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Mihaly Illes knew all about his Canadian entitlements. "That's a violation of my rights," the Hungarian told officials at his 1998 deportation hearing. "I'm sure there is a proper way to do this," he sulked later on. "I'm not going to participate in it," he said, ultimately leaving the hearing room to be escorted back to his jail cell.

Since his arrival in Canada in 1992 as a refugee claimant sponsored by a Presbyterian church, the 34-year-old had been no choirboy. He was frequently in and out of trouble with the law. He had made friends with Eastern European mobsters and outlaw bikers. He was facing a slew of drug and gun charges.

Police once found him with a rifle, a semi-automatic pistol and other guns. While serving a seven-year sentence for drug dealing, Mr. Illes allegedly threatened to kill a police officer. Prison officials also say they overheard him talking about how he planned to go back to work dealing drugs as, "there is very good money in that" in Canada.

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Despite all this, Mr. Illes managed to delay his deportation until the fall of 2000. Then, just a few months after being sent home, he waltzed back into Canada, presumably using fake identification. He went back to work dealing cocaine.

Authorities stumbled on Mr. Illes while he was crossing the Canada-U.S. border. They rearrested him and eventually realized he had done a lot worse than come back and deal drugs: He had killed one of his close associates, Javan Dowling.

The 28-year-old man's bullet-riddled skull was discovered near a B.C. logging road in 2001. Prosecutors were able to establish that a drug network had ordered Mr. Illes to kill his friend, and the Hungarian had carted the head around in a Home Depot bucket, showing it to several people before burying it in the wilderness.

Sentenced to life in prison last year, Mr. Illes is just one example of a foreign-born criminal knowing how to work the system. Some simply slip back into Canada to reoffend after being deported. Many others ward off banishment by wrapping themselves in the protections of refugee rights. Still others take advantage of Canada's reluctance to jail immigrant offenders -- and then skip scheduled flights back to their homelands.

Exasperated police, who complain the system is all carrot and no stick, marvel at the case files of some non-citizens who linger in Canada despite amassing up to 30 criminal convictions over time. Vancouver police, who chronically contend with foreign drug dealers, are especially critical of Canada's immigration system.

"My issue is with the system that allows these guys to make repeated refugee claims and each claim has to be investigated as if it has merit," Inspector Val Harrison said.

"To me, once a person has been ordered deported we should just be able to drop kick them -- every time they come back, we just boot them."

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Easier said than done. Canadian laws do allow for non-citizens, such as refugee claimants or landed immigrants, to be jailed and sent back to their homeland if they commit serious crimes. But officials say the process is extremely difficult, given various complexities, refugee protections and an ingrained tendency to give offenders the benefit of the doubt.

Criminality is just one factor to be considered during deportation hearings. The government has to weigh whether offenders may be abused back at home, or if children left in Canada would suffer in their absence. Such considerations often trump long rap sheets, allowing for indefinite stays.

The Canada Border Services Agency, the federal agency in charge of removing illegal immigrants, says it is cracking down. Officials point to the record number -- more than 10,000 yearly -- of people now considered "confirmed removals."

Yet the vast majority of these removal cases involve failed refugee claimants who have never committed any crime and who leave Canada willingly. Fewer removal cases involve known criminals.

In 2001, for example, Canada kicked out nearly 2,000 people for reasons of criminality, or after they were declared a danger to the public. Last year, despite growing overall removals, fewer than 1,700 such offenders were sent packing.

Federal authorities have long promised to get tough. This was especially true a decade ago, when they were presented with two headline-grabbing wake-up calls. In 1994, a gunman ordered deported to Jamaica stayed here long enough to shoot dead Toronto Police Constable Todd Baylis. Then, in a similar slaying, Torontonian Vivi Leimonis was gunned down during a robbery in a café called Just Desserts.

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Ottawa had a hot issue on its hands and set about overhauling laws and regulations.

Yet the same problems stubbornly keep coming back. In 2003, Auditor-General Sheila Fraser looked at the immigration-enforcement system and made some familiar complaints. Citing incomplete computer databases, a lack of detention spaces, protracted court battles and a general lack of resources, she found that the removal pipeline was badly clogged. In fact, she pointed out, there were 11,000 live cases that hadn't even been assigned to anyone. Moreover, computer databases showed about 30,000 outstanding immigration-arrest warrants for removals that had never been enforced -- some up to seven years old.

The people in question ran the gamut from non-criminals who had simply overstayed to those considered dangerous. The Auditor-General sternly noted that up to half of the immigrants who had been asked to leave "simply did not appear for the removal interview or the scheduled departure."

While Toronto now has a special enforcement squad, the Auditor-General noted that ones in Montreal and Vancouver were short-lived.

Enforcement actions can make a huge difference in people's lives, especially those who feel threatened by violent gangsters. One of the best examples of this is a 2001 project, in which police and federal officials teamed up to stanch the bloodletting in Toronto's Tamil community.

