From the front window of the Langley church Jose Figueroa has called home for the past nine months, a small opening is visible in the bushes that form a barrier between two parking lots. It is through that opening, Figueroa says, that officers from the Canada Border Services Agency watch the front entrance of the church, waiting for him to set foot outside.
If he does, he could be apprehended by officers and deported to his native El Salvador, separated indefinitely from his wife and three Canadian children.
A Federal Court ruling issued Monday, in which a judge found that the decision to deport Figueroa did not take into account “exceptionally strong” humanitarian and compassionate reasons to let him stay, does nothing to change this reality. His case will now be reassessed by another immigration officer.
In the meantime, the deportation order stands and CBSA officers, Figueroa says, keep their watch.
Figueroa has been deemed inadmissible to Canada on security grounds by federal officials due to his involvement with the political group Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberacion Nacional (FMLN), which opposed El Salvador’s former military regime. The group now forms the democratically-elected government of El Salvador and is recognized by Canada as such.
Figueroa, 47, says he was involved with the group as a student activist in the 1980s, but did not take part in any violent activities. Government officials have told him he is not on any terrorism watch lists, and he has a certificate of clearance from Interpol. “I am not a terrorist, so why I am being treated as one?”
Figueroa has been in Canada since 1997 as a refugee claimant, and was invited to apply for permanent residence, along with his wife, in 2004.
It was not until 2010 that he was informed by federal officials that his past political involvement would prevent him from remaining in Canada. A deportation order was issued in May 2010, and after the order was stayed, CBSA officials indicated last fall they would move to enforce it. Figueroa says he felt he had no choice but to claim sanctuary in the church.
“My greatest fear right now is to be in a detention centre where I will be away from my family and I wouldn’t have the chance to … continue the legal process,” he says.
The ordeal has taken an emotional and financial toll on the family.
At the same time immigration officials in Canada were indicating Figueroa would likely not be able to stay, his mother lay dying in the United States. He was not able to leave the country to be by her side. Immigration officials on both sides of the border were unsympathetic.
“This was something that really, really hurt me,” he says, breaking down in tears. “On that day, I made the decision that I was going to do everything in my power to prove that the allegations that they were bringing against me were untrue.”
With Figueroa spending his days inside Walnut Grove Lutheran Church, the family has also been deprived of its sole breadwinner. His 16-year-old son, Jose Ivan, has autism and Figueroa’s wife stays at home as a full-time caregiver. Figueroa says he owes tens of thousands in legal fees, and in 2010 the family came perilously close to losing their home.
Federal Court Justice Richard Mosley referenced Figueroa’s family situation in his decision to send the case for reassessment.
In her decision to reject Figueroa’s application to stay in Canada on humanitarian and compassionate grounds, Karine Roy-Tremblay, director of case determination for Citizenship and Immigration Canada, said Figueroa could continue to maintain a relationship with his children over Skype upon removal. Mosley, however, said the suggestion ignored the difficulties Figueroa’s wife would face caring for all three children, age 16, 10 and seven.
Asked to respond to the Federal Court ruling, Alexis Pavlich, a spokeswoman for Immigration Minister Chris Alexander, said via email on Monday: “Canada won’t be a safe-haven for past members of terrorist organizations. This individual has availed himself of Canada’s fair and generous asylum and immigration systems … We expect that once an asylum seeker has exhausted all their avenues of appeal, they will leave Canada.”
So the stalemate continues, and Figueroa remains in the church. Apart from the occasional Zumba class, church services and visits from his family on the weekends, he spends his time online, studying Canadian immigration law.
“It has been a blessing to be here (in the church). At least here I am able to see my family at least on the weekends and I think that’s the thing that provides us a little more hope for the future,” says Figueroa, sporting a red T-shirt with a maple leaf and the word “Canada.”
“This (court) decision … gives us some hope that justice might be achieved here in Canada if we work hard enough.”