The United Nations recently criticized Canada’s treatment of detained immigrants and asylum seekers, many of whom are held by the Canada Border Services Agency in provincial jails until their cases are decided.
While the 2012 Protecting Canada’s Immigration Systems Act dramatically increased CBSA powers to detain, interrogate and deport immigrants and refugee claimants, the agency’s questionable interpretation of the act is putting lives at risk and sullying our nation’s human-rights record.
The act authorizes the detainment of foreign nationals if a border officer has reason to believe that they are inadmissible.
If, after an initial holding period of up to 48 hours, the agency can convince the Immigration and Review Board that immigration or refugee claimants present a flight risk, threaten public safety, might be travelling under a false identity or have arrived by “irregular” means (i.e. by chartered vessel), individuals may be detained for up to a year before a hearing.
The CBSA enforces this provision by locking up individuals and families in more than 40 detention facilities across Canada, many of which are prisons. Of the close to 20,000 adults and children detained over the past two years, an astounding 48 per cent were housed in provincial jails, despite established international conventions against housing non-criminals with criminal populations.
Though most are held for an average length of three weeks, one individual, Victor Vinnettou, has been detained for a decade in Ontario over concerns about his identity.
At the CBSA’s only non-prison holding facility in B.C., a notorious dungeon-like complex under Vancouver’s airport, detainees are completely cut off from the outside world, and lawyers are not permitted to visit their clients in their cells. Last December, this site saw the suicide of Mexican national Lucia Vega Jiménez, who hanged herself shortly before her deportation date.
Jiménez’s death was kept from the public for more than a month, and the lack of civilian oversight over the facility’s operations means that, while a coroner’s inquest has been called, there will be no public inquiry to determine whether the agency upheld its legislated duties regarding prisoner safety in this instance.
The agency’s general transparency gap causes significant problems in other areas besides detention.
In August, CBSA officers, working in tandem with Ontario traffic authorities, spurred controversy by arresting 21 undocumented workers who were asked to produce their papers during a vehicle-safety sting in Toronto. Several civil-liberties associations have denounced this tactic as a breach of public trust, but no official investigation has been called to determine the legality of conducting immigration sweeps during traffic stops.
The CBSA also has stirred controversy with its reality television show Border Security, which broadcast a mass raid on a Vancouver construction site last year. Despite receiving numerous complaints that filming raids violates the privacy and dignity of undocumented workers, the CBSA has renewed the show for a third season.
These recent developments might be a symptom of a larger accountability problem stemming from CBSA’s formation in 2003. Before that time, the departments of Citizenship and Immigration, Customs and Revenue, and Food Inspection all administered activities relating to border security and immigration enforcement. The 2001 Smart Border Plan, a bilateral agreement with the United States forged following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, had expanded the previous scope of border security considerably. Routine collaboration between Customs and Immigration officers meant that some degree of interdepartmental oversight continued to exist regarding interrogations at border points, arrests, detentions and deportations.
The interdepartmental framework had drawbacks of its own, especially in the area of intelligence-sharing between bureaus, and indeed this issue impelled the CBSA’s creation.
However, the amalgamation of border security and immigration enforcement has left little opportunity for transparency in these policy areas.
The CBSA will continue to play an essential role in safeguarding our borders, but recent problems with detentions and immigration sweeps indicate that more must be done to ensure that the agency fulfils its mandate in a just, equitable and transparent manner.
Isabel Wallace is a sessional lecturer in history at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont.