Into the Fire: Deportation ends Salvadoran family’s long wait for asylum in Canada

Posted by admin on Feb 18th, 2011

by Isabel Macdonald, The Dominion, Feb. 18 2011

While the Canadian government introduces refugee & immigration reforms they say will improve the system, others are worried that it still fails to meet the needs of asylum seekers. The Vides family, who were recently deported back to El Salvador, are one example, having faced renewed danger and death threats since being expelled from Canada. Image by Marie Zahradnik.

MONTREAL—Ever since Canada deported her family to El Salvador in December 2010, Jessica Vides says she fears for her life—and the lives of her young children.

“I am afraid to leave the house. The children can’t go to school,” said the mother of three, two of whom are Canadian citizens, in a telephone interview from San Salvador, El Salvador’s capital.

She and her husband, Eduardo Vides, fled their native country of El Salvador five years ago, she said, due to death threats from one of the country’s notorious street gangs. Now that the family is back in San Salvador, she says the death threats have returned with a vengeance.

Two weeks after they were deported, Jessica Vides said the family received a menacing visit from men they suspect are gang members, who threatened to kill them if they failed to pay thousands of dollars.

“We all hid in a room at the back of the house,” she told The Dominion.

Such threats are exactly why she says the family left their home in San Salvador in the first place, and sought refuge in Canada.

But the peaceful refuge they’d dreamed of turned into a nightmare five years after they settled in Montreal. The family’s plight in the hands of Canadian immigration authorities raises serious concerns about Canada’s refugee policy. The Vides family accuses authorities of injuring their child while she clung to her dad as he was being carted off to an immigrant detention centre.

Eduardo Vides’s difficulties began when, as a passerby, he randomly witnessed the assassination of a woman on the street in San Salvador five years ago. Men he suspected were gang members soon started following him, he said in an interview with The Dominion.

Then the death threats started. He was warned that if he did not pay thousands of dollars, his whole family would be killed.

“I didn’t have the money,” he said. And so the family fled, escaping to Guatemala, and from there, to several US cities. In Buffalo, New York, with the help of a nonprofit group called Vive el Casa, they came to Canada as refugee claimants, according to Jessica Vides.

When they arrived in Canada, their first-born child, Eduarda, was just one year old. While awaiting a final decision on their asylum claim and subsequent judicial review of the decision, years passed. While they waited, Jessica and her husband established a home on Crevier Street in Montreal’s Ville St. Laurent neighbourhood, where they had two more children: Andrea, now aged five, and Gustavo, now aged two. Originally trained as a pilot, Eduardo Vides found industrial maintenance work through an agency.

But their asylum claim was eventually rejected. Canada has in the past accepted Salvadoran refugees fleeing gang violence. However, given that asylum claims are heard before a single member of the Immigration and Refugee Board, it is, to some extent, the “luck of the draw,” according to Janet Dench, the executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR).

The Vides family went to Federal Court for a judicial review, but after a long wait, they learned that the verdict on that too was negative.

At a November 23, 2010, meeting at Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s offices in downtown Montreal, Eduardo Vides was informed that the family was slated to be deported three weeks later. Vides said he pleaded at the meeting for the government to allow the family to stay until his daughter had completed her school year. Eduarda Vides, who is now seven years old, was enrolled as a first-grade student at Ville St. Laurent’s Bois Franc-Aquarelle elementary school, and her dad had been working for more than a year at job repairing boilers, when the government ordered the family’s deportation.

According to Vides, they responded by arresting him on the spot.

Three weeks later, in an interview with The Dominion, it was still difficult for Eduardo Vides to speak about the events of that fateful day. The slim man with gentle mannerisms spoke with a shaky voice about how his seven-year-old daughter, who was present at the meeting and witnessed the emotional exchange between her father and the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) agents, had thrown her arms around him. He recalled with a pained expression, “She hugged me, [and] I hugged her back.”

According to Vides, two male immigration agents grabbed him—from either side, an officer clamped onto his arms.

A third, female, officer grabbed the frightened first-grader. The girl “held on hard with her arms,” her father recounted.

