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How Immigration Dreams Turned Into Nightmares

A proposed class action suit targets an immigration consultant. Advocates say Canada’s system encourages scams.

Zak Vescera 8 Dec 2022TheTyee.ca

Zak Vescera is The Tyee’s labour reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

Andres Medellin thought he had struck gold.

In 2021, Medellin says a Vancouver immigration consultant pitched him and a room full of other Latin American workers on a wunderkind Canadian immigration program that could allow anyone to legally remain and work in the country.

Instead, Medellin is back home in Mexico, his dreams of studying in Canada on hold and his immigration file full of red flags that will cause future problems.

Medellin and dozens of other migrant workers, mostly Mexicans, are suing that consultant, Liza Lucion, alleging she collected thousands in fees to apply for a Canadian immigration program that never existed.

The proposed class action lawsuit against Lucion, which is not yet certified, alleges the consultant’s actions deprived clients of their chance to apply for other, legitimate ways of staying in the country.

The lawsuit has been filed with the B.C. Supreme Court and Lucion has filed a statement of defence. The next step is a hearing on whether the class action lawsuit can proceed.

Some of the clients, like Medellin, have since either chosen or been forced to leave. Lucion’s licence to work as an immigration consultant has since been indefinitely suspended by the College of Immigration and Citizenship Consultants.

Lucion categorically denies the allegations against her, which have yet to be tested in a court of law.

In a statement sent by her lawyer, Lucion said she “made her best efforts to honestly and in good faith provide foreign nationals in Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic with information regarding the options available to maintain legal status in Canada based on relevant government policies.”

She said complainants “likely misunderstood what she told them and have been encouraged by others to make this vicious attack on her business and reputation.”

Susanna Quail, co-counsel for the proposed class action lawsuit against Lucion, says the case highlights deep flaws in Canada’s immigration system.

The system is “so prone to exploitation and preying on vulnerable people,” Quail said.

Medellin says he met Lucion at a time of uncertainly. He arrived in Vancouver in August 2019 on a visitor visa. Medellin had visited the city when he was 15 and was staying with friends in town.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic began. Medellin said he had apprehensions about returning home, fearful he would spread the virus to his mother and family. “I considered myself a visitor that was stranded in Canada,” Medellin said in a phone interview from Mexico City.

Over time, Medellin said, he began working construction jobs to make ends meet, getting paid in cash. He knew it was illegal, he said, and felt ashamed for going around the law.

“I know I was doing that illegally. I don’t want people in Canada to get me wrong. We are proud of working very hard, but shameful at the same time because of being illegal. It’s a sentiment that is not very easy to communicate,” Medellin said. “We feel ashamed because we really respect the country. It could sound a little contradictory.”

Medellin said a job site supervisor recommended he see Lucion. He remembers sitting in the waiting room of her consulting firm with between 10 and 12 other people, mostly Latin American. He said they received a presentation — translated by an interpreter into Spanish — about a new program, which Lucion said had been opened to all migrants in response to the COVID-19 pandemic regardless of their legal status in the country. Medellin said Lucion told them she had special knowledge of the program, which is why it was not publicly advertised.

In her filed court response, Lucion said those meetings happened but argued she had only promoted existing and legitimate immigration programs into Canada. In the chaos of the early COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government had implemented policy changes aimed at helping migrant workers stay in the country, including temporary measures giving migrant workers more time to restore temporary residence status. Her statement of defence says she had an “honestly held belief” that applicants would be legally eligible for the programs they applied for.

Medellin said Lucion told the crowd the process cost $7,000 — half to start, and the other half upon completion. He says she urged them to apply soon, since spots were limited.

Medellin was suspicious but desperate. He had a dream of getting legal status in Canada and eventually going to graduate school at the University of British Columbia to study art history. “My impression was, if something good comes out from this, I do not want to be out of it,” Medellin said.

He described himself as holding out the money with one hand while using the other to cover his eyes and turn his head away.

Quail says the roughly 50 other migrant workers who have come forward describe a similar pattern: an information session of eight to 12 people, a request for cash, then silence.

“For some people, it appears she took their money and did nothing. And then for some people she took their money and did other kinds of applications they weren’t actually eligible for,” Quail said.

Medellin alleges Lucion had promised she could secure a visa in as little as two weeks. But his messages to her went largely unanswered.

At one point, he said Lucion told him she could not explain the delay because he did not speak English, a language he commanded well enough to conduct a 45-minute interview with The Tyee.

Concerns about the promises began to spread through the Mexican community in the Lower Mainland. Medellin said he hosted information sessions with workers in Stanley Park and the issue was discussed on social media.

Court filings show Lucion sued two separate people she alleged had defamed her in a Facebook group. She also sued three other people after a tense office meeting, where one of the defendants claimed Lucion had threatened to have the three of them deported. None of those cases appear to have moved forward in the court system beyond statements of defence.

It is not the first time Lucion took court action against a critic. Earlier this year, she sued a fellow member of a Filipino volleyball team for, among other things, “purposely hitting the ball aiming to the plaintiff.”

Word about the allegations reached Berenice Díaz Ceballos, Mexico’s consul general in Vancouver, who said the consulate began to direct affected migrants towards Quail’s legal team.

“Some had to leave Canada, because there were no options and they were in a risky situation. They didn’t have status anymore,” Ceballos said in a November interview. She worries some people may not know about the lawsuit.

“Here you are deciding or obstructing the opportunities of real people, of real families,” Ceballos said. “When humans are involved, it’s a very sensitive issue.”

Quail believes the case highlights longstanding problems with the Canadian immigration system that place desperate, vulnerable workers at risk.

Many economic migrant workers coming to the country are on strict closed permits, allowing them to work only for a specific employer in a specific location at a specific time. Getting an open work permit is considerably more difficult.

“At each step of this process, we have people who are very vulnerable to being scammed by consultants, because people are really desperate for a way to get status in Canada. They hear it and they want to believe it. If you can get status in Canada, it’s life-changing,” Quail said.

Immigration consultants in Canada do have a regulatory college. In July, its disciplinary council passed a decision to indefinitely suspend Lucion’s right to practise after it received 11 complaints about her in the span of two years. But Quail believes oversight of consultants is lax compared to other professions, like lawyers.

On the other hand, expectations of would-be immigrants are strict.

Amanda Aziz is Quail’s co-counsel on the lawsuit and a lawyer at the Migrant Workers Centre. She says many of her clients are often stuck untangling themselves from legal trouble after an issue with an immigration application or being misrepresented by a consultant.

“For the most part, people aren’t coming to Canada and enjoying living here without status and just being flagrant about the immigration system,” Aziz said. “For the most part, people are trying very hard to make sure their status is legal, working very hard to make sure they can get their next status. We make it difficult, and when a mistake is made, we make it very hard for them to fix.”

In October 2021, months after he met Liza Lucion, Medellin got a visit from immigration officials. He was not deported, he said, but was told he had to leave the country, an order he complied with. He is now back in Mexico City. He is currently appealing a rejected application for a student visa in Canada. He hopes the lawsuit, if it is certified and successful, will help clear his name with Canada’s immigration officials.

“We know that we could get money out of the class action, but we’re not really concerned about this… Money is not important to us,” Medellin said. “We want justice.”  [Tyee]

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