moved that Bill C-35, An Act to amend the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Madam Speaker, as Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, I am pleased to have this opportunity today to launch the debate on Bill C-35, the Cracking Down on Crooked Consultants Act.
I am proud to rise to support this important legislation, which would allow us to amend the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act to strengthen the rules governing those who provide advice on immigration matters for a fee.
As hon. members know, the great values that govern Canada, namely freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law, make our country one of the primary destinations of choice for immigrants from all over the world. Unfortunately, Canada is also associated with the emergence of practices which, for too long, have been synonymous with unscrupulous behaviour in the immigration industry.
We all know that applicants for immigration to Canada do not need to use the services of an immigration representative in order to immigrate here. The Government of Canada treats everyone equally whether or not they hire a representative to deal with Immigration Canada in their application to visit or move here. However, because moving to a new country has its own challenges and because immigration procedures often seem complex, many prospective immigrants seek the services of a consultant for help in navigating the process of immigration.
Now while most immigration consultants working in Canada are acting professionally and ethically, the unfortunate reality is that there are a number of consultants who are acting dishonestly or even illegally to try to profit from people's dream of coming to Canada. This is one of the biggest issues that new Canadians raise with me from coast to coast. In many meetings with various ethnocultural communities across Canada, I have heard numerous unsettling stories of people being taken in by dishonest immigration consultants or unethical representatives.
These are people who take sometimes thousands or tens of thousands of dollars from individuals. I heard a story from a man of Chinese origin who had given over $100,000 in cash to a crooked consultant who had falsely guaranteed him immigration to Canada as an investor immigrant. I have also heard of students giving people sometimes over $10,000 to guarantee them status in Canada and in return get nothing. Often these crooked consultants will knowingly submit counterfeit documents in support of an application with careless disregard that our ministry officials are likely to identify the fraud, reject the visa application and often that will injure the person's chances of visiting or coming to Canada for at least two years. The crooked consultants do not care because they typically have the cash in hand and have already made their profit.
There are literally thousands of such representatives, from unauthorized consultants to labour recruiters and student agents both in Canada and around the world. We want people to know that despite what some unethical representatives might say to prospective immigrants, no one has special access to the Government of Canada and all applications are treated the same. It is important to underscore this because many of the bottom-feeders in this industry will imply to people that they have some kind of in, some kind of special access to decision makers in the Canadian immigration system, and that is never true. It is important for people both here and abroad to understand that.
It is also important for prospective visitors or immigrants to Canada to know that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. If someone is offering guaranteed immigration status in Canada for a fee, go the other way, in fact, run in the opposite direction. Immigration fraud takes many forms. Immigration applicants in all immigration categories may engage in fraud against our system and some seek assistance from crooked consultants or other third parties such as labour recruiters or document counterfeiters.
I was recently in India where our officials briefed me showing me hundreds of examples of the thousands of counterfeit documents they get that are produced by this industry: fake bank transcripts; fake academic transcripts; fake banking statements; and fake marriage, death or birth certificates, just name it. Some of them are quite crude but, again, often the counterfeiters and the crooked consultants do not care because they have already done their business.
Some fraud happens here but much happens overseas. Some examples include lying to an officer on an application form or counselling economic migrants to file unfounded refugee claims. A related concern is consumer fraud where crooked consultants, labour recruiters or student agents charge exorbitant fees to applicants or promise services that are never delivered.
I returned this morning from a visit to our top immigration source countries, including India, China and the Philippines, and my second visit to India since becoming minister, where I met with senior officials from the state of Punjab and discussed progress made to date, as well as our continued co-operation on this issue.
I received a commitment from the federal ministers of the Indian government to bring forward significant amendments to their immigration act, to help crack down on unscrupulous immigration advisers in India. As well, I managed to secure a commitment from the minister of public security in China that he would appoint a special high-level representative to work on a task force with us in combating immigration fraud in that country.
And so, we believe that we are making progress in this respect.
