Celina Urbanowicz making masks. Image: Matthew Behrens

When Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino announced last week a possible “one-time” pathway to permanent residence for some non-status workers on the front lines of COVID-19, Ottawa Roma refugee, seamstress and mother of five, Celina Urbanowicz, was seated at her sewing machine, churning out hand-sewn masks.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Urbanowicz has produced for free countless thousands of the masks for hospitals, day cares and long-term care homes that have never had enough personal protective equipment. The masks became so popular that health-care workers earlier this summer took to social media, both trying to ascertain the identity of this secret angel supplying them with colourful and well-fitting masks, and hoping to order more.

As rallies across the land this past weekend pointed out, Mendicino’s offer, while welcome, did not go far enough. Indeed, Urbanowicz, a 23-year resident of Canada who has lived here without status because of legal errors and other barriers that were the fault of others, will not have the doorway opened to her. 

Instead, she is fighting deportation to the virulently right-wing atmosphere in Poland, where Amnesty International has concluded a woman of her profile faces “multiple risks on account of their intersectional vulnerabilities stemming from their identity as a Roma woman, wife of a Muslim man, and as the mother of a lesbian woman.”

Indeed, the newly re-elected Polish President Andrzej Duda and his right-wing Law and Justice party have stoked a neofascist movement that has led to the declaration of LGBTQ-free zones throughout the country, pulling out of the Istanbul convention on ending violence against women, and an increase in anti-Roma violence.

Urbanowicz’s case is not isolated. She is one of hundreds of thousands of non-status people who live in the shadows of this country, subjected to economic exploitation (especially as migrant farm workers) and often denied the safety and services others enjoy. While Canada recently announced plans to welcome up to 390,000 immigrants annually by 2022, it continues to pursue an intensely cruel policy of surveillance, detention and deportation of a significant population who pay taxes, contribute to their communities and have built lives here. 

Status for all

If Canada’s immigration bureaucrats were to work in a logical fashion, they would realize that the first cohort of hundreds of thousands of potential permanent residents are already here and, in many cases, have been for years.

Why spend hundreds of millions annually forcing communities to live in fear, trying to break up families via detention and deportation (often over the kinds of minor procedural errors and systemic issues that are rife throughout the system) when they can grant permanent resident status to everyone now? There is zero evidence that any harm would result from such a blanket offer to come from the shadows; if anything, it would prevent the harm that comes with terrorizing and breaking up families and returning them to persecution.

Mendicino’s COVID-themed offer is problematic on a number of other levels. It was couched in the framework of racist Canadian benevolence that fails to acknowledge that humans caring for one another is a universal trait: “And despite the fact that they themselves were very vulnerable, (they) put themselves at a high risk to help others in their community,” he said. “Even though they don’t possess Canadian papers that give them permanent resident status or immigration status, they demonstrated a uniquely Canadian quality by looking out for one other.”

The idea that those who have lived lives at risk and undergone often difficult, traumatic journeys to get here as refugees should have to undertake additional risk to win the favour of the immigration minister speaks to the heartlessness at the core of the system. Indeed, in a statement that makes Mendicino eligible for the gaslighter of the year award, he told the Toronto Star: “What makes this group so unique and so special is the adversity that they had overcome just to get here.”

But everyone who comes here faces that adversity, both in the journey and, all too often, in the struggle to survive here, with only a patchwork of services and advocates available to help them navigate the system.

And the fact that only certain “designated” occupations fit this bill is yet another discriminatory measure. Hady Anne, an asylum seeker from Mauritius and member of Solidarité Sans Frontières, told the Toronto Star: “It’s saying there are people who are ‘essential’ and there are others that aren’t,” noting that the measure does not include undocumented residents, agricultural workers, international students and refugees working as janitors and in other jobs in long-term-care facilities. 

“It’s a discriminatory measure that brings us backwards in the defence of human rights.”

Refugees as inventory items

Mendicino’s surface-only benevolence reflects a deeper problem: those who have come to Canada seeking safety and a better life are rarely viewed by government bureaucracies as human beings.

Rather, they are inventory items that need to be shuffled from one file to another. This was made pretty clear in the auditor general’s (AG) July, 2020 investigation of the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) which, like the brutal American ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the focus of an excellent Netflix documentary, Immigration Nation), acts as a kind of Gestapo that hunts vulnerable people in an effort to meet deportation quotas. 

In the 2018/19 fiscal year, the CBSA spent $34 million to rip apart families and execute deportations. The AG describes the majority of those found inadmissible to Canada as “failed asylum claimants,” along with a smaller number of visitors who overstay their visas or those with alleged criminality. The latter is a grossly broad term that fails to account for the racial profiling and over-policing of racialized communities that underscores the policing/judicial system.

It is also minuscule, 2,800 cases, or less than 1.5 per cent of the total. Those individuals on the list face double punishment, as most have already served either time or probation for their alleged offences.

