He stays away from the doors when they are open. He sees his wife and children on weekends only when they come to visit. He mingles with those who enter the building, but no one else. He never steps outside. He watches at night as the surveillance officers park outside or drive by. They are the only people he sees at night. No, José is not paranoid. Nor is he a criminal in prison. He stays away from the open doors because the smell of fresh air flowing into the building makes his heart ache. It reminds him of what it was like to be able to go for walks, go to work, pay taxes and play with his children in the backyard. He cannot help his sister look after their shared townhome or lend tools to the neighbours. Nor can he carry the grocery bags into the house or pick up the mail or fix the car or read bedtime stories to his young children. He cannot go to the doctor with his autistic son or hold his daughters’ hands as they wait for their dentist appointment. He cannot go to a movie or play cards with family and friends. He cannot be the husband, father, brother, neighbour or citizen he wants to be. He cannot be the man he once was.
José is in sanctuary at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church in British Columbia because the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board issued a deportation order for his wife and him. Jose and his wife have lived in Canada for thirteen years and in that time have been trying to gain refugee status. His children, born here, are Canadian citizens. After an application for humanitarian and compassionate grounds to stay in Canada, his wife has been allowed to stay, for now, and has been put back in the process to apply for residency status, so she can look after the children. Jose, however, is still under a deportation order.
In 1997, José and his wife left El Salvador to immigrate to Canada and claim refugee status. When Jose was in his twenties, he was an university student (he graduated with a bachelor's degree in education) and a member of the FMLN - Frente Farabundo Martí de Liberación Nacional (translation: The Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front). At the time, this organization fought against the government’s military dictatorship and the death squads that commonly kidnapped, tortured, and murdered innocent citizens. As general secretary of the student union, Jose’s role in the FMLN was to educate other students about the political situation, the suffering of the Salvadorians, and the social reality in El Salvador. He talked to other students about the need to fight for the lives and rights of Salvadorian citizens.
The issue, according to a Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) agent that dealt with Jose and his wife’s application for refugee status, is that the FMLN is a terrorist organization and because of his association with the organization, José is inadmissible to Canada. The problem with this is that there is no substantial reasoning or basis for this decision because the FMLN is not listed on Public Safety Canada’s list of terrorist entities, nor is it on the United States’ Foreign Terrorist Organization list or the UN’s list of terrorist organizations. In fact, the FMLN is a legal political party in El Salvador with many elected FMLN politicians including mayors in in many of the large cities in El Salvador and since 1997 Canada has enjoyed a mutually beneficial diplomatic relationship with El Salvador since 1961. El Salvador has an embassy in Canada. Canada’s reputation in El Salvador is based on support for human rights and refugee assistance. Remarkably, the FMLN’s fight has always been for the human rights of their citizens.
Interestingly, Canada’s definition of terrorism is currently being reviewed by Parliament because it is considered too broad. Also, the UN General Assembly Resolution 49/60 characterized terrorism at the 84th plenary meeting on December 9, 1994. The document, "Measures to eliminate international terrorism," declared that,
Acts, methods and practices of terrorism constitute a grave violation of the purposes and principles of the United Nations, which may pose a threat to international peace and security, jeopardize friendly relations among States, hinder international cooperation and aim at the destruction of human rights, fundamental freedoms and the democratic bases of society;
Criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in anycircumstance unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political,philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or any other nature thatmay be invoked to justify them;
This isn’t a definition, but it does provide some guidelines. We must ask ourselves if the FMLN aimed to destroy human rights. No, their goal was to protect lives and human rights in El Salvador. Did they attempt to destroy the fundamental freedoms and the democratic bases of society? Quite the opposite – they were fighting against a military dictatorship and for democracy. Were they attempting to provoke a state of terror in the general public? Not at all – the FMLN was supported by the general public that was being repressed and targeted by the military and the death squads. The government’s death squads targeted anyone suspected of taking action for social and economic reform. The victims were peasants, unionists, clergy, farmers and university officials. As many as 80,000 citizens were tortured, raped and murdered.
Jose related a story to me that made me realize just how lucky I am to be a Canadian. When he was in grade 3, another student at his school regularly bullied him. An older kid, Jose’s buddy Juan Valladares, protected him through the school year. After grade three, Jose never saw Mr. Valladares again - until grade 7 when his friend came to Jose’s school to talk to the teachers and students about the political situation in El Salvador and the fight to protect the lives and human rights of Salvadorians. Soon after, Jose arrived at school to find his friend next to a tree in the school courtyard. His hands were tied and he had been set on fire. The message, from the military’s death squads, was that this could happen to people who tried to speak out against what was going on in El Salvador. This was Jose’s first experience that helped for form his understanding of his country’s social and political reality.
So the question is, why is José Figueroa being deported? If the FMLN is not a terrorist organization, then why is José being accused of being a security threat? This is an issue not only for refugee claimants, but also all Canadians. Immigration is important to us for economic, educational and other social reasons. It is important that we understand our immigration laws and any possible contradictions and associated issues. As I write this blog over the next months, I will continue to research and write about José’s legal battle, the politics of immigration, the history of El Salvador, the FMLN and the Figueroa family’s story of life in El Salvador and in Canada. Your comments and questions are most welcome.
Meet José – listen to his TedxTalk
Upcoming blog entries:
· Life in sanctuary
· A brief history of El Salvador, the FMLN and the Civil War
· The death squads of El Salvador
· José’s involvement in the FMLN
· The Figueroa family story – life in in El Salvador and Canada
· The legal and political issues related to the deportation of Jose
· José’s legal battle – José’s perspective
· José’s legal battle – the Canadian government’s perspective
· José’s battle on behalf of other immigrants in danger of deportation
· Immigration law and issues
· Relevant topics of interest to the readers of this blog
· Personal interviews with Jose Figueroa January and February 2014.