The Ghost World of Immigration Consulting

A young Malaysian woman named Fedelia sounds nervous as she asks for advice over the phone. She’s about to finish a one-year culinary college program, she explains to an immigration consultant we’ll call Li-Yan, and her student visa will expire the day after she graduates. She doesn’t want to leave Canada but her application for a post-graduation work permit was just rejected.?

Immigrating to Canada

A young Malaysian woman named Fedelia sounds nervous as she asks for advice over the phone. She’s about to finish a one-year culinary college program, she explains to an immigration consultant we’ll call Li-Yan, and her student visa will expire the day after she graduates. She doesn’t want to leave Canada but her application for a post-graduation work permit was just rejected.

Li-Yan, whom Fedelia contacted through a Richmond-based immigration consulting firm, first advises in accented English that she needs a job offer in order to secure a work permit. But she’s having trouble finding a position in the slumping economy, she says.

“If you really, really just want to stay in Canada,” he then says hesitantly, “you can get married with someone with permanent residence status or citizenship.”

“But I don’t have a boyfriend.”

Li-Yan explains the options: Fedelia can go to a marriage agency where she’ll be connected with a man who is looking for a wife. But she shouldn’t expect a knight in shining armour. “Local people who try to get a marriage from a marriage agency, I don’t think they are really good-looking guys. Maybe they are pretty old age. Maybe got divorced several times. Maybe have some bad habits.” 

Or Fedelia can open her wallet. “You give some money for a fake marriage – $40,000, $50,000, $30,000, it depends,” he says. “After this guy sponsors you and you are in Canada, then you guys can get divorced.”

What’s the risk of getting caught? “You won’t get caught. You won’t get caught,” Li-Yan confidently assures her. “If you are willing to give up that kind of money, I can probably find someone for you. There is no guarantee for [permanent residency], but I’ll say it’s 99 per cent.”

Li-Yan didn’t yet know that Fedelia (a pseudonym) is not actually a foreign student desperate to stay in Canada but a researcher who, for this article, recently called 25 Lower Mainland-based immigration consultants randomly selected from the Yellow Pages. Sixteen of the consultants she spoke to told her to make an appointment or offered sound guidance, but five gave advice inconsistent with current immigration laws, one advised obtaining a student visa on dubious grounds and two suggested the fake-marriage route. Welcome to the shady world of immigration consulting.

Google “immigrate to Canada” and you’ll find hundreds of businesses offering to secure work and student visas, help bring family members to Canada, obtain refugee status and assist in other immigration-related services. Although potential immigrants aren’t required to hire a lawyer or consultant to move here, consultants and recruiters based both in Canada and abroad do brisk business navigating Canada’s complicated immigration system.

Where there’s money, there’s potential for abuse and fraud, and in the immigration trade it appears to be rampant. While many immigration consultants are ethical, some charge tens of thousands of dollars for a two-year work permit or promise jobs they can’t deliver. The more unscrupulous advise cooking up stories to strengthen what would have been a perfectly legitimate application, falsify documents and records, arrange fake marriages, obtain phony student visas and even craft fake refugee claims. Stories of consultants preying on immigrants prompted the federal government to spend $1.2 million to establish an arms-length self-regulatory body called the Canadian Society of Immigration Consultants (CSIC) in 2004, yet five years later misconduct is still widespread. 

“There hasn’t been any serious crackdown in all these years of talking about immigrants getting ripped off,” says Olivia Chow, immigration critic for the federal NDP. “Without legislation and enforcement, this talk is meaningless.”

Almost 250,000 people became permanent residents of Canada in 2008, with 44,000 of those immigrants settling in B.C. Refugees accounted for 3.5 per cent of that number; 28 per cent were family-class immigrants (whose applications were sponsored by a spouse or parent with permanent residence or citizenship); and the vast majority, 65 per cent, were economic class. That last category includes business immigrants such as investors, entrepreneurs and self-employed people, as well as live-in caregivers and skilled workers. Approximately 80 per cent of economic-class applicants seek out help from consultants and recruiters. 

The cost of such assistance ranges from $800 for a straightforward skilled-worker application, to $5,000 for a spousal sponsorship, to as much as $40,000 for a business immigration case. Vancouver-based immigration lawyer and policy analyst Richard Kurland estimates that Canada’s 750 immigration lawyers and 1,600 registered consultants process between $80 million and $100 million worth of skilled-worker applications and $100 million in business immigration cases each year. 

