Policies that kill

Canada’s deadly immigration and refugee regime must change

In late December of last year, as families across the country decorated Christmas trees, baked cookies and lined their children up for photos with Santa Claus, the Canadian government set in motion a series of events that led to the death of a 42-year-old woman.

Lucia Vega Jimenez, a Mexican migrant worker struggling to support her ill mother, hanged herself in a holding cell in Vancouver while awaiting deportation.

Suicide? Or murder? If it is murder to treat a human being with such cruelty and inhumanity that they lose all hope for the future and hang themselves with a bath towel, then yes, murder most foul.

A tragedy twice-over

Her death is tragic; almost as sad is the fact that those most immediately responsible – bureaucrats and legislators who have willfully created a culture of impunity around the cruel and severe treatment of migrant workers and refugees in this country – will be held in no way responsible for her death. They will not be held accountable because bureaucratic bullying is not a crime, even when it leads to the very predictable deaths of those it targets.

Lucia had applied for refugee status and was rejected in 2010. Little is known about what happened to her since then, and many questions still remain, but media reports have revealed a little about her life shortly before this tragedy. She purportedly had no close friends or relatives in the country and was working to send money to her mother in Mexico, who was ill with a serious heart condition. She failed to pay transit fare and was arrested by Vancouver transit police. She was held in custody for three weeks, including at immigrant detention cells under the nominal authority of the increasingly secretive Canadian Border Services Agency (who had in turn contracted out their work to a private security agency). She was imprisoned at a facility that immigration lawyers and even priests describe as virtually impossible for them to get access to, and which one Vancouver newspaper recently described as a “dungeon”. Her boyfriend refused to pay her bail, and it appears he may have taken advantage of the situation to steal her life savings. The Mexican consulate says she feared a “domestic situation” her looming deportation would return her to. On Dec. 20 she hanged herself in a suicide attempt, and died eight days later in hospital.

Faced with the notorious, bewildering and inconsistent nature of Canada’s immigration and refugee laws, imprisoned and isolated by private security guards on top of it, with no one to support her, it’s little wonder she lost all hope. And it’s clear that somebody felt at least a little embarrassed: government hid news of her death from the public for over a month after it happened.

…bureaucratic bullying is not a crime, even when it leads to the very predictable deaths of those it targets.

Canada’s system of dealing with refugees and migrant workers is – even for Canadians such as myself – so confusing as to be incomprehensible, and what we do comprehend does not give us faith. Immigrant detainees can be imprisoned indefinitely (even some of the world’s more repressive regimes abide by 90-day limits) and are not guaranteed legal or medical aid. In one widely-reported case, an Iranian refugee was imprisoned for six years in a maximum-security jail because he would not sign a paper authorizing his deportation back to the country he feared. Initial decisions are made by civil servants with little training or experience; claims are heard in what advocacy group No One Is Illegal says “has been termed a ‘lottery system’ because acceptance rates can vary from 0-80% depending on the judge.”

Any system that is designed as a deterrent – that is to say, designed to be either nasty or terrifying or confusing or unpleasant enough that people are afraid to risk putting themselves in its grip – is bound to lead to tragedies like this. And as the federal Minister for Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism said in a 2012 speech, changes to the immigration and refugee policies were being designed to “deter” unwanted migrants from “abusing Canada’s generosity, to stop them from clogging up the system.”

But if this is death-dealing, the Canadian government has plenty of practice. The Global Detention Project reported on “the death of Jan Szambo, a Roma refugee from the Czech Republic who died of heart failure in December 2009, two days after being transferred from the TIHC [Toronto Immigration Holding Centre] to the Toronto West Detention Centre while awaiting deportation. At the time of his death, Szambo had been taking medication for a chronic adrenal gland disorder. According to newspaper reports, he was deemed ‘uncooperative’ and believed to be ‘faking his medical condition’ after being found at TIHC ‘visibly frail’ and ‘soiled in his own feces and urine’ hours before originally being scheduled for deportation.”

Then there is also the death of “Michael Osaretin Akhimien, an asylum seeker from Nigeria, [who] was detained at Celebrity Inn [a now-closed detention centre in Toronto] for several months, until his death due to complications stemming from pneumonia and/or untreated diabetes. Akhimien’s case was eventually brought before the UN Committee against Torture…”

And on Jan. 18 of this year, Rogerio Marques De Souza, an undocumented migrant with three children, died after avoiding cancer treatment for fear of deportation. To add insult to injury death, the City of Toronto, in a move reminiscent of the medieval era, even refused to bury him.

The list of atrocities goes on. Horrifying news emerged last week of a Mexican refugee who, after leaving her abusive Canadian husband, now faces both deportation and the loss of her child as a result. A report by the Auditor General in 2008 described an over-crowded detention centre in Toronto where prisoners were forced to sleep on the floor. More recently, Dr. Tarek Loubani – one of the two Canadians imprisoned for several weeks in Egypt during that country’s turmoil last year – spoke out during a hunger strike by immigrant detainees in Ontario, and described conditions of immigrant detainees in Canada as worse than those in the Egyptian prisons he himself had experienced. Indeed, it’s considered a violation of international human rights to imprison asylum-seekers in regular prisons. Yet it happens all over the country. Even in sparsely populated Newfoundland, a 2011 report revealed 11 immigration detainees – the majority of them asylum-seekers – imprisoned at the penitentiary for almost two weeks, hidden right under the noses of the country’s “friendliest” people.

