An interview with Sikander Lalani, CEO at Lalani & Associates
Lalani & Associates is a highly reputable consultancy firm and one of the biggest in the sector. It was launched in 1992 by Sikander Lalani with its main focus on providing immigration, residency and citizenship services. The firm currently serves its client base out of offices in Karachi, Lahore and Dubai.
BR Research recently sat with Lalani to better understand migration trends. Below are the edited excerpts of the interview:
BRR: What are the most cited reasons for migration among clients?
Sikander Lalani: Mainly it is to secure future of children; ensure quality education, their career opportunities, safety and security, enjoy better living standards; and live in a society with much less corruption.
As long as someone is eligible they want to go. When the new government came there was a lot of hope for a few days but then it went back to business as usual. Of course it is still too early to judge the new government.
BRR: What is the ratio of illegal immigration as compared to legal immigration and why is the former more prevalent?
SL: Illegal migration is resorted to by people who cannot meet the legal migration criteria and/or cannot wait for the long period of processing of application. Furthermore, legal migration is far more expensive than illegal migration, which is why people opt for the latter. For example, our fee is $3,500 for a single applicant payable in installments for skilled workers and professionals.
Over 90 percent of immigration taking place in Pakistan is illegal. 3 million refugees have moved to Turkey. They start their journey of illegal migration to Turkey from which they try to enter European countries. Under international laws for countries that are signatories of UN, refugees facing threat of persecution have to be accepted and they pin their hopes on that.
BRR: What are the top destinations that people opt for migration?
SL: Canada, USA, Europe and now Eurasia – Turkey.
BRR: Has requirements for Canadian immigration changed over the years?
SL: Earlier the selection criterion was such that a lot more people could be inducted. In the early 90s, the eligibility age was up to 49. The points system, consisting of about 600 points, is based on education, experience and language capability. It was easier to rack up sufficient points to migrate to Canada.
Later the age was decreased to 45, and now those in their 30s are now eligible. The Canadian perception is that those in their 40s are not as effective in the job market and it is harder for them to assimilate.
The time taken for processing has increased as well. Previously, as soon as papers were filed they were bound to call the applicant for an interview and decide. Now the application goes into a pool from which the cream is selected.
BRR: What are the basic criteria for someone to be eligible for Canadian immigration?
SL: On paper, someone who is 49 years old can still apply but we know from experience that those above 30-32 will not be selected because the applicant will not have enough points. A person in early 30s with a Master’s degree, at least three years of work experience with excellent English skills is most likely to be selected.
A listening score of 8 and reading and writing skills of 7 in IELTS is required which is a tough call. Even medical doctors find it hard to score this high, and English points are essential for successful Canadian immigration. Canada carries out frequent surveys and they have found that those with strong language capability are able to settle down faster, which is why English skill points carry a lot of weight.
Then there is the investor category. Previously, assets of Can$ 400,000, which could be had through financing as well, were enough to immigrate. Now this threshold has been increased to Can$2 million of which Can$1.2 million has to be deposited with the Government of Canada. Furthermore, Can$1 used to be Rs40-45, now it is about Rs100 so deeper pockets are required.
BRR: Has legal immigration increased over the last couple of decades?
SL: Absolutely. Previously there were more eligible candidates but awareness was lower. Now a lot more people attempt for legal immigration but the criteria is a lot more stringent. In terms of volume of people that are immigrating, the numbers have increased.
BRR: What is the success rate of the number of applicants for Canada?
SL: Speaking of applicants who applied through my firm, previously, 85 to 90 percent applicants were successful though at that time acceptance was interview based so there was a subjective element to it. Today my success rate is 98 percent because our screening criteria is such that we only take clients that we believe will be accepted by Canadian authorities. We take about 200 applicants a year.
BRR: What about the sector in general? How many people apply each year and how many are successful?
SL: I think about 10,000 people attempt to immigrate legally to Canada every year of which about 2,000 people are successful. There are a lot of consultants who accept candidates whose petition will never be successful because they do not meet the criteria.
BRR: And how many immigrants does Canada accept from the world?
SL: Including all the categories, they accept 300,000 - 350,000 immigrants every year. They have a cap, every year they cannot accept more than one percent of their population and its population is 33 million. Most immigrants to Canada are from China.
BRR: Why are Chinese immigrating to Canada?
SL: There are two factors for immigration: push and pull. When domestic/economic conditions are bad, it is a push factor. But when you have a lot of money, developed western countries attract and that is the pull factor. As Chinese get more developed, they want their kids to become English speaking and go live and study in developed countries.
BRR: Most of our conversation so far has been focused on Canada. What about other countries?
SL: Canadian immigration is one product; we have 16 products in total. Then there are investor products such as US green card by investment for which half a million dollars are required plus administrative, legal, and government fees which comes to a further $85,000. This option is also popular among immigration applicants.
BRR: So despite the change in political climate and Trump, US is still accepting immigrants?
SL: Yes. I got five approvals from US for immigration the month he was elected. Understand that Trump cannot go against the law for accepting legal immigrants that meet all criteria terms. In any case, he is against illegal migrants not legal ones who are bringing in money with them.
