Canadian boy caught in Texas detention

Posted by admin on Feb 16th, 2007

Toronto Star, 16 February 2007. Michelle Shephard Rick Westhead

A 9-year-old Canadian boy is in a Texas detention centre after his flight to Toronto made an unscheduled stop and U.S. officials detained his family. Now the boy’s Iranian parents are pleading with Canadian officials to help secure the family’s release from the immigration holding facility, which has come under fire for allegedly detaining children in sub-standard conditions.

“All the time he is asking me, `Why am I wearing the uniform? Why I am here?'” the boy’s mother said, as she sobbed during a telephone interview from the detention facility yesterday. “We didn’t do nothing. My child is innocent.”

The parents, who have no status in Canada, asked that their names not be published out of fear of eventually being returned to Iran, where they say they were previously imprisoned and suffered physical and sexual abuse.

The family’s complicated journey began after the couple fled Iran and arrived in Toronto in January 1995. They lived here for 10 years while seeking asylum, giving birth to a son. But on Dec. 6, 2005, with all legal avenues exhausted, the parents were deported back to Iran.

The boy’s father claimed he had been originally persecuted in Iran after he was discovered with novelist Salman Rushdie’s book. Once they were sent back there from Canada, they were detained and tortured for three months while the boy lived with relatives. Once released from custody, they again fled, reaching Turkey with the help of relatives. They bought fake passports and eventually travelled to Guyana, the parents said.

On Feb. 4 they boarded a direct flight from Guyana to Toronto aboard Zoom Airlines, planning to seek refuge again in Canada. The boy’s father said the plane was diverted to Puerto Rico after a passenger suffered a mid-flight heart attack.

Once they disembarked, U.S. officials discovered the family was travelling with the fake Greek passports. They were detained for five days, then flown to the T. Don Hutto Family Detention Center in Taylor, Tex., the boy’s father said.

Immigration rights groups have condemned the detention facility since it opened last May and last Saturday, officials opened its doors to the media to try to deflect some of the criticism. The New York Times reported that the American Civil Liberties Union is studying conditions there as it considers filing a lawsuit contending that the laws protecting detained juveniles are being violated.

On Tuesday, the boy’s father phoned the University of Texas’s immigration clinic and spoke with Matthew Pizzo, a student worker there. Pizzo then called the Canadian consulate in Dallas, where an unnamed employee told him the consular officials would investigate the detainment.

When he didn’t receive a return call, Pizzo said he called back late Wednesday and left a message. There’s been no further word from Canadian officials and consulate spokesperson Henry Wells could not be reached for comment yesterday.

“The interesting issue here is they weren’t even trying to get into the U.S.,” said Francis Valdez, a supervising attorney at the university’s immigration clinic. “They were just trying to get back to Canada.”

The parents said they hoped to reapply for asylum in Canada armed with evidence of what happened to them in Iran after they were deported.

Authorities at the Hutto detention centre have acknowledged holding 170 children there, says Barbara Hines, a University of Texas law professor.

It’s a frightening experience for children, she said. Families are held in prison cells that have had the locks taken off. Laser beams detect when people get out of their beds, the professor said.

“Families get 15 minutes to eat and then the food is thrown out,” Hines said. “Have you tried to feed a child and then yourself in 15 minutes?”

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