Making things worse

Under the federal Conservative government, migrant workers and refugees have been targeted with increasingly repressive measures. To be honest, many Canadians are probably in favour of this. It’s hard to levy arguments against those who are simple-minded enough to buy into fear-mongering about what will happen if we let down our guard against improperly registered migrant workers. After all, isn’t it plausible to consider a grandmotherly Mexican housekeeper the prelude to an unstoppable invasion? (Answer: no, it isn’t.) Nor the Filipino construction worker sitting at the end of the espresso bar, nor the Cambodian accountant who tutors your children in mathematics (yet is afraid to apply for refugee status because he’s read the stories of a Mexican woman whose refugee claims were twice rejected by Canada and who was deported and murdered upon arrival).

Well, these are all very nice people, but if we don’t enforce the law with utter severity, surely an army of undesirable vagrants will sweep over the country? Any credible social scientist will tell you this is absolute nonsense: even in the most liberal immigration regimes it has never happened, and never will. And even if the number of migrant workers slipping across the border increased somewhat, the worst outcome of that would be a stronger economy. But history shows us that humanity still hasn’t outgrown its capacity to commit incredibly brutal, heartless and cruel acts out of its fear of the dark.

[H]istory shows us that humanity still hasn’t outgrown its capacity to commit incredibly brutal, heartless and cruel acts out of its fear of the dark.

The excuse used to be that failure to crack down on ‘illegal’ migrant workers would overwhelm and destroy our social programs (hence the Conservatives’ determined efforts to deprive refugee claimants of health care). But that’s no longer an excuse: the Conservatives have shown themselves fully capable of ruining the country’s social programs on their own.

So we are left instead with fear – that ineffable fear of what might happen if we let down our guard. It’s a logic by which we might propose locking school-children in isolation tanks as punishment and deterrent against stealing other kids’ lunch money (and if a few of them commit suicide, well it’s not our fault is it? Anyway, all the more deterrent!). Only the difference is that the school-children are ours; whereas the migrant workers are foreigners. That’s no doubt why Lucia was singled out by the transit officers who caught her in Vancouver late last year. How likely is it they would have stopped a white body toting a designer suit and briefcase? And what would they have done, if they knew when they stopped her that they were sending her to her death?

The media report police have a video surveillance tape from the detention centre that chronicles the last hours of Lucia’s life. It shows her pacing back and forth, from her cell to the bathroom (where she eventually killed herself). What was she thinking during those last moments, pacing back and forth in indecision? Was she thinking of her sister and three nieces in Mexico, who she was supporting? Of her ailing mother, whose hospital bills she was paying? Of the looks on their faces when she re-appeared on their doorsteps, no longer able to send money to feed them and now an extra mouth to feed herself? Of the “domestic trouble” she was going to face upon her return? Of the boyfriend here in Canada who had stolen all of her savings and abandoned her upon her arrest? Of the shame of her arrest and deportation? The isolation of the notorious Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) detention centers? The cruelty of a country that turns its back on those trying to feed their families at home by working hard for Canadians?

Or perhaps the grinning, chubby face of the federal bureaucrat who signed her death warrant, hidden in the strict and uncompromising policies and regulations of the Canadian immigration system.

Cruel and unnecessary

Federal immigration policy is cruel and it kills people: people like Lucia Vega Jimenez. Policies that are cruel and that kill people are never necessary, particularly in a stable, rich and peaceful country like Canada. They are the product of fear, bigotry, and a callous disregard for human life and dignity.

And the only thing they deter is the faith of immigrants and refugees in the Canadian ‘justice’ system. Knowing the strict, callous nature of our immigration policy, would-be migrant workers and refugees place themselves in dangerous and jeopardizing conditions in efforts to avoid entanglements with the police or the courts or the stiff-nosed refugee board.

Just last year the Supreme Court of Canada struck down Canada’s prostitution laws, determining that since prostitution happens anyway, the laws simply endangered sex workers by compelling them to work under dangerous conditions without legal protections. It is a telling indictment of the racialized nature of our ‘justice’ system that the courts will strike down federal laws that induce sex workers to place themselves in conditions of vulnerability, yet they will uphold federal laws that similarly force migrant workers and refugees into the dark corners of our economy and our society. All for committing the grave crime of desiring to feed their families. And for being foreign.

And it is a sad double-standard too that we will wage mighty campaigns to convince school-children that it does not matter if they are too fat or too thin, if they are popular or unpopular or athletic or nerdy; that they are important, that they matter, that we care for them and they must not give up hope and certainly not commit suicide. Yet when it comes to racialized migrant workers, we shrug our shoulders and turn our backs; lock them into privatized prison cells with no hope or guarantee of ever being released; and then they hang themselves with bathroom towels.

There are those who will undoubtedly deny this was murder; deny any responsibility or complicity in the death of Lucia Vega Jimenez. Well, whatever helps you sleep at night. And there will be those, out here in the rural corners of the country, who might despair that there is nothing we can do: such decisions are made in Ottawa and the centres of power in the country. Well there’s truth to that too.

There’s not much we can do besides those things which little people like ourselves do everywhere in the world when democratic regimes turn murderous and call it something else: voice our outrage, demand change from our representatives, and above all refuse to participate in the enforcement of murderous laws whenever we are called upon to do so.

For the memory of Lucia Vega Jimenez, killed by state cruelty at Christmas-time, it’s the least we can do.

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