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The Toronto Star - Wednesday, July 14, 1999
BY VALERIE LAWTON OTTAWA BUREAU

Woman was in Canada illegally for 11 years before being ordered out

OTTAWA – Mavis Baker was in Canada illegally for 11 years – giving birth to four children – before immigration officials finally ordered her deported.

Her case has made headlines over the clash between the rights of Canadian-born children and the government’s right to deport people from Canada. But some say it has also highlighted another serious problem.

Why does it take so long for some cases to wind their way through the immigration department?

Even the immigration officer who handled Baker’s file summed up its history this way: “This case is a catastrophe. It is also an indictment of our ‘system’ that the client came as a visitor in Aug.’81, was not ordered deported until Dec.’92 and in APRIL’94 IS STILL HERE!,” her wrote, with the capital letters for emphasis.

The immigration department calls Baker’s case – the subject of a Supreme Court of Canada ruling last week – unusual.

Immigration lawyers agree, although many say they have their own Mavis Baker-type cases, along with plenty of others that may not take years and years but still languish for too long in the system.

“It’s true that Mavis Baker is the extreme, but it is very typical for processing delays to affect those seeking entry to Canada,” said Toronto immigration lawyer Max Berger.

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court ordered that Baker, a 44-year-old single mother living in Toronto, must be given a new hearing because the immigration department should have considered the interests of her children in deciding on her possible deportation back to Jamaica.

Baker came to Canada in 1981 as a visitor, got a job as a domestic and gave birth to four children without becoming a legal immigrant. In 1992, after her youngest child was born, she was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and applied for welfare. That alerted immigration officials to the fact she had overstayed her visitor’s visa. She was ordered deported.

Berger says the immigration department could avoid the issue of Canadian-born children and deportation altogether if cases moved through the system at a more reasonable speed.

“Immigration must bear some of the responsibility if procedural delays are so long that babies are born and reach early childhood before disposition of the case,” he said.

Official statistics aren’t available, but lawyers believe there are hundreds of cases similar to Baker’s. Berger blames immigration under-staffing and simple bureaucracy for hold-ups. Others who work in the field talk about cases where files get misplaced or are inexplicably ignored for long periods.

“From our point of view, there seems to be a lot of haphazardness to it,” said Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees. “There’s a lot of mismanagement of files.”

Reform MP Grant McNally, his party’s deputy immigration critic, called the system “broken.” He said the case “is reflective of the Liberals’ immigration policy – status quo, everything’s fine, don’t make any changes, and we see individuals like Mrs. Baker, her life has been on hold for so long.

“We’d like to see situations dealt with more quickly, at the front end of the system. When somebody first enters the system, let’s make a decision. Let them get on with their life.”

Immigration department officials counter such criticisms by pointing to a number of explanations as to why some cases move slowly.

Spokesperson Huguette Shouldice said many people who have stayed in the country illegally after their visitor’s permits have expired don’t come to light for some time because Canada does not keep track of who leaves the country.

Adding exit controls would mean huge backups at the border and at airports, she said.

“Some responsibility for delays would have to be shared,” said Shouldice, citing examples of people showing up without a lawyer, then returning with a lawyer who asks for time to prepare a case.

“We have to respect all of that. People are entitled to due process.”

A 1997 study by Canada’s auditor-general concluded that government inefficiency has allowed close to 16,000 failed refugee claimants, including some criminals, to avoid deportation.

But the department argues that figure is exaggerated.

Shouldice also said the department must set priorities for deportations, and that means criminals are targeted first, and other kinds of cases fall lower down on the list. Last year, the government deported more than 8,000 people.

Sharryn Aiken counts herself among immigration lawyers with clients forced to wait years for answers from Ottawa – including a Sri Lankan man accepted as a refugee in 1990 but still waiting to hear whether he’ll get landed status.

However, she worries about arguments that attack the immigration system for being too slow handling claims.

“It feeds into the hands of people who want to revamp the system and take away all kinds of rights,” said Aiken.

“There’s this whole drive right now in immigration for efficiency. They’ve recognized themselves that they have problems processing things, there’s delays, there’s this, there’s that. What they want to do is streamline stuff so people are just pushed in and out. There’s a real danger.”


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