Vides claims that the female officer injured his daughter as she wrestled the seven-year-old girl off of him. She had “wounds all over her back, stomach, and also scars on her leg,” he said. “She couldn’t walk.”

Meanwhile, Canadian immigration agents hauled Eduardo Vides off to the CBSA’s Laval detention center.

Reached by telephone for comment, Dominique McNealy, a CBSA agent at the centre, clarified that immigrants are detained primarily because authorities are not sure of the immigrant’s identity, or in cases in which the immigrant poses a “flight risk” or a menace to Canada. However, he would not comment on why the authorities decided to incarcerate Vides, who had declared his identity to the authorities, and, as an employed worker concerned with the continuation of his daughter’s schooling, seemed to pose little risk of either flight or danger to the public.

Immigration attorney Jared Will observed in a telephone interview that, “Immigration officers have a great amount of power over people’s lives. Yet there’s no accountability process that is comparable to even something police officers have.”

While Will noted that it is possible to file complaints against immigration officers, “In terms of holding them accountable, there’s no process that has any teeth.”

Locked up in the immigrant prison in Laval, Eduardo Vides took matters into his own hands. He began a hunger strike in protest of his family’s treatment.

CBSA put him in his own private “room” (like the term “prisoner,” the word “cell” is avoided in the parlance of the immigrant detention system), isolating him from the general population.

Meanwhile, Jessica Vides was desperately seeking medical treatment for her eldest daughter, who she said had still not recovered from the injuries suffered in the hands of the immigration officer three weeks prior. Upon the advice of a local nonprofit, she brought Eduarda to Montreal’s principal francophone children’s hospital, St. Justine. However, staff there refused to examine the girl upon hearing that her injuries had stemmed from a confrontation with immigration authorities, according to Eduarda’s parents.

The St. Justine ombudsperson failed to respond to a request for comment for this article.

In a telephone interview on December 13, Jessica Vides said that the pain in the seven-year-old’s stomach had not improved, and she also had a fever.

When The Dominion called Jessica Vides two days later, the mother-of-three’s number had been disconnected.

On December 15, the day the government had ordered that the family be deported, the Vides’s first grader still had a fever and pain in her stomach, according to her mother. Local solidarity activists had urged her to bring the child to a sympathetic Montreal doctor. But the family’s lawyer, Stephane Dulude, told Jessica Vides to go instead to the airport, as ordered by CBSA. Upon this advice, Jessica arrived at the airport with her three children, and presented herself to the immigration authorities. She appealed on her daughter’s behalf for medical attention.

Reached by telephone, CBSA spokesperson Stephane Malepart said that, “we make sure that everybody’s in good health to travel. If that person has to go to the hospital before travelling, we’ll then we take them to the hospital and that’s it.”

However, Jessica Vides told The Dominion that the immigration agent she appealed to responded by asking whether the girl was a Canadian citizen. Vides says she was told, “If not, it doesn’t matter. She has to leave.” The seven-year-old was thus refused treatment again. And then she, her little brother and sister (both Canadian citizens), and their mom, were all immediately deported.

The Vides family’s deportation was executed on day 22 of Eduardo’s hunger strike.

Two days later, The Dominion, accompanied by Sarita Ahooja, an organizer with No One Is Illegal and Solidarity Across Borders, visited Eduardo in the Laval detention centre.

An activist with long experience working with immigrants in detention, Ahooja expressed surprise when the CBSA guards led us to a private office-style room equipped with office chairs, a desk, and a computer to wait for Eduardo Vides. (She pointed out the usual meeting room as we exited: a sparse common room with plastic chairs.)

Ahooja commented that she had never seen such measures taken in the Laval detention centre. Eduardo was being kept in isolation “to avoid the possibility that his resolve would spread and inspire others to defy an unjust and repressive system,” she later explained in an email to The Dominion, adding that this was not just her analysis but also Eduardo Vides’s.

When asked about CBSA’s response to the hunger strike, Malepart said the agency takes such actions very “seriously.” In fact, they had even put off Vides’s deportation, originally scheduled for December 15.