To give members an idea of the scope of the problem, we have in our visa office in Chandigarh, Punjab, what our officials call a “wall of shame”, with countless examples of the thousands of fraudulent documents, including fake marriage certificates, death certificates and travel itineraries. Each one of these documents represents a broken dream. It represents somebody who paid money, often thousands of dollars, and ended up getting tricked by a consultant in return.
I have also seen first-hand in that city billboards put up by consultants with a ripoff of the Government of Canada wordmark offering guaranteed visas. As I say, this is something with which we must deal.
I also expressed my concerns during my trip to the Philippines, where I met with the president and senior government officials, where unscrupulous consultants and agencies are also a major problem. I received assurances from officials in that country, as well, that they too will support our efforts.
The Government of Canada is determined to protect the integrity of its immigration program against fraud. We are determined to crack down on immigration scams, dishonesty, false promises and unethical practices, and we are also determined to take action against the individuals who engage in fraudulent activities.
First, we launched a public information campaign to help potential immigrants learn how to protect themselves against false claims made by crooked immigration consultants and other representatives.
We have also posted warnings and notices in 17 languages to raise awareness on our website and in all our offices and missions abroad.
We have also held meetings in city halls to consult people from every region of the country, to listen to their stories about crooked consultants, and to ask for their suggestions on how to protect Canada's immigration system against scams and dishonesty.
In May 2009 Citizenship and Immigration Canada hosted on its website an online questionnaire to gather information from individuals who have used representatives in the immigration process. The goal was to provide the department with information about the nature and scope of fraud in the immigration process, and to help form our efforts to tighten the rules governing representatives and prevent wrongdoing.
The response showed how widespread the problem truly is, with many prospective immigrants and new Canadians detailing their experiences. Listening to victims and stakeholder groups this past year has given us a clearer picture of the nature and scope of the problem and their direct input has informed our efforts to prevent fraud. I would like to thank all of those who participated.
It is pretty obvious that fraud remains a major threat to the integrity of our citizenship and immigration programs, and that it adversely affects all of us.
We must act to protect potential immigrants and the integrity of Canada's immigration program. Bill C-35 provides an opportunity to do so by cracking down on crooked immigration consultants.
The changes we propose would strengthen the rules governing those who provide advice on immigration matters and representation services, or who offer to do so. These changes would also improve the way immigration consultants are regulated.
These changes are in line with the amendments that we proposed in the Citizenship Act in order to regulate citizenship consultants.
Bill C-35 would amend the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act so that only lawyers, notaries in Quebec and consultants who are members in good standing of a governing body designated by the minister could provide advice for a fee at any stage of a proceeding or application, including the pre-application period. After all, anyone who provides immigration advice for a fee is acting as a professional and so they should be members in good standing of an authorized regulatory body.
While the current legislation regulates the activities of consultants from the point of view of the submission of an application or proceeding, it does not regulate their involvement in the pre-application period. This is important because it means that unscrupulous consultants are not currently obliged to disclose their involvement during that pre-application period, and this is where the most exploitation occurs.
Our government's proposed legislation closes this major loophole by requiring that all advice or representation supplied or offered for a fee be provided by an authorized representative, who would have to be a member in good standing of a bar of a province, the Chambre des notaires du Québec, or the body designated by the minister to govern immigration consultants.
This would make it an offence for anyone other than an authorized consultant, lawyer or notary to conduct business at any stage in the proceeding or application. By casting a wider net unauthorized individuals who provide paid advice or representation at any stage would be subject to a fine and/or imprisonment.
In addition, the bill before us would allow my ministry to disclose information relating to the ethical or professional conduct of a representative to authorities responsible for investigating that conduct, which would typically be the Canada Border Services Agency or on citizenship matters, the RCMP. This is something that should be obvious but is not actually provided for under the current act.
Above all, the proposed legislation responds directly to concerns and recommendations raised by the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration of this House in its report entitled “Regulating Immigration Consultants”, which was presented in June 2008. The report itself was based on broad consultation with the public.
I heard concerns like these myself and it is apparent that a new approach to the regulation of immigration consultants is needed.
That is why the proposed legislation would also give the minister the authority to designate a body to govern immigration consultants and establish measures that would enhance the government's oversight of the designated body.
