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Dozens of migrant workers in Vancouver have allegedly been defrauded of thousands of dollars by an immigration consultant who promised the workers permanent residency through a federal immigration program that the workers say did not exist.

The alleged scam is now the subject of a potential class-action suit that is making its way through the B.C. court system.

The lawsuit contends that the actions of the alleged perpetrator of the scam were not only financially ruinous for the workers – most of them migrants from Mexico – but resulted in some of them unknowingly working without visas while waiting for their work permits to be processed. This meant that they were losing their opportunity to apply for genuine immigration status in Canada.

The Vancouver-based immigration consultant who is being accused by workers of fraud, Liza Lucion, was indefinitely suspended by the College of Immigration and Citizenship Consultants (CICC) – the regulatory body for immigration consultants – in July, after the college received and investigated more than 10 complaints against her. A further six complaints are still being investigated.

Ms. Lucion has repeatedly maintained her innocence, arguing that she was merely trying to help workers navigate the complexity of a slew of new federal immigration programs that were introduced during the pandemic to boost immigration levels.

The long-lasting nature of pandemic-related lockdowns across the world brought with them a confluence of immigration issues for Canada in 2020 and 2021. There were temporary workers marooned in the country with expiring work permits, international students and workers abroad who had been issued Canadian visas but were unable to enter Canada and an already-backlogged federal immigration department that was transitioning its systems to accommodate remote work.

Between late 2020 and mid-2021, in an attempt to make up for the immigration shortfall in 2020, the government introduced a series of programs. Among other things, the programs extended work permits for international students, handed out new work permits for visitors who had a job lined up, and transitioned a select number of students and workers to permanent residency. The fraudulent tactics alleged against Ms. Lucion took place in the context of these whirlwind changes.

“There were a lot of rapid-fire immigration announcements coming from the federal government in early to mid-2021,” explained Amanda Aziz, an immigration lawyer at the B.C.-based Migrant Workers Centre, who has been helping former clients of Ms. Lucion.

“At the same time,” she said, “there were many low-income, vulnerable workers with expiring permits, who were trying to understand if they were eligible to qualify for any one of these programs.”

The class-action lawsuit, which is still awaiting certification, was filed in a B.C. provincial court in July of this year. The lead plaintiff is a 35-year-old Mexican migrant worker, Andres Barrios Medellin, who sought Ms. Lucion’s consulting services to figure out the best way to go about obtaining Canadian permanent residency. Also named in the lawsuit is Ms. Lucion’s consulting company Canadian Global Immigration Consultant Services.

Mr. Medellin first came to B.C. from Mexico in late 2019 on a temporary resident visa, and soon began working in construction, he told The Globe and Mail in a recent interview. He was determined to find a way to eventually obtain permanent residency in Canada, and was introduced by his employer to Ms. Lucion. (Ms. Lucion disputes this, saying that Mr. Medellin came to her directly seeking assistance in obtaining a work permit).

According to the lawsuit and Mr. Medellin himself, Ms. Lucion told him about a new immigration program related to the COVID-19 pandemic that involved a two-year open work permit for foreign workers, clemency for migrants without status in Canada and a pathway to permanent residence.

“She did not refer to the program by any specific name. She just said that it was for people who were stranded because of COVID, and all of us could obtain a work permit no matter if we were visitors, students, if we had legal status or if we had lost it,” Mr. Medellin said. At the time, Mr. Medellin did not have a work permit and was desperate to find a way to remain in Canada.

The visa status of temporary foreign workers in Canada is usually tied to their employment, meaning that if they do not have a job with an employer who is approved to hire temporary foreign workers, they will not be granted a work permit.

Labour advocates say that this closed work permit system leaves workers ripe for exploitation. Indeed, it is not uncommon for workers who arrived in Canada lawfully to eventually become undocumented by falling out of status because of the uncertainty of employment, or intolerable work conditions that force them to find other ways of making money. The federal government estimated that there were up to 500,000 undocumented workers in Canada as of March, 2022.

The lawsuit alleges that Ms. Lucion promoted the program to workers who did not have permanent status in Canada, or did not have status at all. Mr. Medellin said he ended up paying $3,450 to Ms. Lucion through his employer to process his application for this new open work permit program, because he thought it would be his only shot at remaining in Canada legally.

Mr. Medellin alleges that Ms. Lucion became less responsive after he had paid her the money, barely answering texts and WhatsApp messages when he started inquiring about the status of his application. Then in April, 2021, someone on a Facebook group called “Mexicanos en Vancouver” posted a warning that Ms. Lucion and her company were perpetrating a scam targeting Mexicans in Canada.

Subsequent conversations between Mr. Medellin and members of the group led him to realize that he and dozens of others would not be obtaining any kind of work permit and had all been cheated out of thousands of dollars.

In court documents responding to the lawsuit and in a subsequent statement to The Globe, Ms. Lucion said that she always operated in “good faith” and was only trying to ensure that her clients “remained in status as both visitors and workers.”

She said she often did this work at her own expense, at times even “paying out of pocket” to ensure their status did not lapse. With regards to Mr. Medellin’s case, Ms. Lucion said she had told him that she would apply to restore his visitor status and then apply for an employer-specific work permit for him.

Ms. Lucion argued that the program she was helping clients navigate did exist – it was an August, 2020, temporary pandemic policy that allowed certain visitors in Canada to apply for an employer-specific work permit. Ms. Lucion also said that there was an immigration program in place at the time that permitted eligible applicants who fell out of status from Jan. 30, 2020, to May 31, 2021, to restore their lost status.

Jonathon Braun, a lawyer at the Migrant Workers Centre who is representing a client involved in a separate lawsuit against Ms. Lucion, said that because there were so many immigration policy changes during COVID, it was easy for immigration consultants to make promises to workers without status that were not necessarily true.

“Of course, many of those new immigration programs were very positive,” he said. “But our immigration system is already so complex and layered, and often lends itself to abuse.”

Immigration fraud and the involvement of licensed immigration consultants is not a new phenomenon in Canada. An extensive Globe investigation in 2019 of 45 immigration consultants and their practices found that in recent years, thousands of foreign workers had been exploited for their money and labour, often given false assurances of long-term work permits and the promise of permanent residency.

There are more than 11,000 licensed immigration consultants in Canada, according to the latest estimate from the CICC. The college’s website indicates that there are roughly 40 immigration consultants that have had their licences revoked, suspended or restricted since 2015.

In November of last year, in an attempt to combat fraud in the immigration system, the federal government revamped the former regulating body of immigration consultants (Immigration Consultants of Canada Regulatory Council) and turned it into CICC, which it professed had greater powers and tools to investigate misconduct. Previously, immigration consultants did not need a postsecondary degree to obtain a licence – they now do.

Mr. Medellin said his dealings with Ms. Lucion ended up setting him back drastically – in the absence of a work permit, he had to return to Mexico. A recent application for a student visa was denied, and he is now working with lawyers at the Migrant Workers Centre to appeal the decision.

“We just wanted to maximize our chances and do everything properly. That’s why we used an immigration consultant,” said Mr. Medellin. “Our lives are hard and our families are far away from us. Even then, there are people taking advantage of our situation.”