Buyer Beware

June 27th, 2007

Buyer Beware

A series of articles in the Toronto Star recently shone a powerful spotlight on the immigration consulting industry. What they found does not speak well for the industry.

First a bit of background on the subject. For many years only lawyers in good standing with their provincial bar association were allowed to represent clients before immigration tribunals. In reality however, individuals seeking to immigrate to Canada were receiving advice from a variety of sources, including consultants from a wide range of backgrounds. With no regulation however, reputable consultants practiced alongside individuals with little in the way of credentials and credibility.

The Canadian Society of Immigration Consultants (CSIC) was created in 2004 as a way to monitor immigration consultants who are not lawyers. CSIC is a self-regulating body meant to ensure that CSIC standards of service quality are met by its members. The incentive to join CSIC is that its members are allowed to represent clients before the Canadian government for immigration matters. This opportunity to be recognized as a visa applicant’s agent by the Government of Canada was intended to draw consultants into the fold as a means to standardize the industry.

The investigation by the Toronto Star however unearthed a series of behaviours that show that many clients are still being exploited, and the system is being defrauded. Why hasn’t CSIC cleaned up the industry? What it comes down to is that the organization is not enforcing its mission.

The idea was that by creating a standard for professionalism, clients of immigration consultants could be more confident in their services and any unethical and illegal behaviours would be weeded out. Building a standard however takes more than words on a mission statement, it takes active enforcement. Since its founding, the CSIC has not established a pattern of disciplinary proceedings to punish unethical behaviour. Memberships have been revoked for failure to pay dues or to meet language requirements, but very seldom for improper practice.

Unscrupulous behaviour is by no means limited to immigration consultants. The difference however is that if a client is defrauded by a lawyer, his or her law society will use its power to disbar the lawyer. In addition, bar associations can also provide a kind of insurance policy for consumers, by ensuring that defrauded clients are compensated. Potential immigrants, often unfamiliar with the details of Canadian laws and concerned about jeopardizing their applications, are a group whose interests require protecting. The problems highlighted by the Toronto Star investigation show that CSIC is not doing its job.

Even as an organization with voluntary membership, CSIC has within its authority a wide range of options to discipline its members. These tools have not been put to use, and the result is that the industry remains fraught with individuals willing to mislead their consumers and the government, and these individuals are tarnishing the work of others in the field. A concerted effort by CSIC to enforce their mandate will recapture the confidence of honest professionals and of consumers. Until then for those in the process of immigrating to Canada, it remains caveat emptor, or buyer beware, when seeking immigration advice under the CSIC banner.

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