As for the number of unregistered consultants in Canada, called “ghosts” by insiders, that number is thought to be even greater, with estimates ranging from 4,400 (according to a 2007 Toronto Star investigation) to Kurland’s guess of 7,000. With 18 per cent of immigrants coming to B.C. last year, that means as many as 1,200 of these ghosts could be operating in the province. Don Davies, deputy immigration critic for the federal NDP, says he receives two or three complaints about immigration consultants every month through his Vancouver Kingsway constituency office, and almost all of them are about the questionable practices of ghost consultants.

The means for abuse are everywhere. Surrey-based immigration lawyer Massood Joomratty, who calls his city “the ghost-consultant-infested zone,” says he routinely comes across misleading advertisements in ethnic media for consultants who guarantee residency in impossible time frames. (One consultant group advertised aggressively on a popular Indian radio station in Surrey and then disappeared with its clients’ fees, according to Joomratty.) A 2006 report by the Canada Border Services Agency also notes abuse in the student visa system, describing “bogus students” who say they are coming to Canada to study but never show up for class. “Corrupt consultants” often help students scam the system, according to the report. Finally, there’s the refugee route. With the current backlog in applications, it can take up to two years before a refugee claimant gets a hearing, two years during which the claimant can legally work and qualify for welfare. In 2006 only 28 per cent of claimants were approved. The Toronto Star revealed that some consultants will advise immigrants who don’t have the expertise or language skills to file a refugee claim themselves, regardless of whether they have grounds. “Saying the word ‘refugee’ buys you 18 to 24 months,” says Kurland. “So it’s a magnet to attract abuse. This is a horrific loophole.”

Joomratty says approximately 90 per cent of the appeals he sees are for people who have been denied permanent-resident status because of bad advice. And that bad advice, which clogs up the system with applicants who don’t stand a chance, impedes upstanding immigrants from coming to Canada. Joomratty describes how one of his clients, an investor immigrant who owns a large chain of small businesses in the U.S., has been waiting to be processed for five years. “This guy is worth millions, and he wants to sell everything and come to B.C. This should take two weeks.”

Joomratty adds that potential immigrants who spend years waiting to be processed or have been denied because of bad advice often give up or are never permitted to enter Canada: “Many times these people will be robbed of their chance of coming to Canada. Their dream is shattered and the opportunity for Canada to have a good immigrant is gone.”

Rosalie Suniega is one of those well-intentioned immigrants Canada may miss out on. The self-assured ­Filipina and her husband dreamt of one day building their life together in Canada. So they took out loans and borrowed from friends and family to pay North Vancouver-based Global Nannies & Caregivers Agency $2,900 – the equivalent, for her, of half a year’s salary – to find her a job as a nanny and process her work permit so she could immigrate as a live-in caregiver. The 28-year-old had hoped to earn enough money to help her husband and her seven-year-old son join her.

Tears well up in her eyes as she remembers how the day after her arrival in Vancouver, in April 2008, the agency – which, like many recruitment agencies, also took on an immigration consulting role by assisting with her immigration process – informed her that the job she had travelled halfway across the world for did not, in fact, exist. (When contacted by BCBusiness, Global Nannies denied the accusations but declined to comment on the record.) Global Nannies eventually found Suniega a job, but since her original position had fallen through, she didn’t have a work permit. She took the job anyway. “I knew it was illegal, but I had no place to go,” she explains. Having scored that position, paperwork should have been all that stood between her and a work permit. But for reasons that were never explained to Suniega, her application was denied. She found herself far from home, alone and without a job or legal status. “I had waited so long,” Suniega says, her voice cracking. “I had a genuine intention to come here and work.” 

What Suniega didn’t know at the time was that it’s illegal in B.C. to charge an immigrant a fee to find them employment. However, to get her $2,900 back, Suniega would have had to file a complaint within six months of paying the fee. This limitation renders the law virtually ineffective, says Suniega’s lawyer, Deanna Okun-Nachoff, who gives legal assistance to immigrants through the West Coast Domestic Workers’ Association. “Most workers aren’t even in the country at that point,” she says, noting that almost every live-in caregiver she’s met has paid a fee to an employment agency. “It takes two years to process a work permit in Manila, three years in New Delhi. They come into the country and as soon as they learn about the law, it’s too late to use it.” 

Suniega eventually found another job as a nanny through Craigs­list. She waited eight months for a work permit, only to be laid off when her employer couldn’t afford to keep her on. She’s since found yet another job, this time waiting two months for a permit. As for her dream of living permanently in Canada, the clock is ticking. In order to stay, she is required to work for 24 months in a three-year period. Of her first 16 months in Canada, nine have been spent waiting on paperwork from immigration officials. 

