Cross-border love

What happens when the trend of globalized romance runs into the reality of immigration crackdowns, red tape and tough job markets

Cross-border love

Photograph by Christopher Wahl

Gemma and Brent Charlton remember the moment they agreed that, against borders and distance, they were going to stay together. It was October 2006, and they were holding hands on a busy Hong Kong street. “There were buses going by, people everywhere,” Brent, 24, remembers. “But we decided it would be just us. We would see what happens.”

The pair was on a study abroad program—she from outside Manchester, U.K., he from Springfield, Ont. They had spent six months exploring Hong Kong, travelling in China. That night, they promised their relationship wouldn’t end with the university exchange. They didn’t realize, though, how much of their life together would hinge on unromantic things like the demands of the labour market, immigration policy—and sheer luck.

For nearly two years, Gemma and Brent kept in touch, mostly over Skype or “the occasional text,” says Gemma, who is 25. “I would have to wait up until 11, 12 at night, for Brent to come home from work so we could talk.” Phone calls were rushed, sometimes exhausting. Brent jokes, “It definitely was not the honeymoon stage.” They saw each other three times before Gemma decided, in 2008, to move to Canada.

What came next was a stressful red-tape nightmare. Gemma went through four short-term visas without knowing whether she and Brent would have a future in the same country. With her British law degree, she had planned to get a skilled-immigrant visa, but the Canadian economy didn’t call for the services of a lawyer, and Gemma didn’t have the experience Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) was looking for: “Taxi cab driver, tobacco worker, or exotic dancer,” she says. “That was really what was needed then.” She’s now working as a receptionist at a Toronto law firm, waiting to find out whether she’ll be able to stay on here. Though she and Brent married last August, CIC has not processed her request for permanent residency a year after filing.

Their story isn’t uncommon today. A globalized labour market and the booming popularity of study abroad are encouraging people to cross-pollinate like never before. The number of Canadians attending U.S. universities went up 30 per cent between 1994 and 2009, and over the last seven years, the British border agency has issued over 65,000 short-term visas to Canadian nationals. Inside Canada, the number of foreign students rose from 66,000 six years ago to 96,000 last year. Similarly, there were nearly 200,000 foreign workers in 2010, twice as many as in 2004. By 2031, Statistics Canada estimates, nearly half of Canadians aged 15 or over will have at least one foreign-born parent or will have been born outside the country.

Then there’s the rise of online dating. The Canadian visa office in Rabat, Morocco, reported that roughly half of the 977 family visas issued in 2009, for marriages between a Moroccan and a Canadian-born spouse, were the result of a relationship born on the Internet or a meeting while on holiday. The embassy at Kyiv recorded a “high proportion of Internet relationships” among those applying for family visas in Canada. Richard Kurland, a B.C.-based immigration lawyer, has been watching this trend. “With the change in technology,” he notes, “the same way you have access to goods and services globally, you have access to the heart globally.”

And yet, in the paradox of the contemporary immigration couple, while it’s easier than ever to hook up across distances, it’s becoming more difficult to actually be together. The trend in many Western countries has been toward tightening up immigration, particularly post-9/11 and the global economic meltdown.

In Canada, recently, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced that a focus on “economic growth and prosperity” would come with a clampdown on visas across migrant categories, including a 20 per cent reduction in federal skilled-worker visas in 2011. In the U.K., a favourite destination for Canadians, the government since 2008 has been making changes to the immigration system to reduce net migration. Now it’s more difficult for foreign students to stay after graduation, and skilled worker visas have become “business friendly” so that those earning nearly $240,000 are exempt from an immigration cap.

Some couples find that the border is the end of the line. For Jacob Vienneau, who is from Waterloo, Ont., and Denisse Garza Sifuentes, from Monterrey, Mexico, the trouble started in 2009, when her request for a tourist visa to come to Canada for Christmas was rejected—four times. “They wouldn’t even let her come up for a week,” says Vienneau, a 26-year-old product engineer at Research In Motion. “They said she didn’t make enough money.”

Vienneau and Garza’s romance started a year earlier, when he was spending 80 per cent of his time at RIM in Monterrey, providing engineering support for a local BlackBerry manufacturing plant. The two met at the hotel where Vienneau was staying, and where Garza managed the front-desk staff. “It was a great relationship,” he says, and he was considering tying the knot. But when his job didn’t require him to fly south anymore, he couldn’t get his girlfriend on a plane headed north.

