OTTAWA - Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has tabled new legislation meant to prevent crooked immigration consultants from cheating vulnerable newcomers of their savings or encouraging them to lie to stay in Canada.
The measures would make it a crime for unauthorized consultants to provide immigration advice for a fee. They could face up to two years in jail or a $50,000 fine for even trying to engage in immigration fraud.
At the same time, Kenney is also delisting the self-regulating Canadian Society for Immigration Consultants as the body that decides who can be a legal consultant.
CSIC has been criticized for charging too much for membership, lacking transparency, and turning a blind eye to unscrupulous consultants in its own ranks, Kenney said.
Instead, the minister plans to set up a new regulatory body, accountable to the government and with the power and will to police its members.
"While most immigration consultants working in Canada are legitimate and ethical, it is clear that immigration fraud remains a widespread threat to the integrity of Canada's immigration system," Kenney told reporters.
Ricardo Miranda wishes the measures had been around when he tried to immigrate to Canada from Chile about 15 years ago. He and his family paid a consultant about US$5000 to do the paperwork for them.
They waited for years for progress. But when they finally did get their paperwork, it turned out to be false.
Miranda was pulled over by police about 12 years later, told that his paperwork was not authentic.
"The police stopped me and said 'Ricardo, you don't have paper in Canada. I said really?... I can't believe it'," Miranda told reporters after accompanying Kenney to the news conference.
He went to jail for eight days before he could find help. The family was one week away from being deported until they were granted status on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.
For NDP immigration critic Olivia Chow, the measures are welcome news after more than 20 years spent campaigning for a meaningful crackdown.
She has heard too many first-hand accounts of prospective immigrants handing over exorbitant amounts of money, only to have consultants fill out forms the wrong way — or not at all — or force the applicants to falsify information.
"Not only do they lose their life savings; they lose their hopes, they lose their dreams of becoming a citizen of Canada," Chow said.
She offered rare praise for Kenney's bill, although she urged the government to make sure the RCMP and the border services agency have a mandate to enforce the new measures.
The bill would also close a loophole that for now prevents authorities from sharing information about immigration consultants.
"Crooked immigration consultants victimize people who dream of immigrating to Canada," Kenney said.
The government is particularly concerned about so-called "ghost" consultants who charge huge fees and deceitfully promise immigrants high-paying jobs or fast-tracked visas.
Kenney said it is next to impossible to know exactly how widespread the practice is. But he notes that ethnic media in Canada carry many ads pushing such services. And in other countries, he's seen billboards with consultants claiming they can guarantee applicants visas for Canada.
"The ghost consultants are out there in broad daylight," he said.
Still, Kenney said the measures can only stymie such consultants within Canada's borders. In other countries where consultants are peddling access to Canada, he's relying on high-pressure diplomacy to prevent the practice.
He said he has already started explaining to other countries' officials how Canada's new system will work, and urging them to take similar steps.