Mr. Speaker, I move that the 11th report of the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration, presented to the House on Friday, June 16, 2017, be concurred in.
Earlier this year, something remarkable happened at the immigration committee. We tabled a unanimous report and for those watching who might not understand what that means, it meant that all parties in attendance agreed to the form and substance of a report that was tabled in the House. To me that is really remarkable. It shows that an in-depth study took place and there was general consensus on the need for change and general consensus on the way that the change should proceed.
The title of the report is “Starting Again: Improving Government Oversight of Immigration Consultants”. By moving this concurrence motion today, what I hope to achieve is that all members in this place will rise and support the content and the recommendations in this report as the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration also had consensus on this. Why is this important? Why are we raising this today? Because it is an issue that affects all members of Parliament in terms of the work that our offices complete. One of the main scopes of work that all of our offices provide in terms of support for our constituents is casework with regard to immigration. One of the things that we all see in our offices is constituents who have had significant impact from the results of bad advice from immigration consultants.
Before I start my speech on this, I want to emphasize something that members of all political parties wanted to convey in the study. There are people who do great work in this regard, but during the study, we heard overwhelming amounts of testimony that the way that this practice is regulated in Canada is not working.
This morning in debate, I want to give colleagues who were not on the immigration and citizenship committee a little background on what the study entailed and what the recommendations were in the hopes that they will support this and, for IRCC officials who are watching this morning, an understanding that my party generally supports the direction of the report. My party hopes that the government moves quickly on it and that colleagues in the government party who are not part of the government will also ask the government to move on the recommendations in the report. I and all other members of the citizenship and immigration committee, subsequent to the tabling of this report and the government's reponse, have had stakeholders talk to us and ask when the government is going to move on this, that there is a lack of clarity right now given that the committee tabled the unanimous report. I hope that by concurring in this report, we can agree with the findings of the committee, at least in general principle, and hopefully what we hear in debate this morning is the government committing to act quickly on implementing some of the recommendations.
In March 2017, the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration commenced a study on immigration consultants. This study lasted from March to June, where the committee heard from 50 witnesses, so there were many witnesses who testified at committee, and received 24 written briefs. The final report of the committee was adopted by the committee on June 14, 2017, so we are already well over the six-month mark here.
The final report of the committee was adopted and presented in the House in the following days. This report entitled, “Starting Again: Improving Government Oversight of Immigration Consultants” was unanimous and did not have a dissenting opinion from the Conservative or NDP members. This final report was an instance of cross-party collaboration in an attempt to find a real solution to negligent, fraudulent, and ghost consultants who are taking advantage of already vulnerable clients.
During our committee meetings, we heard from countless witnesses that while any prospective immigrant or temporary resident may seek the services of immigration and citizenship consultants and paralegals, certain immigrants are at greater risk of exploitation by unscrupulous consultants. In particular, witnesses highlighted the vulnerability of those with “precarious immigration status”, a term encompassing all forms of temporary immigration status, noting that these individuals are more likely to pay thousands of dollars to consultants for false promises of permanent residency. Witnesses drew the committee's attention to abuse and exploitation involving live-in caregivers, international students, and temporary foreign workers.
In her testimony, Maria Esel Panlaqui from the Thorncliffe Neighbourhood Office in Toronto said the following:
[Live-in caregivers]...are easily taken advantage of by some immigration consultants, whether authorized or not authorized. Most often these workers say they can't discern whether consultants are authorized or not.
In some instances, even though they don't trust them entirely, they still end up working with them because they don't know where else to get help. Most of our clients claim that they have been manipulated and intimidated by their immigration consultants.
Another witness gave specific examples of exploitation experienced by international students. He stated that consultants have been known to ask for $15,000 to $20,000 to help international students find employment, remain, and gain permanent residency in Canada.
We also heard from Natalie Drolet of the West Coast Domestic Workers' Association, who drew attention to the vulnerability of temporary foreign workers, or TFWs. According to Ms. Drolet, temporary foreign workers have little choice but to hire third-party employment agents to get connected with an employer in Canada. She stated:
These agents are more often than not working in a dual role as immigration consultants and employment agents. We see immigration consultants typically charging temporary foreign workers anywhere from $4,000 to $16,000 for low-wage jobs in Canada. Recently, an IRCC officer in Vancouver told me that he had a case of a temporary foreign worker who paid $40,000.
Temporary foreign workers are willing to pay these fees because they are counselled by immigration consultants that they would have a pathway to permanent residence in Canada, which is often not the case.