A few dozen feuding gangsters were at each other's throats. There were machete- and meat-cleaver melees. At the height of the violence, police say they logged reports of shootings almost daily, including ones on highways and in late-night doughnut shops. At least three homicide investigations were under way when the crackdown occurred.

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About 50 reputed gangsters were arrested. Detectives estimated that most of the violence was perpetrated by non-citizens, many of whom had already been in and out of jail. The plan was to round up the thugs and ship them back to Sri Lanka, once and for all.

Leaders of Toronto's 200,000-strong Tamil community lauded the crackdown and the peace that resulted. Yet the resulting hearings have been a big disappointment.

The reputed ringleaders all remain in Canada. Only six lesser figures have been sent back. In fact, four years after the roundup, nearly 30 deportation cases remain unresolved. Judges and adjudicators are largely hung up on the question of whether the refugee claimants will be abused in Sri Lanka.

Kaileshan Thanabalasingham, who has a metre-high file in the Federal Court, is one representative of this group. Police submitted charts and witness statements placing the 33-year-old at the centre of a violent gang. He has three criminal convictions, including weapons offences involving machetes and guns.

In his defence, the accused filed letters from a host of references saying he has the makings of a good citizen -- he even inserted a note from his mom.

More recently, he has admitted to perjury and concealing his gang ties. Despite the violence and lies, he remains free on bail as the lawyers debate whether he'd be abused in Sri Lanka. This type of legal wrangling is not uncommon.

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"It's important to remember that anybody who sets foot in Canada has full protection of the Charter," says James Bissett of the border services agency.

In an interview, the director of inland enforcement, whose 350 officers work to track down the worst of the worst, said the picture is getting better. Detentions and deportations are up, while databases are increasingly co-ordinated. But Mr. Bissett concedes that deportation remains a big challenge.

One chronic case of abuse involves Honduran refugee claimants in Vancouver. Their claims are rejected 95 per cent of the time. Yet dozens linger long enough to openly deal crack cocaine in the city's downtown. They duck authorities then, when arrested, tend to go in and out of jail, make bail and disappear.

This has been going on for nearly a decade, despite periodic enforcement efforts aimed at containing the problem. Vancouver lawyer Richard Kurland, an immigration policy expert, has recently suggested officials launch a pilot program to detain such repeat offenders until they prove they are bona fide refugees.

But the border services agency's Mr. Bissett says the idea is "a little bit naive."

"In my humble opinion, that would never stand up to any Charter challenge -- that somehow you are going to round up a certain ethnic minority or certain group, and put them in detention? It just wouldn't fly. No way."

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Besides, there aren't a lot of places to detain people. Canada, a country that allows in more than 200,000 immigrants a year, has just over 300 dedicated spots for immigration offenders. Most of the time, federal authorities negotiate for provincial jail space at a cost of about $200 a day for each offender.

But Mihaly Illes is one foreign-born gangster who will remain behind bars. The Hungarian's murder conviction means he will be locked up until at least 2026.

Mr. Illes was openly contemptuous of the same immigration system that had once granted him a new home. After he was deported, he found it remarkably easy to come back -- another chronic problem that police say they often encounter.

Now a convicted murderer, Mr. Illes still battles to make sure Canada protects his rights. At the B.C. Supreme Court, he successfully argued that his Charter rights were violated when officials automatically revoked his parole after rearresting him at the Canada-U.S. border.

More recently he made a cameo appearance in a Supreme Court decision that gives prisoners the right to carry knives to defend themselves.

The prisoner at the centre of the case, also being held in a high-security penitentiary, said that every night he stashed away two knives. And in the morning he fished them out and provided one, a sharpened steel rod, to his friend, Mr. Illes.

"I have two for about 10 minutes every day until I give my friend his," the prisoner said.

"Your friend meaning [Mihaly]Illes, right?" a lawyer asked. ". . . That was his, shall we call it, the ice pick?"

"If you want," the prisoner responded.

Deported from Canada

Canada is deporting more people than ever, but criminals represent a small and shrinking portion of the people sent packing.

1999-2000
Total removed 8,149
Total criminals removed 1,736
Immigrants declared too dangerous for Canada 251
2000-2001
Total removed 8,946
Total criminals removed 1,744
Immigrants declared too dangerous for Canada 219
Confirmed criminal deportees that arrived as refugee claimants 461
2001-2002
Total removed 9,195
Total criminals removed 1,779
Immigrants declared too dangerous for Canada 141
Confirmed criminal deportees that arrived as refugee claimants 435
2002-2003
Total removed 8,609
Total criminals removed 1,497
Immigrants declared too dangerous for Canada 126
Confirmed criminal deportees that arrived as refugee claimants 365
2003-2004
Total removed 10,980
Total criminals removed 1,598
Immigrants declared too dangerous for Canada 96
Confirmed criminal deportees that arrived as refugee claimants 432

SOURCE: CANADA BORDER SERVICES AGENCY

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