There is also a window of opportunity for unskilled blue collar workers to get a green card for $20,000 though the numbers of seats available are very limited.
Big companies such as Amazon or major hotel chains float blue collar jobs. There is an organisation that coordinates with such companies to float a quota for a few hundred jobs in the world. Eastern Europeans, Indians, different nationalities all apply for these limited seats. As per US law, in any category for immigration there cannot be more than 7 percent representation from any country in a year.
In this category, China, India, Philippines and Mexico has been capped out so now their wait period is 10 years. This category has 10,000 visas a year and with a 7 percent cap, only 700 per country are allowed.
Pakistan and Eastern Europeans have the opportunity to get a blue collar job if and when such jobs are floated. Usually the contract requires one year of work in the capacity the applicant was hired and then the applicant is free to do what he wills.
BRR: How many people have you sent to US through the blue collar scheme?
SL: The last time jobs were made available, they got filled before we could apply for a visa. Now I am just piling up applicants that are ready for when the next round of jobs opens up.
This is a four stage process. First, employer has to hire you through a skype interview. Second, the employer will have to go to the labour department of US government for wage determination. They don’t want that US companies hire foreign labour at a cheaper rate that could undercut the domestic employment market.
Third stage is labour certification for which the company has to prove that there is no objection to hiring foreign labour. Any company opting for this route has to first advertise locally and if is unable to find suitable employees only then open up jobs globally.
Last stage is the immigration department. Based on the credibility of the company, its business plan, scale of expansion and budget, the company gets approval for hiring immigrants.
After the US process, there is the local process. The visa officer sitting in US will also check the credentials of the applicant. If the applicant is over qualified for a blue collar job, visa will not be granted.
BRR: What about immigration to European countries?
SL: We do direct citizenship for Malta, Cyprus, and permanent residency in Hungary, Bulgaria, and Portugal.
Now we are launching a new product - citizenship of Turkey. For the small businessmen Turkey is going to be the next hot favourite destination.
BRR: Why do you think Turkey is going to be popular for immigration for small businessmen?
SL: Turkey is G20 member and considered a developed country in OECD. It is a Muslim country so halal food is not a problem. Previously, Turkey gave citizenship in 6 months if real estate worth $1 million was bought. Now that amount has been reduced to $250,000 because they need dollars and have a good inventory of real estate and good construction.
With an additional $25,000 in government fees, professional fees, property transfer fees, $275,000 is enough for a two-bedroom house. This investment needs to be made for three years only after which the property can be sold. Based on this the applicant, spouse, and children under 18 will all get citizenship and this is not limited by any quota.
This is a very recent law that has been promulgated in the last month or so. I was in Turkey and have met the government officials, politicians, lawyers and this program is ready to go. I have also talked to developers, and I am offering a 15 to 20 percent discount on list price of estates.
This is good for small businessmen and professionals. For example, those who have had to relocate from Empress Market because of the encroachment drive could open a shop in a mall in Turkey. It is a great fallback option.
BRR: What is the procedure for transferring money and other assets out of Pakistan?
SL: Until now, there was not much problem and law still allows it. There is a 1992 Economic Order during previous government’s time, which allowed a private dollar account. Pakistanis were permitted to deposit and withdraw dollars into their account, no question asked. Not even tax questions. That dollar account could be used to remit money without going to SBP.
About a year ago, the requirement of NTN was added so you can now only remit funds that you have declared for your taxes. The SBP has put such stringent restrictions on transfer of dollars abroad that banks are reluctant to transfer even legitimate funds. However, through hawala it is still possible to send money out.
BRR: How lengthy is the process of clearance of FBR for taxes before immigrating?
SL: Though the requirement is there that if you are immigrating, your dues have to be clear but nobody checks. An immigrant can also argue at the time of departure that he is still a tax resident. There is no political will to follow up because no revenue is generated from this avenue so no resources are dedicated to it.
BRR: Are there licensing requirements and government oversight on this sector? And what is the USP for an immigration consultant?
SL: I am licensed from the Canadian government but there is no domestic oversight by the Pakistani government. The comparison between a licensed and unlicensed consultant is that of a doctor and a hakeem. Both can cure but the former has more professional knowledge.
Success rate, quality of service, fair assessment at the time of intake, and professional delivery are the main parameters that differentiate one firm from another.
BRR: How is the migration consultancy sector perceived as given the prevalence of illegal migration?
SL: When I entered this sector in 1992, my father did not speak to me for a week because the perception was that all immigration work is illegal. It is better now but still to a large extent this is still the perception.
BRR: What about migration into Pakistan?
SL: Laws regarding immigration into Pakistan are very stringent similar to other Middle East and Islamic countries. If a Pakistani girl marries a foreigner, the husband can never become a citizen through marriage. If a man married a foreigner, it is possible but very difficult to make her a citizen through marriage. The roots of this are traced to basic Islamic law. Same is for Middle East; permanent residency can be given for marriages but never citizenship.