The committee heard of a number of examples of misconduct and fraud, including forging signatures, charging exorbitant fees for some services often not rendered, and misleading clients who lost everything they had when they arrived in Canada. In short, without proper regulation and oversight, unscrupulous consultants can ruin lives.
The first issue is the lack of regulation, but the second is why do so many prospective Canadians feel they need to hire representatives? The fact that many newcomers to Canada feel they have no option but to pay thousands of dollars to access our immigration system should be a major concern. Why is our bureaucracy so complicated that the people it is set up to help cannot navigate it? Why are the majority of immigration applications not digitized? Why is correspondence not written in plain language so that people without a legal background can understand it? Why is it so difficult for people to receive accurate and detailed updates on the status of their immigration applications without the involvement of third parties? Again, these are questions all of us in this place wrestle with as we try to support people who come into our offices with immigration case work. Indeed, these are questions that consecutive governments have wrestled with over the course of decades.
With regard to the governance of immigration consultants and paralegals, there are two types of representatives: paid authorized representatives and unpaid representatives. Authorized paid representatives include lawyers and paralegals who are members in good standing of a Canadian, provincial, or territorial law society. They could also be notaries who are members in good standing of the Chambre des notaires du Québec. Authorized paid representatives could also be citizenship or immigration consultants who are members in good standing with the Immigration Consultants of Canada Regulatory Council, the ICCRC, the current regulatory body. Unpaid representatives can be family members, friends, and other third parties such as church organizations.
Under the former Conservative government, changes were made through Bill C-35, the Cracking Down on Crooked Consultants Act, to designate ICCRC as the new regulator of immigration consultants. These changes were made to ensure the integrity of and confidence in our immigration system and to combat the rise in crooked and ghost consultants who had been taking advantage of newcomers to Canada.
While some positive changes were made, the misuse and abuse of new Canadians has persisted since the designation of ICCRC as the regulatory body. This is one of the reasons why the Conservatives support this report. While we recognize that attempts were made to create a regulatory body for this particular group of service providers, the reality is that there is overwhelming evidence showing that people are still being taken advantage of. This needs to change.
One of the major issues with the regulatory framework has been the issue of shared jurisdiction over fraudulent and ghost consultants. The RCMP and CBSA are both responsible for investigating authorized consultants who engage in fraud, and ghost consultants who operate outside the law governing immigration representatives. However, further resources are needed for these units to adequately address the issue of fraudulent consultants. Additionally, it should be noted that the ICCRC does not have any oversight over unregulated representatives. Instead, its authority lies in investigating misconduct and potential abuses by its members, who are regulated consultants.
I will now turn to the issues with the current governance of immigration consultants. As explained at committee, the ICCRC is a self-governing not-for-profit organization that has an arm's-length relationship with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. The issues with the current system include the following: serious gaps in the disciplinary process of the ICCRC for the complaints it receives; lack of stringency in the ICCRC's admissions standards into it as a regulatory body; lack of a clear mechanism to adequately dispute fees; an inadequate governance structure; lack of transparency and accountability in the functioning of this regulatory body; fear on the part of new Canadians to lodge a complaint due to their lack of understanding of our immigration systems and fear of being denied status; the inadequacy of the current regulatory framework in overseeing the actions of regulated consultants; the inadequate pursuit and prosecution of ghost consultants, who are unregulated representatives, for their nefarious activities; and outside factors, including a lack of adequate client services, which contribute to the demand for immigration consultants and paralegals.
To address these problems, our committee unanimously issued 21 recommendations. The common theme in the committee's findings is that more needs to be done to combat fraudulent and ghost consultants. The recommendations are outlined in the report and contain many common-sense initiatives that should allow the government to provide an updated framework that, once and for, would begin to address some of the concerns contained therein.
I could spend the rest of my time going through all of the recommendations, and I might touch on a few of them, but there are a few themes I want to put forward.
One of the things that bothers me, and I am sure bothers my colleagues in the government party also, is the the lack of knowledge of the newcomers to Canada who are trying to access the immigration system. For example, I was in Toronto a few weeks ago and met with a few live-in caregivers. What alarmed me was that they did not understand that they could set up something as basic as a MyCIC account. It is an online account that allows people to look at the status of their immigration applications without having to pay a consultant or lawyer to do that. Oftentimes, people come into our office who simply do not understand how to fill out basic forms.