Meanwhile, CBSA tries to deport individuals within a year of a final negative decision, largely because if individuals manage to stay here longer than 365 days, they may access a pre-removal risk assessment (whose success rate is less than 5 per cent). The CBSA hopes to increase deportations to at least 10,000 annually, and received an additional $36 million, beginning in 2019/20, to keep up with its mandate of misery and reach a hoped-for 15,500 annual deportations by 2022.

The AG’s report is written in the cold, actuarial language that removes all humanity, insisting that deportation “protects the integrity and fairness of Canada’s immigration system,” even though the system itself is rife with a lack of integrity and fairness that grows not from those who come here but from racism, institutional bias, incompetence and repeated failure to uphold both its domestic and international law commitments.

CBSA also says removal of refugees is “one of the most effective ways to deter those who might otherwise seek to abuse the system.” In other words, like the Trump administration, the goal is not to make it safe for those at risk, but rather to punish those who, for whatever reason, cannot win their cases.

Those reasons often range from an inability to find a translator or competent lawyer, missing a checkbox on an application form, not having a “you have been tortured” certificate from the torturers in the country they fled, biased decision makers at the Immigration and Refugee Board, or submitting a document a day late. They are deemed “failed” asylum seekers when in fact, they simply could not win against a system that too often fails them.  

The AG says there are about 50,000 “enforceable cases” in the CBSA inventory, and bemoans an institutional incompetence that, while perhaps good news for those trying to survive here without fear of being deported, simply extends the period of uncertainty and living in the shadows that mark the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

The CBSA is cited for “poor case management” and failure to complete annual investigations. It is also taken to task for its sloppiness in maintaining a “national removal inventory” (language one would associate with toxic waste, but here it’s meant to describe everyone from women fleeing abusive men and individuals targeted by governments for their ethnic or religious heritage or political affiliation to peasant farmers forced off their land and threatened with death for trying to stop Canadian corporations from building a dangerous mine or mega dam in their home community).

CBSA’s poor data management

As of April 2019, the CBSA had 197,000 removal orders in its “inventory.” Among them are 132,500 unenforceable removal orders (individuals awaiting word on asylum claims and permanent residence applications) and 14,500 “stayed” cases where deportation is legally prohibited.

Under the “enforceable” category, there were 15,300 “working inventory” individuals who CBSA was “required to remove,” and 34,700 where individuals with immigration warrants could not be located. The AG notes the numbers are approximations due to CBSA’s poor “removal data quality.” 

One might find that CBSA’s incompetence and inability to find thousands of those who continue seeking safety is a mixed blessing. It means not being immediately returned to dangerous conditions in their homes countries, but it also forces them to continue living in the shadows, where there is more risk of exploitation.

CBSA’s inability to work as professionals also has incredibly dangerous consequences. The AG found 3,200 cases in the working inventory that were

“actionable, meaning they had no known impediment to advancing to removal. However, because of poor data quality, we found that actionable cases were not reliably identified — some cases were wrongly flagged as actionable, while many more cases were actionable (‘no impediments’ but were not flagged.)”

In human terms, what this means is refugees with every right to be here as their cases were being determined had been wrongfully labeled as removable, meaning they could be picked up, detained and possibly deported before anyone realizes the huge error committed.

The trauma and potential lethality of such sloppiness is incalculable. The AG found through sampling that at least 500 cases in the working inventory were not enforceable; those numbers may in fact be far higher. CBSA ultimately does not care whether it removes those with a right to be here because its mandate is to hit its quotas. (Unfortunately, the proroguing of Parliament meant that proposed legislation to introduce oversight of the CBSA was eliminated and must begin anew at a future date). 

In the sick evaluation of whether or not such an agency meets its mandate, the AG noted that while the 2018/19 removal year boasted some 9,500 cases, 2,800 had been refused entry at the border, which means “the agency removed 6,700 cases from its working or wanted inventories that fiscal year, making little impact on their levels.”

Notably, CBSA confirmed with the AG that “cases in its wanted inventory are generally considered a low risk to public safety and are not an agency priority.” In other words, kids and families who, even though they pose no risk, are nonetheless a juicy target to meet quotas. 

Trudeau and Trump’s concentration camps

Who, exactly, is being turned away by Canada under its various border enforcement mechanisms? Earlier this month, the Federal Court of Canada released a key decision that summarized 10 refugee cases while finding that the so-called Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) with the U.S. violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Court said it was clear that Canada is actively turning away individuals seeking asylum here with the full knowledge that those refugees will be immediately detained upon return to the U.S., where standards for refugee acceptance continue to decline and conditions for those behind bars are cruel. 

Under the agreement, anyone arriving at a land port of entry (POE) from the U.S. cannot make a refugee claim in Canada because of the assumption that the U.S. is “safe” for refugees. Yet, as the court notes, “claimants arriving from the U.S. by air, by sea or between land POEs, are eligible to have their refugee claims” heard. 

