Leaders of the controversial Lev Tahor sect are scouting Guatemala as a potential new home in anticipation of a bitter exodus from Canada.
Mayer Rosner and Uriel Goldman, who have acted as spokesmen through the group's many Canadian travails, are in the Latin American country checking on its suitability as a new base for the faction's approximately 200 adherents.
The two travelled south to attend the birth of a mutual grandson, but their lawyer said the trip has a dual role.
"While they are there, they will explore Guatemala as a possible place to go, but that decision has not been made yet," said immigration lawyer Guidy Mamann. "It could be Guatemala, it could be China, it could be Mexico, it could be France. We don't know."
The group's resolve to abandon Canada, home to Lev Tahor for a little over a decade, comes as federal immigration and border officials are cracking down on the community for visa violations. Many adult members of Lev Tahor were born in the United States or Israel, and arrived in Canada over the past 10 years on temporary visas for religious workers, students and visitors. With so much public scrutiny, Mr. Mamann does not expect many visas will be renewed.
Last month, border agents arrested several members around the new Lev Tahor compound in Chatham, Ont., for alleged visa infractions.
More recently, passport applications have been denied or delayed for many Canada-born Lev Tahor children due to outstanding apprehension warrants issued in Quebec after the community flouted provincial education laws and then evaded authorities by moving to Chatham. The visa and passport problems mean many families face the prospect of being split up – the parents forced to leave, the children forced to stay.
The Quebec child-protection agency responsible for the warrants told The Globe and Mail they will remain in force until a judge is satisfied the "security or development" of the children is no longer in danger. A Citizenship and Immigration Canada spokesman refused to comment, but cited federal regulations stating a passport can be refused or revoked if a person is "subject to conditions imposed by a court that prevent possession of a passport."
After several months of friction, relations have normalized between Lev Tahor and the local child-welfare agency. "The situation has settled down here," said Stephen Doig, director of Chatham-Kent Children's Services. "The Lev Tahor community seems to be settling into the Chatham-Kent community. Any involvement we have with them would be consistent with the involvement we have with any other family in Chatham-Kent."
Last month, Lev Tahor members won an important court appeal, overturning an Ontario judge's order to enforce child apprehension orders originating in Quebec.
Mr. Mamann said he does not know how many community members are in Guatemala, but a number as high as 50 has been reported.
The uncle of one child in Guatemala recently wrote a blog post about visiting the Guatemalan village in an effort to persuade his family to abandon Lev Tahor. He said that he saw a 15-year-old Lev Tahor member give birth on a dirt floor without a doctor. The post describes squalid, cramped conditions characterized by hungry, insect-covered children sleeping on earthen floors.
Mr. Mamann said the allegations are baseless, and supplied The Globe and Mail with documentation saying the baby was born in a health centre, and photos showing the baby sleeping in a new crib.
Chatham-Kent Children's Services say they are aware of the Guatemala birth allegations, but have no have no authority to pursue it.
"It would be unconscionable to impose our legislation or expectations on what is happening in Guatemala," Mr. Doig said.