The creation of an industry regulator, the CSIC, was supposed to change the free-for-all trade in immigration advice. With a legislative change in April 2004, the government made it so that only lawyers and members of the CSIC could receive a fee to represent potential immigrants before the government. To be a member, consultants must meet standards for English proficiency and knowledge on a continuing basis, complete a four-month course (available locally at UBC and Vancouver’s Ashton College), pay for dues and insurance, and conduct business according to professional standards developed by the CSIC. “Before, you simply just had to hang up a shingle, get some name cards printed up and you were in business,” says John Ryan, chair and acting CEO of the CSIC. “You didn’t need to prove to anyone that you had any competency or any knowledge or that you were accountable.”

Yet even CSIC members have come under fire for dubious practices, most notably in the case of 24 Korean truck drivers lured to Canada in 2005 by the Korea-based recruitment agency ULSC Total Immigration Consulting Group. According to five of the men (who later submitted a written complaint to the CSIC), they were guaranteed jobs and told they could expect to make $60,000 a year. They each paid ULSC between $7,000 and $13,400, including the cost of English classes and employment training. 

To manage the Canadian end of the deal, ULSC retained Toronto-based CSIC member Yolanda Simao. She agreed to find employers for the truck drivers for a fee of $2,500 each (charging immigrants to find employment is not illegal in Ontario). Although she later denied being involved in the immigration paperwork, Simao sent a letter to the men in April 2006 stating she was “representing all of the Korean truck drivers on behalf of ULSC of Korea in preparing applications to the Canadian consulate in order to obtain your work permit.” When the truck drivers turned up in Vancouver, many deep in debt and with their families in tow, there were no jobs waiting for them. The employer Simao had found didn’t hire any of the men after discovering their poor English skills, a requirement he says he had clearly stated in correspondence with Simao.

After an investigation, the CSIC – which has the power to levy fines, suspend members or revoke licences – found Simao guilty of professional misconduct. Her punishment? Of the $60,000 she was paid for the deal, she was required to repay five of the Korean truck drivers $1,000 each, and she was fined $3,000. Seven of the drivers have since left Canada, six found jobs on their own and others remain in the country illegally or have filed refugee claims.

Although Simao’s discipline may seem lenient, it is the most severe punishment that the CSIC has ever levied. According to the Toronto Star’s 2007 investigation, the CSIC had yet to hold a single hearing, despite receiving 290 complaints between November 2006 and November 2007. Currently, only one decision other than Simao’s is posted on the CSIC website. A backlog of 169 complaints has been carried forward from last year. 

The CSIC’s standards have surely raised the bar for those it has persuaded to become members, but it can only regulate those 1,600 members; thousands of unregistered consultants continue to operate outside of the law simply by not signing the paperwork. If CSIC revokes a member’s authorization – over 1,100 memberships are currently suspended or revoked, mostly for failure to pay fees or complete professional development – many consultants simply join the crowd of ghosts.

Immigration lawyer Richard Kurland believes the CSIC is doing the best it can, given its inadequate resources and lack of teeth, and says he would like to see increased funding from the federal government to allow the organization to expand its investigations. Others say that legislative changes are needed, such as making it a criminal offence to offer advice without being registered with the CSIC. Consultants caught practicing without authorization in Britain, by contrast, can be penalized with steep fines and up to two years in jail.

Changes in Canada do appear to be on the horizon. Alice Wong, Conservative MP for Richmond and the parliamentary secretary for multiculturalism, hosted an open house in Vancouver this past May where immigrants could come tell the federal government their stories about ghost consultants. Those stories contributed to a report released in June that recommended sweeping changes to immigration law. When presenting the report to the House of Commons immigration committee in June, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said the government planned to curb “massive, widespread, deliberate” fraud with “meaningful changes to increase the penalties and the sanctions for operating outside the law and to provide a more robust regulatory framework for the consultants who operate illegally.” 

As of early September, no new legislation had been introduced, though a spokesperson for the minister says the government “continues to explore ways to improve immigration processes.” Meanwhile, the feds have launched an aggressive advertising campaign aimed at educating immigration applicants and are planning to discuss the problem with the governments of countries such as India and the Philippines.

Speaking with Li-Yan later, after revealing that Fedelia is not an actual student, it becomes quickly apparent that it will take more than an advertising campaign, or even legislative changes, to clean up the immigration consulting business. Although he claims he wouldn’t have followed through on his offer to find Fedelia a mate, Li-Yan – who is registered with the CSIC – doesn’t believe the government has a place in defining what’s a legitimate marriage or dictating reasons for getting married. “How can you define fake marriage?” he asks.

More generally, Li-Yan defends the questionable tactics some immigration consultants use to help people immigrate into Canada and realize their dreams. For him, it’s a simple matter of addressing a growing market need: “All we’re trying to do is help someone get what they want.”