Minister of Public Safety Stockwell Day said it is not government policy to use children as bait to lure out of hiding parents who are facing deportation orders.
He promised to investigate two incidents at Toronto schools involving the apprehension of children of undocumented workers who failed to appear for removal.
"Along with most Canadians and along with my colleagues, I share the concern when I read the reports about what happened. I have asked for a full review of the matter, and that is coming, but I can say this is not a normal process or procedure, nor do we want to see it become that," Mr. Day said yesterday during Question Period in the House of Commons.
Officers with the Canada Border Services Agency arrived Friday at St. Jude Catholic school in Toronto and threatened to take away two young sisters, 7 and 14, if their parents, illegal immigrants, did not turn themselves in within 30 minutes. The mother, Denia Araya, came to the school, and she and her daughters, Lisbeth and Hacel, were taken to a detention centre on Friday, but later released into a friend's care.
Their family was ordered removed last year after their asylum case failed and was supposed to appear for an appointment with CBSA yesterday. The border services agency would not comment yesterday whether the family kept the appointment.
Also last week, at Dante Alighieri Academy in Toronto, CBSA officials removed Kimberly Lizano-Sossa, 15, and her brother, Gerald Lizano-Sossa, 14, from their school. They were taken to a van where their mother was waiting for them with another sibling. CBSA officials had picked them up earlier. The family were failed refugee claimants from Costa Rica who had failed to show up for their removal on Feb. 16. A warrant had been issued for their arrest.
Yesterday in Ottawa, Kimberley described the immigration holding centre as a jail and said she was sad to have to leave Canada: "Some of my friends went straight to the detention centre, and the teachers arranged to go and have a vigil, pray the rosary and the next day they were protesting with a group called 'No one is illegal in Canada.' "
CBSA spokeswoman Anna Pape said: "We do not as a first point of investigation attend schools in order to determine the whereabouts of parents under immigration enforcement. Once claimants have exhausted all legal avenues to stay, CBSA enforces the Immigration Act."
But the incidents have caused alarm among refugee-advocacy groups, immigration lawyers, opposition politicians and school boards, who see a change in climate and say never in the past have students been targeted to find parents who have been ordered removed.
"In my mind, children aren't criminals," Oliver Carroll, chair of the Toronto Catholic District School Board, said yesterday. "They're in a very unfortunate situation. It may well be as a result of something their parents did."
Judy Sgro, a former immigration minister in the Liberal government, called the actions "unconscionable" and a breach of CBSA protocols.
More than 4,000 Costa Ricans sought asylum from 2002 to 2004, a migratory trend that ended after the imposition of a visa requirement in 2003. The acceptance rate for Costa Ricans has been between 2 and 4 per cent, and last year, 687 of the total 11,845 people removed from Canada were Costa Ricans. Failed claimants who file humanitarian appeals are not automatically permitted to stay in Canada while their cases are being processed.
However, immigration lawyers wonder why CBSA is aggressively targeting these "low-level" removals -- instead of criminals facing deportation who are evading the law.
Yesterday in Ottawa, Andrew Telegdi, a Liberal MP, said that the previous government was working on a program to regularize the status of undocumented construction workers, and that the economy needs their skills. He also said it is inappropriate for enforcement officials to enter schools and that the "law and order" approach of the Conservative government is an invitation to agents to "take these kinds of liberties."
In response to the incidents, both the Toronto Catholic District School Board and the Toronto District School Board are looking for legal advice on what measures they can take or to what extent they need to co-operate when immigration officials arrive to remove children.
Mr. Carroll said it not only traumatizes the children being removed, but sends a chill through the student body. He fears parents in a similar situation may decide not to send their children to school as a result of the actions of CBSA officials.
With 200,000 undocumented workers in Canada, hundreds of children from such families are likely attending schools in the Greater Toronto Area.
"For both the Catholic and public boards, there has never been a question of an illegitimate child in our system. Every child by virtue of being here is entitled to an education," said Sheila Ward, chair of the Toronto public school board. She said the "storm-trooper tactics" of immigration officials were "disgraceful." Officials should wait until children are dismissed from school rather than swoop in during classes, she said.
Rhonda Kimberley-Young, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, added in a news release: "This heavy-handed approach by the federal government runs contrary to our belief that schools must be a safe haven for all students. We demand that the federal authorities give assurances to our school boards in Ontario that this practice will never be repeated."