Canada wants crackdown on Indian immigration consultant
By Ricky Westhead
The Star, October 4, 2010
Sandeep Ohri is a dashing 42-year-old who revels in zipping through the traffic chaos in his gleaming Mercedes, passing billboards touting him as the leading immigration consultant in Punjab state.
But Canadian officials see someone else: an extraordinarily brazen and successful scam artist in an industry rife with deceptive swindlers willing to provide applicants with a litany of sham documents everything from fake airline tickets and doctored bank statements to forged letters from Canadian-based funeral homes.
Of the nearly 500 visa applications formally rejected this year, 228 come from Ohri and his firm, OGIC Immigration Consultants.
'This guy has a perfect record,' says David Manicom, head of the immigration section at the Canadian High Commission in New Delhi not one of Ohris clients has been approved for a travel visa.
Over coffee last week Ohri was unrepentant.
He refused to acknowledge he did anything wrong by helping to file visa applications he knew contained fake bank statements.
'What have I done?' Ohri said. 'I am just an adviser, a consultant.'
The 42-year-old father of two has been in business for 12 years and claims to have helped hundreds of prospective students and skilled workers secure travel visas to Canada and other western countries.
While Canada receives more immigrants from India than any other country, there are growing concerns within the Canadian mission here that local lawmakers and police are refusing to pursue criminal cases against the likes of Ohri.
For many immigration consultants here, business has never been better. They operate in a state with long-standing ties to Canada, albeit those ties are growing strained, some Canadian diplomats say, with the growing frequency of travel requests supported by fraudulent documents.
The six visa-section staff who work at Canadas mission in Chandigarh, Punjabs capital, review 40,000 visa applications a year from students, family members and prospective immigrants. While official statistics arent available, one senior Canadian diplomat estimated at least a quarter of those applications are refused because of fraud.
'More would be if the processing was completed, but sometimes you know its fraud and just refuse the request and close the file,' the diplomat said.
Punjab for years has been known as an Indian breadbasket state where the average per-capita annual income of $484 is still the highest in the country. Yet many young adults are now worrying about their futures.
Those concerns and the relative prosperity of the state which gives families the financial wherewithal to pay a consultant play into the hands of Ohri, Canadian diplomats say.
In some cases, Ohri has allegedly helped applicants doctor bank statements to show inflated account balances. At other times, applications have included records for legitimate and robust bank accounts, but accounts on which the applicants have no claim.
Canadian officials say many of the fraudulent visa applications filed by Ohri on behalf of his clients have been submitted to two private colleges in the GTA and a community college in Northern Ontario.
During a recent trip to India, Canadian Immigration Minister Jason Kenney asked Punjabi state officials to crack down on allegedly unscrupulous agents. Kenney went so far as to pledge that his diplomats would help with the detective work by cobbling together dossiers of the most egregious offenders.
Now, after Kenneys visit, Ohri is set to become a barometer for how serious Indian officials are about following through with their commitment to crack down on the consulting business.
Annette Jardine, a Canadian diplomat in Chandigarh, said she is in the process of arranging meetings with police officials and the states chief minister to hand over Canadas files on Ohri.
Jardine and her colleagues have added motivation.
Last May, after three months of trying unsuccessfully to schedule a meeting with Ohri, two officials from the Canadian mission in Chandigarh travelled here to Jalandhar to confront him over his firms repeated involvement with fraudulent files.
With a population of about 1 million, Jalandhar has become a popular headquarters for many of Punjabs estimated 10,000 immigration consultancies.
Concrete office buildings are peppered with signboards embossed with Canadian flags promising 'Guaranteed visa in 15 days.' There are more red and white maple leafs than youd see in most Toronto neighbourhoods.
During their meeting with Ohri, the Canadians discussed various visa applications filed by his clients. The agents discussed instances in which Ohri allegedly directed clients to open accounts with a local Punjabi bank and deposit 500 rupees. The Canadians said one of Ohris former customers told them he had subsequently deposited 1.7 million rupees in their account and printed a bank statement showing a large balance to attach to their visa application. Ohri then managed to withdraw the money somehow.
Moreover, because the bank statements in different visa applications were close to identical, Ohri must have known the applications would be refused, Canadian diplomats say.
'He didnt care because he already had their money,' Kenney said in an interview with the Star.
When the Canadian diplomats finished explaining the evidence they had against Ohri, his answer left them dumbfounded.
'He said he was flattered that we were familiar with his work,' Jardine said.
Over coffee one morning last month, Ohri defended his business practices and said he deserves sympathy, not scorn. His business, which he said employs 80 people, usually generates more than $1 million a year. Hes in the process of opening a new office on the fifth floor of a gleaming new office tower in Jalandhar. And yet this year, his companys income has plunged sharply.
'I think its maybe the recession,' he said. 'People with an uncle in the U.K. are saying dont bother coming here. Even I dont have a job any more.'
Ohri denied depositing or withdrawing money from any of his clients accounts but admitted he has directed students to private moneylenders in cases in which they need to show healthy bank savings.
Ohri said he was voted the states top immigration consultant in 2008 in a contest staged by a local Punjabi newspaper, a claim the newspapers editor confirmed.
Voting, however, was done by SMS messaging in a country where you can send 10 text messages for a penny.
In some ways, Ohri has a point.
Canadian diplomats concede that even though Kenney used his recent trip here to promote the issue of unscrupulous agents, the truth is that at least some applicants knowingly file fake documents. Jardine said theres a general lack of awareness that filing fraudulent visa requests leaves an applicant inadmissible in Canada for two years.
One of the curious elements of Ohris case has been his ability to continue running his consultancy amid controversy.
Local media have reported numerous allegations against him and police say they have broken up protests outside his offices in Jalandhar by his alleged victims. Since February, police in Jalandhar have received 24 complaints of fraud against Ohri, said a senior police officer in Jalandhar. One case alleges he promised a visa to Canada in exchange for 258,000 rupees ($5,750).
'The truth is we dont take economic crimes very seriously in India and the punishment isnt very strong,' the police official said.