To me, this report really deals with two dimensions of the problems at hand. The first is that our system does not translate well to people who are trying to use it. There is a usability component that I feel the Department of Citizenship and Immigration, the government, needs to implement. We have been looking at this for years. However, we really need to make a very concerted effort to look at end-users and ensure that the system is easy for them to navigate, while maintaining the integrity and security of our immigration system. The government would be doing its job well if it could show not only the integrity of the processing and security of the immigration system, but also that the people who are trying to access it are not having to pay tens of thousands of dollars, or feel like they have to pay tens of thousands of dollars, to an immigration consultant to do something as basic as fill out a form. That is why some of the recommendations in here talk about service delivery and improving that within the department.
The government would also do very well if it could say what specific steps it is taking to combat these service delivery issues. Oftentimes, when I am at committee, and I am sure government members would share my frustration, we get departmental officials sitting in front of us basically giving the line, “Don't worry, we're on it.” The reality is that ICCRC is one of the most siloed and difficult-to-penetrate bureaucracies in government. I know there are many people doing a lot of good work in the department, but sometimes when listening to the departmental testimony, I feel there is more concern about preserving silos than thinking about new ways of delivering service to ensure that we are protecting the most vulnerable. I do not understand why there is this whole industry to fill out forms. To me, that is a failure of government. A lot of the recommendations in this report deal with that.
The other dimension of the recommendations deals with the fact that some of these consultants are providing what amounts to legal advice. Some of the cases I see in my office, and I hope some of my colleagues will agree with me, are the worst cases, and sometimes, as members of Parliament, there is really nothing we can do because people have been given bad legal advice by someone who is not a lawyer but a consultant. I am looking around the room. How many times have members had people walk into their offices and say that someone told them to lie on their citizenship application and that their application had been rejected because they were told to omit information? This is the sort of thing the report is designed to push the government to correct.
In good faith and to show that I am really trying to make this a non-partisan debate, especially to the government House leader, who I am sure will speak on this at some point, our government did attempt to fix this with the implementation of the regulatory body the ICCRC. However, as immigration critic, after listening to the testimony at committee, I have to say that we need to do more. This is a problem that has plagued Canada's governments of all political stripes, and to me this is a real opportunity for the government not only to show Canadians that it is serious about ensuring the integrity of our immigration system, but also about ensuring the world's most vulnerable, and the people who are trying to access our country, are not taken advantage of.
We heard stories at committee, some of them in camera because people were worried about their identity being leaked, or out of shame. These are people who do not have a lot of resources. They were bilked out of tens of thousands of dollars and basically left stranded in Canada. That should not happen.
The recommendations in the report are a road map to the action that I hope will eventually correct this. The way the immigration system consultants are governed right now is just not working, and needs to change. I really hope all of my colleagues will vote to concur in the report.
One of the reasons we are bringing this up today is the sheer number of reports of ghost consultants or others being prosecuted. I get a media notification at least once every couple of weeks about them. Yesterday, in the Winnipeg Free Press, there was a story about an unlicensed immigration consultant who collected $91,000 while having no licence whatsoever. We know that the number of unreported cases outweigh the ones reported in the media. That is part of the problem right now. The people who feel like they have been scammed really do not have recourse or an effective and transparent system to seek justice. Part of the issue is that we have difficulty as Canadians expressing to people overseas who is and who is not able to provide services.
The other thing I want to note to my colleagues opposite is that I had numerous groups in my office after the report was tabled asking when the government was going to do something about this, and what it was going to do. Law societies, the practice itself, especially the people who are operating in good faith, will need time to adapt to any changes made. I would like to see the government, prior to going into Christmas break, give some sort of indication to law societies, immigration consultants, and certainly to our offices that do a lot of casework, what those changes might be, or if it is in fact going to pursue changes.
I read the government's response to the report. There was some acknowledgement that the content of the report and study was valid, but what the government needs to do is to provide a bit more information about how and when it will implement changes, even if just to provide a little more clarity on how these will roll out, prior to our going into what will essentially be a six to eight-week break from debate in this place.
That is my rationale. I really hope all members will support this. The report was well done. It is an example for Canadians of committees and Parliament doing something that resembles work. At the end of the day, I hope the outcome is better policy for people who are accessing our immigration system.
I also want to congratulate and thank my colleagues. I thank the former chair of the immigration committee, as well as my colleagues of all political stripes for putting forward a really smart report. In the interests of everyone who will be affected by these changes in a very positive way, I sincerely ask my colleagues to support this.