Canadian immigration officials kept asking for proof that 23-year-old Garza would not overstay her visa, and remain in the country illegally. The couple dutifully listed all the reasons she would want to return to Mexico: a steady job with rosy career prospects at HSBC, an ailing grandmother she was taking care of. They pointed out that Garza had already entered Canada to visit Vienneau, and returned home two weeks later in 2008, before Ottawa imposed a visa requirement for Mexican visitors in 2009. On the last attempt, Vienneau even included a letter of support from his local MP, Peter Braid. But nothing worked.

Eventually, the couple broke up. “You think everything is going to work out,” says Vienneau, “and you hit these walls that just shut you down.”

According to Peter Rekai, an immigration lawyer in Toronto, Vienneau and Garza’s mistake may have been simply being a couple. When immigration authorities read that Garza had a romantic relationship with Vienneau, they probably saw a clear motive for why she may never return to Mexico. For countries that require a visitor’s visa from Ottawa, “the more you don’t need to come to Canada, the more likely they are to give you a visa,” he says. In some sense, it’s the reverse of the joke, “I would never belong to a club that would have me as a member.”

Wedlock doesn’t guarantee ease of crossing, either. After the altar, Canadians must apply for permanent residence for their foreign spouses—as the Charltons have done. This involves seeking an added blessing from immigration officials, who are looking for proof of the bride and groom’s sincere affection. The application must include things such as pictures of the wedding ceremony, along with memorable trips and dates—a compelling narrative of the couple’s trajectory from hookup to holy matrimony, in as much detail as possible. One of the questions to be answered, for example, asks couples to recount the exact date on which his parents or close friends met her and vice versa. “This is where the government acts as a nanny,” says Rekai.

Advocates of open borders say public officials have no business weighing in on romantic relationships. “It offends any serious concept of justice that governments get to decide who we can date, and be in a relationship with,” says Philippe Legrain, the British author of Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them. He calls it “an interference with a basic human right—the right to be with the person you love.”

The nosing around, of course, is mostly aimed at sniffing out scam marriages. “They want to be sure that the potential immigrant isn’t immigrating for immigration purposes as opposed to love,” says Rekai. And it’s easy to understand the government’s leeriness about people who may simply be gaming the system.

Remi Lariviere, a spokesman for CIC, wrote in an email to Maclean’s that marriages of convenience “victimize Canadian citizens and permanent residents.” Last year, CIC focused renewed attention on the issue by holding consultations with voters to revamp the rules on spousal sponsorship. Under the current regulations, every year, roughly one in five couples see their applications rejected by the government, according to CIC.

But weeding out fraud by gauging people’s true feelings is far from an exact science, and critics say that, aside from making it difficult for the Gemmas and Brents of the world, it implicitly discriminates against global couples. If cross-border weddings have to be about genuine romance, goes the argument, shouldn’t all marriages? And yet there are Canadians within our borders who marry for reasons other than love—in the interests of remaining within a religious community, or entering a certain income group or social background.

Governmental assessments of binational relationships sometimes produce puzzling results. Couples made up of a young foreign man and a considerably older Canadian woman are much more likely to be judged illegitimate and rejected than those where the older spouse is a Canadian man, in Rekai’s experience. And if the government says “nay,” appealing that decision is a bureaucratic exercise that can last years. “It goes completely off the rails,” says Rekai, who has seen this happen to legitimate duos, too.

That’s one reason why, when Kurland sits down with a binational couple, he tells them to consider a pre-nuptial agreement, and then explains how “immigration marriages” differ from regular marriages. “I explain the risks, the process. The up-front costs are greater with global couples because of the cost of the immigration process, flights, travel,” he says.

It doesn’t help international couples that they are such a diverse group, scattered all over the globe. Unlike refugees and asylum seekers, notes Legrain, “There isn’t much consciousness, and certainly no active lobbying,” for friendlier immigration rules. For now, he adds, it’s “Romeo and Juliet against the backdrop of a bureaucracy.”

Still, there have been some improvements. In Canada, at least, the processing time for permanent residence applications for spouses is now generally a year or under, considerably shorter than in the past, even for countries with high rates of marriage fraud, such as India and China, where it could easily take up to three years. Although, with some countries in Africa and the Middle East, applicants face over a two-year wait, on average.

Brent and Gemma say they’ll worry about their love being grouped in with the sham unions—until Gemma gets a positive response from CIC. “We’re going to have a big party when I get my residency,” she says. If something goes wrong, the first step would be to appeal in Canada. “Then, I think I would have to return to England and apply again or Brent and I would have to consider moving to England altogether.” She adds: “I just really, really hope that we don’t have to face that problem.” Brent muses, “We had a bit of a fairy-tale meeting, but all that gets kind of smashed when you hear the other half of our story, about how hard it was to actually make the fairy tale work, to get to a happy ending. This isn’t Disney.”

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