The body regulating consultants must regulate effectively and must be held accountable for ensuring its membership provides services in a professional and ethical manner.
Accordingly, information from the designated body would be provided to the minister, and this is something that does not currently exist, to ensure that the integrity of the immigration system is maintained. This information would permit the minister to evaluate whether the body is governing its members in the public interest. Concerns about the lack of such public interest focus have been raised by the parliamentary committee and many others.
According to a unanimous 2008 report by the standing committee, complaints were also heard from a number of immigration consultants across the country, many of whom expressed great dissatisfaction with the way that the Canadian Society of Immigration Consultants, or CSIC, is currently governed.
That is why I have already taken steps to address this problem, a problem that poses a significant threat to the immigration system and that has created a lack of public confidence in the regulation of immigration consultants in general.
In the Canada Gazette on June 12 of this year I announced CIC's intention to launch a public selection process to identify a governing body for recognition as the regulator of immigration consultants under the existing immigration and refugee protection regulations.
The notice of intent invited comments from the public on the proposed selection process. That process is now underway following the publication in the Canada Gazette on August 28 of a call for submissions from candidates interested in becoming the regulator of immigration consultants. Interested parties have until December 29 of this year to deliver their submissions.
What we are looking for is a regulator who can support Canada's immediate and long-term immigration objectives while working toward maintaining and building confidence in our own immigration system.
The successful candidate must show that it can effectively investigate the conduct of its members and sanction those who do not play by the rules. It will also need to understand the importance of ensuring that consultants respect Canada's immigration laws, and the rights and best interests of newcomers.
Once an entity is identified, if necessary, a regulatory alignment may be proposed naming a new governing body. In this case transitional measures would ensure continuity of service for both consultants and their clients during the transition period.
The other non-legislative improvements related to the proposed changes include continued efforts to make potential immigrants aware of the dangers of hiring crooked consultants.
Improved services, including web-based tools and practical videos, are being developed by CIC and will help people submit an application to move to Canada totally on their own.
I can also assure hon. members that the Government of Canada will continue to use bilateral and multilateral opportunities to deal with the issue of fraudulent activities by immigration consultants abroad.
As I mentioned earlier, the international component to addressing crooked immigration consultants was initiated during my trip to India in January 2009, when I raised this issue in Chandigarh with the chief minister of Punjab, and was continued in my recent trip.
We have all heard the horror stories about people falling prey to the deceitful schemes and machinations cooked up by crooked consultants. The media across Canada has done an excellent job of shining a light on these injustices. To give an example, the Toronto Star's “Lost in migration” series was particularly hard-hitting and eye-opening.
As we have seen and heard, prospective immigrants often shell out exorbitant amounts of money, sometimes their entire lifesavings, in order to get a promise of a high-paying job or fast-tracked or guaranteed visas. As is so often the case, would be immigrants find out too late that they have been deceived.
These cases of fraud and deception are too common, but they should never be considered inevitable. That is why the government is committed to addressing immigration fraud in all forms and working to better regulate immigration consultants. That commitment was reiterated in March in the Speech from the Throne.
I would like to conclude by stating that this important piece of legislation has been widely praised, including by victims and legitimate immigration consultants. For example, the president of the Canadian Association of Professional Immigration Consultants said, “We have been calling for such changes for a long time, and are in full support of them”.
Bill C-35 has also received positive attention from the media on June 9. The Globe and Mail stated in an editorial that it makes “--a significant shift from the previous system of self-regulation of the immigration consulting industry”. The Toronto Star said that, “Cracking down on crooked Canadian immigration consultants is a great idea and [the government] should be congratulated for taking that step”.
We are confident that the amendments we are proposing to make to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act through this bill would better protect people from crooked consultants, and the damage and misery that they cause.
I hope that I can count on my opposition colleagues to work with the government constructively to ensure its speedy passage through this House because we have an obligation as legislators, as government, and as Parliament to defend the vulnerable, to ensure that Canada maintains its best reputation as a country open to newcomers, but to ensure that it is done in a system that is based on fairness, the rule of law, and the protection of the vulnerable. We believe that this bill takes a great step forward in that direction.