Among those who were part of the challenges to the STCA were individuals and families escaping danger in El Salvador, Syria and Ethiopia. Ms. Mustefa, for example, was turned away after 30 hours of interrogation in Quebec and immediately jailed for a month, with the first week in solitary confinement. 

Mustefa described solitary as a “terrifying, isolating and psychologically traumatic experience,” and, as a Muslim, reports she was served pork even though she informed guards she could not eat it. As a result, she lost 15 pounds by skipping meals.

A Syrian family who tried to walk across the border at the Roxham Road opening in the New York/Quebec border were told by the CBSA they would be arrested if they tried to enter. When they turned back to New York, they were thrown into separate police cars, questioned, photographed and fingerprinted, with the mother forced to remove her hijab. (They were thankfully able to eventually get temporary resident permits and have since become permanent residents.)

While Canada has disingenuously argued that it has no control over what happens to those it deports or kicks back to the U.S., the court found that:

“CBSA officials are involved in the physical handing over of claimants to U.S. officials. This conduct does not make Canada a ‘passive participant’ and it provides a ‘sufficient connection’ to the offending conduct. I conclude that the actions of Canadian officials in returning ineligible STCA claimants to US officials facilitates a process that results in detention.”

Physical and psychological suffering

The court notes that “the accounts of detainees demonstrate both physical and psychological suffering because of detention, and a real risk that they will not be able to assert asylum claims.” The conditions they are forced to ensure are brutal, with the court finding:

“all describe the detention centres as abnormally cold. J.K. describes being unable to sleep due to the cold; P.Q. describes asking for extra blankets, but not receiving any until she had a fever and needed to see a doctor, and R.S. stated that when prisoners would huddle together for warmth, the guards would pull the blankets off them. J.K. states that she denied requiring medical attention to avoid being handcuffed. R.S. describes the medical care in her detention facility as being inadequate. R.S. observed the nurse in her detention facility ignore black detainees while going out of her way to address medical issues of white detainees. She states that the nurse would ‘ignore us and simply not address our concerns’.”

The court’s bottom line was clear:

“The evidence establishes that the conduct of Canadian officials in applying the provisions of the STCA will provoke certain, and known, reactions by US officials. In my view, the risk of detention for the sake of ‘administrative’ compliance with the provisions of the STCA cannot be justified. Canada cannot turn a blind eye to the consequences that befell Ms. Mustefa in its efforts to adhere to the STCA. The evidence clearly demonstrates that those returned to the US by Canadian officials are detained as a penalty.”

Such brutal conditions are wholly consistent with those documented in report after report, including Human Rights Watch’s “In The Freezer: Abusive Conditions for Women and Children in US Immigration Holding Cells,” as well as the Netflix series Immigration Nation, which follows the plight of many of those detained, those organizing against the American concentration camps, and the casual cruelty of ICE officers who, like their CBSA counterparts, think only in terms of number-processing and bottom lines.

All of this is publicly available evidence, and yet Canada continues to behave as if the U.S. is a safe destination for refugees. Canadian officials are aware of the fact that, for Salvadorans, being sent back to the U.S. and eventual deportation back home often results in death. Indeed, more than 70 people deported from the U.S. to that country under the Obama administration from 2012-15 were murdered upon their return, numbers that increased under Trump with deteriorating conditions in that Central American country. 

While the federal court gave Ottawa a six-month period to bring its policies in line with the constitution and the law, the Trudeau Liberals have chosen in favour of the Trump concentration camp system of family separation and racist border walls, deciding last week to appeal the court decision.

In an August 21 statement, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair made himself eligible for the cognitive dissonance award of 2020 by declaring the appeal was being conducted because “Canada remains firmly committed to upholding a compassionate, fair and orderly refugee protection system.”

Whether that commitment will extend to Roma refugee Celina Urbanowicz remains to be seen. She spent a few hours last week dropping off face masks to grateful nurses at Riverside Hospital in Ottawa. As she returned home to continue her one-woman production line, her daughters and supporters continue campaigning to have her accepted as a permanent resident in Canada and to cancel the deportation to Poland.

This week, they launched a 23-day chain fast, each day marking one year that she and her family have lived here without status. They are also promoting a petition that has garnered over 7,000 signatures.  

The fact that refugees must risk their lives in a COVID-infected facility or seek the help of advocates to generate petitions, publicity, demonstrations and chain fasts simply to win their basic right to be safe speaks not to a refugee problem, but to a systemic problem with Canada’s immigration system.

As government officials continue to dismiss their legal obligations to asylum seekers, it falls to the rest of us to engage in this work to ensure an end to the cruel warehousing, hunting, and deportation of those who came here because their backs were against the wall in their home countries. Lives hang in the balance, and all of us have choices to make. 

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. “national security” profiling for many years.

Image: Matthew Behrens

Photo of Matthew Behrens

Matthew Behrens

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate.