CBSA reviewing scores of refugee cases handled by disgraced ex-B.C. immigration lawyer

The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) is investigating scores of cases handled by a disgraced former B.C. immigration lawyer, in a probe that could lead to deportations.

Balraj “Roger” Bhatti was sentenced to 22 months in jail earlier this year after pleading guilty to 17 offences including forgery, misrepresentation and uttering forged documents.

The offences took place between 2005 and 2014, and involved collaboration with a Hungarian translator to create forged documents.

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A B.C. Provincial Court heard the deceptions included forged doctor’s notes asserting Bhatti or his clients were unwell in order to delay hearings, as well as a forged death certificate, and medical and police reports used to support would-be Hungarian refugee claimants’ applications for asylum in Canada.

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In 2014, the CBSA raided Bhatti’s Surrey offices, but he did not face charges until 2020, at which point he was suspended by the Law Society of BC.

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“It’s very simple to go for the low-hanging fruit, the clients,” immigration lawyer Richard Kurland said of the pace of the investigation. Kurland is not connected to the case or the investigation.

“It’s best to get the queen bee, the bad apple that has hundreds of clients. That’s not practical because CBSA enforcement is low.”

In Bhatti’s case, however, a deeper investigation of his work appears to be well underway.

In a statement, the CBSA confirmed that it was probing “over 75” files linked to Bhatti’s practice “in various stages of review.”

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“The CBSA investigates anyone suspected of having gained status in Canada as a result of misrepresentation, to determine if there is sufficient evidence to report them as inadmissible under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA),” it said.

“If so, the individual may be removed from Canada after all appeal options have been exhausted.”

The agency noted that everyone in those cases is entitled to due process, with potential removal orders subject to appeals. The process could take years and come with great expense.

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“It costs the taxpayer a small fortune,” Kurland said. “Every family member in each of the 75 cases entitled to an oral hearing, it’s not a bottomless wallet.”

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Asked about the length of time it took to bring Bhatti before the court, the CBSA described the investigation as “complex,” adding that extra time was needed to assess solicitor-client privilege in seized evidence, given that Bhatti was a lawyer.

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Bhatti was born in Vancouver and earned a law degree in 1983. After several years of general practice in Burnaby, he branched out in 1990 and began to specialize in immigration issues.

He was also politically well-connected. His wife worked as an aide to former premier Mike Harcourt, and former cabinet minister Moe Sihota wrote a letter of support for him during his sentencing. He was legally represented in part by former B.C. attorney general Wally Oppal.

At his sentencing, Judge Mark Jetté noted that Bhatti suffered from mental health issues and the strain of an immense workload driven by referrals from Legal Aid BC.

But he rejected defence’s argument for a conditional sentence with no jail time.

“That fact, that Mr. Bhatti’s offending was not an impulsive act, but rather a concerted and deliberate course of conduct which continued over an extended period of time, is another significant factor which suggests that Mr. Bhatti’s mental health was not the sole or even the primary driver of his offending,” Jetté ruled in May.

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“The seriousness of these offences, the fact that Mr. Bhatti was acting in his capacity as a lawyer throughout, the impact Mr. Bhatti’s conduct has had on the integrity of the convention refugee system in this county, and Mr. Bhatti’s high degree of moral blameworthiness call for a sentence of institutional jail.”

The CBSA declined to answer further specific questions on the cases under review, citing an active investigation.

© 2022 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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