Canada must do more to protect newcomers


Authored by Ravi Jain, Former CILA Co-President, and Founder, Jain Immigration Law.

A recent CBC story noted that there has been an increase in the percentage of investigations by the Montreal bar into the illegal practice of law related to immigration. The percentage grew from 13% to 40% from 2018 to 2022. Community workers quoted in the story confirmed that innocent victims are being duped by fake immigration lawyers who fail to submit applications properly or on time.

This is part of a much larger problem that is only now receiving the attention it deserves by the broader public and the Immigration Minister of the day. The issue that is bringing to light this larger problem has been the backlash stemming from the dramatic rise in the number of international students coming to Canada.

As the population rose in the last decade from a few hundred thousand to projections of about one million foreign students, successive federal Immigration Ministers focused on the over $20 billion annual contribution to Canada from international students, who pay tuition fees that can be 6x to 10x domestic rates. They also trumpeted the fact that students were choosing Canada over countries like Australia and even the United States (especially when Donald Trump was President and imposed what was characterized as a ban from Muslim countries). Provincial governments were happy to let public institutions expand partnerships with private colleges and their profits soared. The provinces were also able to freeze domestic tuition rates and funding for post-secondary institutions.

Many of us in the immigration legal community started to raise concerns about what we were seeing in our practices related to our international student clients. I wrote about this back on August 30, 2022 for The Lawyer’s Daily and I was going out on a limb at the time. I titled it “International Students: Canada Needs A Nuanced Approach.” I remember looking at the numbers of students coming in and the annual permanent residence levels plan projected every year over the next three years. Simply put, the math didn’t add up. There simply wasn’t the room to transition to permanent residence for those who would graduate and then work under work permits.

When immigration lawyers raised this with Immigration Ministers repeatedly over the past decade, there seemed to be an awareness that the vast majority of students ultimately wanted permanent residence, yet they chose not to do anything about it to avoid killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. Indeed, this is the product I believe the educational institutions were really selling. Also, this is why private colleges are currently having an existential crisis now that the Minister is removing the coveted Post-Graduation Work Permit eligibility which their prospective international students know is very helpful in their aim to ultimately obtain permanent residence status.

The other concern community workers raised and I started to write about was the still all too common tragedy of regular suicides by students in the Indian community here. I’ve seen a pattern amongst the victims: registered or non-registered non-lawyer immigration consultants making huge commissions from institutions and ‘guaranteeing’ a path to permanent residence while parents give their life savings and more (going into debt) to finance programs the students struggle to complete while working full-time hours – whether authorized by recent changes upping the legal numbers of hours from 20 to 40 per week or not.

This brings us to the larger problem I referenced at the start. The Minister has cracked down on the private colleges and now it’s time to deal with the agents and consultants. The ethical code for immigration consultants allows them to work with non-registered agents and non-registered consultants in a way that lawyers (for good reason) cannot. The then Minister drafted the code for consultants after the government decided to give registered immigration consultants a third kick at the can of self-regulation. The executives of the previous iteration who are still in charge today as well as the lobby group for immigration consultants pleaded with the government to give them a third chance, saying they needed more powers to go after ‘ghost’ consultants. They got what they wished and yet in the CBC story, the college CEO seems to be singing the same tune.

Families in developing countries who are spending their life savings deserve to know the truth about the prospects for permanent residence. What type or representative is best suited to provide this advice? A ghost consultant? A registered consultant? Or a lawyer?

I’m not saying there aren’t registered consultants who strive to be diligent and strive to be ethical. I’ve met them. But even the best don’t know what they don’t know and unfortunately, they are far outnumbered in my view by those who should not be practicing law. Too often – in fact the majority of time – a victim comes to me and complains about their previous lawyer and it turns out the person was a registered consultant. They thought they were hiring a lawyer and many have told me that the consultant they saw self-described that way and referred to their office as a ‘law office.’

Of course there are bad lawyers too, and Canadian law societies can also do more to crack down on ghost immigration lawyers. But it’s an issue of volume and in studying the law society cases against lawyers, it’s easy to see that there is a tiny number and they typically relate to poor choices by lawyers who are not dealing with the pressures that come with the job well and lied about applications being filed when they had not been able to get to them yet. It’s almost never about greed but there are a handful of those cases too which some trumpet to claim a false equivalence between bad apple lawyers and bad apple registered consultants.

Frankly, the experiment that Commonwealth countries have been running with registered non-lawyer immigration consultants over the past many decades has failed. The nature of the problems are the same: negligence (missing deadlines, not knowing the law, charging for applications that cannot succeed given the legislation) and also outright fraud (charging for fake jobs, taking money while doing nothing, etc.).

If the Minister wants to truly solve the real problems associated with international students, he’ll focus less on the institutions benefiting from the billions of dollars coming in and turn his attention to the victims. The solution starts with ensuring they have proper legal advice, from people who are trained properly in the law: lawyers. The United States manages to bring in lots of students and only lawyers can practice immigration law there. They do not have the problems we have created for ourselves in Canada.

Of course, all kinds of would-be temporary and permanent resident applicants would benefit from the infusion of integrity into the system if only lawyers could practice immigration law, not just international students. Consultants could still work with lawyers but a lawyer’s license needs to be on the hook with every file where an applicant has retained a representative. It’s time for this Minister to look beyond dubious private colleges over massage parlours and take a peek at the under-representation provided by non-lawyer ghost and registered ‘consultants.’ He’s not going to like what he sees.

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