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Bill C-35 - Bill to Amend the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act

am pleased to rise today to support Bill C-35, the government's legislation aimed at protecting would-be immigrants and the integrity of immigration programs by cracking down on unscrupulous immigration representatives.

As the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism has said, people anxious to immigrate to Canada can fall victim to unscrupulous immigration representatives who charge exorbitant fees and may promise would-be immigrants high paying jobs or guaranteed fast-tracked visas.

This behaviour is unethical and unprofessional, and it can lead to disastrous results for immigrants. Take the case of Irma Luque, Ricardo Miranda and their son Christian. The Miranda family sought the assistance of an immigration consultant who promised them work and visas. This consultant charged the family US$5,000 and kept them waiting for years, yet delivered no results.

Sadly, this case is not an isolated one. Every year, many newcomers are lured by false promises and guaranteed visas by unscrupulous third-party representatives.

Consultants who advise would-be applicants before an application is made, and who are otherwise concealed from federal officials, are referred to as "ghost consultants." These ghost consultants are often difficult to identify because their involvement is purposefully concealed and because there is currently no regulation in the pre-application period or before a proceeding has begun, creating a gaping loophole.

The bill before the Senate will amend the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act so that only authorized representatives can provide representation or advice for a fee at any stage of the proceeding or application. This amendment includes services provided before an application is submitted or a proceeding begins, thus closing a loophole in the current framework.

These representatives will be limited to lawyers, notaries in Quebec, paralegals regulated by a law society and consultants who are members in good standing of a governing body designated by the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism.

Bill C-35 will also improve how immigration consultants are regulated. There are currently no mechanisms in the act that provide for oversight of the regulatory body responsible for immigration consultants. This bill will provide the minister with the power by regulation to designate a self-regulated, non-partisan body of which a majority of its board will be elected by its members.

To enhance the government's oversight of the designated body once legislation is in place, regulations will be drafted requiring the body to provide information for the purpose of ensuring it governs its members in the public interest.

As well, the government is presently limited in its ability to disclose information on individuals providing unethical or unprofessional representation or advice to those responsible for governing or investigating that conduct. Bill C-35 provides clear authority for such disclosure.

This disclosure provision will achieve a fine balance between protecting the privacy interests of members and applicants while still protecting potential immigrants from unscrupulous consultants. Personal information about immigrant applicants will be shared only to the extent that it is deemed to be relevant to the alleged misconduct.

In response to issues raised by stakeholders and members of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration during the committee's study of Bill C-35, amendments to the bill have been made.

Honourable senators, the spirit of compromise and co-operation surrounding this bill has been remarkable. Indeed, Bill C-35 was adopted at third reading without any opposition. This co-operation demonstrates the recognition by all parties of the urgent need to help protect vulnerable would-be immigrants and help safeguard our immigration system against fraud and abuse.

This spirit of compromise and co-operation has been demonstrated also through the adoption of the following key amendments: one, recognition of paralegals regulated by a law society of a province as authorized immigration representatives; two, respect for Quebec's jurisdiction while maintaining federal authority over the regulation of immigration consultants; three, indication in the act of the minister's authority to revoke the designation of a body through regulations; four, doubling of maximum fines for the offence of providing unauthorized immigration representation or advice, from $50,000 to $100,000 upon conviction of an indictable offence, and for summary offences, from $10,000 to $20,000; and five, increasing the length of time to institute a proceeding by way of a summary conviction to 10 years, as opposed to the initially proposed 5 years — investigators would thus be provided ample time to investigate properly and fully various offences committed under the act and lay charges before the time period lapses.

I am sure honourable senators will agree that the body regulating consultants must regulate effectively and must be held accountable for ensuring their membership provides services in a professional and ethical matter.

The 2008-09 reports of the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration pointed to a lack of public confidence in the body currently governing immigration consultants. In parallel to the legislative process, Citizenship and Immigration Canada has taken additional action to address this lack of public confidence by launching a transparent public selection process under current authority to identify a governing body for immigration consultants.

A call for submissions was published in the Canada Gazette on August 28, 2010, offering individuals or organizations interested in becoming the regulator of immigration consultants until December 29, 2010, to deliver their submissions.

Interested parties needed to demonstrate their capacity to regulate effectively immigration consulting activities in the public interest, thereby enhancing public confidence in the immigration process and preserving the integrity of the immigration system.

A selection committee comprised of officials from Citizenship and Immigration Canada and the Canada Border Services Agency as well as external experts was put in place to review the submissions received. The committee is providing the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism with a recommendation as to which of these organizations, if any, has or will have the capacity to meet the established organizational competencies that serve as selection factors for this process.

Many options were considered to address the lack of public confidence in the body currently governing immigration consultants, including the introduction of new stand-alone legislation to re-establish the body in a law society model.

It was determined that moving forward with the legislative changes to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act found in Bill C-35 would strengthen government oversight of the regulator, improve discipline of its members through the information-sharing provision and create a new criminal offence for non-members.

The establishment of a non-profit governing body builds on previous legislative change and on the Government of Canada's experience in structuring and implementing an agreement with a non-profit body.

The chosen approach, therefore, limits the resource implications, financial and otherwise, on the Government of Canada with similar outcomes to a statutory model, making it the most practical cost-and time-efficient approach to the regulation of immigration consultants.

In addition, since the regulator of immigration consultants will need to be incorporated under the Not-for-Profit Corporations Act, which will soon come into force, this act will contain more robust remedies that will help ensure better governance and accountability from the board.

The membership will also have a larger role in holding the governing body accountable to the new terms of the act. Meanwhile, efforts to raise awareness of the risks of engaging unscrupulous immigration representatives are constantly evolving, including the update of websites in Canada and at visa offices abroad to carry warning messages to immigrant applicants.

Further service improvements, including web-based tools and video tutorials are being developed by CIC to make it easier for applicants to apply independently to immigrate to Canada without relying on immigration representatives.

Overseas applicants seek assistance from immigration consultants for a variety of reasons. Given the fact that Canada cannot directly investigate matters in other countries, the investigation and prosecution of third parties residing abroad is challenging. That is why the Government of Canada continues to work with overseas partners to address and discourage ghost consultants who are advising applicants and are beyond the reach of Canadian law.

It is clear that fraud remains a widespread threat to would-be immigrants as well as to the integrity of our immigration system. It is also clear that unscrupulous immigration representatives are at the heart of this problem.

Honourable senators, in closing, I must again point out the commendable cooperation between the government and the opposition during the committee's study of Bill C-35, which ensured its passage in the other place. Bill C-35 is, after all, a chance to crack down on unscrupulous representatives who exploit prospective immigrants and undermine the integrity of Canada's immigration system. I am confident that honourable senators will feel the same way and will express this by supporting the bill.