff in Chandigarh has uncovered fake documents by doing such things as getting in touch with banks in India named in the applications and learning the applicants had only recently opened bank accounts, or calling funeral homes in Canada and learning the person who signed a letter confirming the death and time and place of the funeral did not work for that company. There also have been cases of applicants providing fake letters of support from members of the Canadian Parliament.
Liberal MP Sukh Dhaliwal, who was born in Punjab, writes hundreds of letters of support for visa applicants each year on behalf of his constituents in the British Columbia riding of Newton-North Delta.
Dhaliwal, whose name was forged on a fake letter of support written on his parliamentary letterhead, said the fraud cannot be ignored, but that the reactionary attitude of officials means people who have genuine reasons to visit Canada are being rejected. He advocates assigning more officers to the mission.
In an interview, Kenney flatly rejected calls to beef up immigration resources in India, saying he is determined to tackle the problem without adding more officers.
During a visit to Chandigarh last month, Kenney said he got a commitment from local police authorities to work with consulate officials to track down the fraudsters, and that at least one illegal immigration consultant had been arrested since then.
Kenney also said he's satisfied with the turnaround time of between 48 hours and 72 hours on short-term visas in India, and that the government has already put more immigration officers on the ground, including officers who specialize in fraud detection.
"It's not that we have a lack of officers," he said. "It's that there are a lot of problematic applications that are supported all too often."