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CBSA border guards inspect vehicles at the Sumas border crossing in Abbotsford, British Columbia on April 2, 2013.

Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

The death of a Mexican woman while in custody at Vancouver International Airport has sparked a dispute pitting the Canada Border Services Agency against advocacy groups who say the incident underscores the need for independent oversight of the agency and changes to its migrant detention policies.

Lucia Dominga Vega Jimenez, 42, had been in custody for three weeks – first at Alouette Correctional Centre, then at the airport's immigration holding centre – when she attempted to kill herself. She was taken to hospital on Dec. 20 and died eight days later. While it is not uncommon for immigrant holds to be lengthy, advocates note it is the responsibility of the CBSA to ensure the safety of detainees.

The CBSA has declined interviews with media regarding the death, instead issuing a statement saying its national detention facilities "are regularly monitored by independent organizations, namely the Red Cross and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR)."

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However, the UNHCR scrapped its lone Vancouver position in 2011 due to a global budget shortfall. And Josh Paterson, executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA), said the Red Cross has a binding agreement with the CBSA not to disclose its findings.

"Are they independent? Yes. In terms of whether that adds to the transparency? Not at all," Mr. Paterson said. "Nothing that they see or find can become public."

The BCCLA, as well as migrant advocacy group No One is Illegal, has called for an independent mechanism for public complaints as well as independent, civilian-led oversight of the agency's operations.

Hasan Alam, a member of No One is Illegal, took issue with the fact Ms. Vega Jimenez's death was not made public until a month afterward – and seemingly only because it was reported in the media. He also questioned the CBSA's contracting of private security firm Genesis Security Group. "What kind of care and standards are being applied here?"

Coroner Barb McLintock said there have been "very, very few" CBSA in-custody deaths in B.C.

Ms. Vega Jimenez was on a Vancouver SkyTrain station platform on Dec. 1 when she encountered Transit Police officers conducting a routine fare check.

"She did not have the appropriate fare and as a result her identity was checked," said Anne Drennan, spokeswoman for Transit Police. "It was found that she was wanted by CBSA regarding an immigration issue."

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A CBSA officer arrested Ms. Vega Jimenez. Two Transit Police officers then took Ms. Vega Jimenez to the airport and transferred her to the custody of two CBSA officers, Ms. Drennan said.

Court records show that in July of 2010, the Immigration and Refugee Board denied Ms. Vega Jimenez's refugee claim, determining she was not a Convention refugee. She applied for leave and judicial review in the Federal Court the following month, and that was dismissed in October, 2010. It is believed Ms. Vega Jimenez was deported, then returned to Canada last year.

Failed refugee claimants are ineligible to apply again. The fact Ms. Vega Jimenez was transported from Alouette to YVR shortly before her death suggests her return to Mexico was imminent.

No One Is Illegal and others have planned a vigil for Ms. Vega Jimenez at 5:30 p.m. on Friday in front of CBSA offices in Vancouver.

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