Cracks in system allow fraudsters to get citizenship, auditor finds

Investigations opened into at least a dozen cases in the wake of auditor general’s report, Immigration Minister John McCallum says.

Auditor General Michael Ferguson issued his spring report on Tuesday.
Auditor General Michael Ferguson issued his spring report on Tuesday.  (Adrian Wyld / THE CANADIAN PRESS file photo)  

Despite the former Conservative government’s anti-fraud efforts, ineligible immigrants have continued to beat the system and secure Canadian citizenship, the auditor general says.

“People were granted citizenship based on incomplete information or without all of the necessary checks being done,” Michael Ferguson wrote in an audit of the citizenship program tabled Tuesday in the House of Commons. “Since revoking citizenship after it has been granted is costly, while the cost to grant it is far less, it is important to ensure that only eligible applicants receive it in the first place.”

The auditor general investigated citizenship applications between July 2014 and last fall and found Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada did not have a systematic method of identifying and documenting fraud risks and that existing guidelines were not followed consistently by staff.

In response to the report, Immigration Minister John McCallum said he is working with the Canada Border Services Agency and the RCMP to improve information sharing and to put in place a new integrity system by December.

“We have thoroughly reviewed all cases flagged by the Office of the Auditor General to determine if citizenship fraud may have occurred. As a result, we’ve opened investigations toward possible citizenship revocation from about a dozen individuals,” McCallum said.

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“We are continuously looking for ways to improve fraud detection and prevention processes in all of our programs.”

To become a citizen, permanent residents must have lived a minimum amount of time in Canada, pass a language and knowledge test, and obtain criminal clearances from the RCMP.

The most common fraud involves pretending to have lived in Canada to maintain permanent resident status and meet residency requirements for citizenship, the report said.

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Sometimes people use an address that is known or suspected to be associated with fraud in their applications, the report found. However, due to “date entry errors and inconsistent updating,” immigration officials failed to detect potentially fraudulent residency claims.

“Both immigration and the border services are not up to the task in policing and prosecuting fraud because there are no consequences and a lot of incentives to commit it,” said Toronto immigration lawyer Sergio Karas. “We need to face up to the fact that most frauds are committed in certain parts of the world and we need to target our efforts.”

The auditor general examined the addresses of 9,778 of the 106,271 adults who applied for citizenship in 2014 and identified at least six such “problem addresses” that were not flagged.

“We also found examples where many applicants used the same addresses over several years although none of the citizenship officers who processed their applications noticed,” said the report, adding that one such address was used by at least 50 different applicants during overlapping time periods between 2008 and 2015. Seven of those became Canadian citizens.

Citizenship officers also failed to check travel documents against the Lost, Stolen and Fraudulent Document database, as instructed by departmental guidelines, allowing fraudulent papers to continue to circulate and slip through the cracks.

The anti-fraud effort was further hampered by untimely and insufficient co-operation and communication with the RCMP and border services.

In one of the border agency’s investigations, 16 different people had used two addresses but the information was not provided to citizenship officers, the report found. Half of those applicants were granted citizenship. In another case, the border agency linked 21 problem addresses to multiple applicants but three of the addresses were not added to its immigration counterpart’s watch list.

Investigators also probed if the RCMP provided immigration officials with complete and timely information about criminal charges brought against immigrants awaiting citizenship. They did a random audit of 38 cases and found the RCMP only shared the required information with immigration in two of the cases.

“The outcome was that two applicants received citizenship and a third who might have received it did not, due to failing the test on knowledge of Canada. The fourth ... abandoned the application,” said the report.

Vancouver-based immigration lawyer Steven Meurrens said the lack of information sharing is astounding but he hopes a planned system to be implemented by Ottawa next year to monitor the exit of permanent residents from the country can help crack down on residency fraud. “The exit control system will be a positive game-changer,” he said.

Lawyer Mario Bellissimo said it is not known from the audit the extent of citizenship fraud and warned officials and the public against overreacting.

“No system is 100 per cent perfect. This is a good start but we need to measure the actual impact of what’s being missed and understand how prolific the issue is,” said Bellissimo.