But upon hearing about his wife and kids’ deportation, the Salvadoran man broke his hunger strike. He wished to be with his family, even despite the threats on his life in El Salvador, he explained.

Late on the afternoon of the following Friday, CBSA informed him that he would be deported very late that Sunday night—a timing Vides found “suspicious,” given that it left very little time for legal recourse.

In the 2008–2009 fiscal year, the last year for which figures are available on the CBSA’s website, 13,249 people were deported from Canada—an increase of well over 50 per cent since 1999. Of those deported, 9,672 were, like the Vides family, asylum seekers whose claims had been turned down by the Canadian government. And, since last summer’s passage of a new refugee reform bill, this trend seems to be on the rise, as the government shifts ever greater resources into what CBSA euphemistically refers to as “removals.”

Bill C-11, which will go into effect over the next year, is, amongst other things, supposed to eliminate the excessively long delays that families like the Videses have faced in waiting for a final decision on their asylum claims. “It was a fact that many people had been waiting for years” for final decisions on their refugee claims, according to Dench. This problem has been made worse in recent years by the federal Conservatives’ failure to fill dozens of vacancies on the Immigration and Refugee Board.

Moreover, the lack of a refugee appeals process in the current system means that asylum seekers whose claims are rejected are forced to go through a lengthy judicial review by the Federal Court. These delays have serious consequences for asylum seekers, making it very likely that families like the Videses will settle in Canada over the course of the excessive waits they are forced to undergo, and then face undue hardships if their refugee claims are turned down and they are forced to leave the country.

Bill C-11 is supposed to address these problems by shortening the timelines for asylum decisions, and creating a new refugee appeals process that will expedite the processing of asylum seekers whose claims are rejected. According to the Canadian government’s backgrounder on the bill, the new system also entails “hiring more officers to expedite removals.”

Groups like the CCR assess the new legislation as a positive development overall, although they express concerns that the new timelines may not allow sufficient time for all asylum seekers to prepare claims, and they are critical of the way the new system creates a discriminatory two-tier system based on asylum seekers’ country of origin. As well, given that many families like the Videses have already built lives for themselves in Canada due to the excessive delays of the old system, the new emphasis on “removals” raises serious concerns.

Already, there seem to be changes in how immigration authorities are dealing with outstanding deportation orders, according to Will. “There are situations where before they would have waited, and now they’re just plowing ahead as quickly as possible,” the Montreal-based immigration lawyer observed. “There’s definitely been a very obvious hardening in carrying out deportations in situations in which there may have been more leeway in the recent past,” he added.

As the country lurches from the old dysfunctional system in which thousands of asylum seekers spent years waiting for a decision, to a renewed emphasis on deportations, one can only guess how many families will suffer the consequences.

Back in San Salvador, Jessica Vides is worried about how her family will survive. If they pay the money to the gangs, “how will we feed the kids?” she asked, adding that with the threats to their lives, “Eduardo can’t go to work.” The family cannot possibly stay in El Salvador, she said.

More than a month after his family’s deportation, the young father who had defied CBSA with his hunger strike sounded tired, and sad.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do here right now. We’re in a very hard situation,” he said.

The family yearns to return home—to Canada.

Brought to Canada when she was just one year old, it is the only country Eduarda Vida has ever known. “She tells me that she misses her country,” Jessica Vides told The Dominion. The seven-year-old girl’s mom says she corrects her daughter’s “mistake.” For as CBSA has made painfully clear to both of Eduarda’s parents, Canada is not their country.

But for the girl who was abruptly yanked out of her first grade year at Montreal’s Bois Franc-Aquarelle elementary school in December, this is no easy lesson.

“I miss my friends,” the seven-year old told The Dominion mournfully, in a telephone from San Salvador more than a month after her family’s deportation. She also misses the snow, and her school, she said.

“I don’t have school here,” she added, explaining, “we can’t leave the house.”

Isabel Macdonald is a Montreal-based journalist and media scholar who has written for The Nation, The Guardian and The Toronto Star, amongst other publications.

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