Surrey resident Karla Berenice García Ramírez – an award-winning Mexican journalist facing deportation after Canada rejected her family's refugee appeal – has won her years-long battle for asylum here, the Vancouver Observer has learned.
The whistleblower on government corruption, who fled Mexico after she and her family received numerous death threats because of her reporting, was granted permanent residence last week on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.
“I can't believe it yet!” Ramírez told the Vancouver Observer in an exclusive interview. “I've been fighting for this for over four years. I feel cansancio – tiredness.
“It was a hard battle. This is a victory, but not a total one – when you are accepted on humanitarian and compassionate (grounds), you're not a refugee. That was a little bit hard – not to be accepted as a refugee. But I know the most important thing is that I'm here, I'm alive and I'm safe; I was fighting for protection, and I'm getting it.”
Ramírez – who authored a Vancouver-published book exposing corruption in a Mexican government ministry under the pen-name Karla Lottini – said she believes the Canadian government finally accepted that she faced clear new threats to her life if she and her family were deported.
That, combined with roughly 50 support letters from international human rights and journalist organizations – and media coverage of her case – convinced the government to reverse its deportation order, she said. But why her refugee claim was not originally accepted remains a mystery, and one that raises many questions in relation to thousands of other asylum-seekers.
“In some ways, I think maybe they didn't want to admit they made mistakes in reviewing my case (earlier),” she said. “I don't know why they didn't decide that the first time.
“We gathered more and more letters from international media organizations – they were feeling more pressure. Of course, that helped. Maybe they don't want more refugee claimants from Mexico.”
"Rare" for Mexicans to be given refugee status
In an earlier comment from the Immigrant and Refugee Board, the Vancouver Observer was told it is very rare for Mexicans to be granted status – last year, only 17 per cent of cases succeeded, and the number can be as low as 10 per cent. In 2011, an appeal – for pre-removal risk assessment – was also rejected.
Ramírez went public with her family's deportation order after contacting the migrant justice group No One Is Illegal (NOII), which is currently campaigning against Bill C-31, an omnibus law tabled as the “Protecting Canada's Immigration System Act.”
The proposed act would dramatically overhaul Canada's refugee and immigration system, including introducing automatic and indefinite detention of many asylum-seekers and fewer appeals processes for rejected claims, and would make it much more difficult for claimants from countries the government deems “safe,” such as Mexico.
NOII organizer Harsha Walia told the Vancouver Observer that the proposed law will have a harmful impact on many other refugees – particularly from countries such as Mexico, which have extensive trade and diplomatic ties to Canada.
“We're going to be seeing increased deportations to Mexico in particular under Bill C-31,” Walia said. “One of the main things we need to do is to look at the way refugee policy is being changed, and how it's envisioned under the Harper government.
“We don't have a refugee policy – we have a labour exploitation policy. Bill C-31 makes it harder to claim refugee status in Canada and makes refugee status conditional. This is part of a trend of making it harder to gain permanent residency; instead, we have an increase in temporary foreign workers. Ensuring that refugees are able to claim asylum in Canada means exposing and fighting this ideological shift.”
No One Is Illegal put a call out of letters of support in January, after Ramírez' refugee application was rejected; responses soon came from Amnesty International Canada – which provided documentation of a worsening situation for journalists in Mexico – and other journalist rights groups.
“Our strategy, in terms of the campaign with Karla – and with regards to supporting other people facing deportation – is, first, to take leadership from people affected, to see how they want to mobilize support and what kind of strategies they want to fight their deportation,” Walia added. “The second is to then mobilize that support.
“We have networks of support we mobilize around deportations and detention, (and) we also raise issues around deportation and broader issues around policies.”
Ramírez said that the support of community organizations – particularly No One Is Illegal and the Vancouver South Cultural Project – was crucial, not only for helping keep her in Canada, but also for offering moral support and help during a “very, very stressful” time.
“I respect No One Is Illegal very much – they acted very quickly,” she said. “They worked fast, and were very organized.
“They (and the Vancouver South Cultural Project) were so human with us. It wasn't just a relationship of sending memos or just writing letters. We talked and reviewed our words until midnight some nights. They came and brought me a lot of food. I have two daughters to care for. It goes beyond organization or community work – that's love and it's very human.”
A chance to be free in Canada
For Ramírez, the next phase of her life is to continue putting down roots in Vancouver. That includes continuing volunteer work in the community, hosting her radio show on Latin American affairs, and beginning to write her memoir.
“I'm so happy, and my husband is, too,” she said. “We are still slowly trying to digest the information.
“This is a big, big chance for us to feel free. When I received the answer (from Citizenship and Immigration), it was very strange – I cried for many minutes. It's so hard to leave your motherland, but the reality is that many people in Mexico are very afraid.”
For Ramírez, the reality of corruption and violence that she fled in Mexico is one faced by too many others. And that direct experience, she said, has made her want to get involved in supporting other refugees' cases in the future.
“Miedo, to be afraid – it's so hard,” she said. “You finally get tired of being afraid. I won't eliminate (the fear) totally, but I want to try to learn how to live without its effects on my daily life.
“But you know something? I can't be alarmed all my life. If I'm not safe in Canada, where can I go? To another country? It would not be because I want to. My roots are here now – with my daughters. I don't want to have to run all the time. This is something I have to live with all my life. I can't go back.”
In January, Ramírez told the Vancouver Observer about her journey from Mexico to Canada. The 38-year old, who lives in Surrey with her husband César Casso and two Canadian-born children, was working at Mexico's influential culture ministry in 2002, where she alleges she uncovered a web of corruption among politicians and journalists. She photocopied and leaked thousands of pages of secret documents, including receipts of illegal transactions, she said, before receiving a series of death threats against her and her family. It was then she decided to seek safety in Canada.
“When you denounce corruption, you face consequences,” she said today. “This whole thing has been like fiction. . . it's surrealistic.
“The government is stealing so much and there's no safety – with the drug war, if someone wants revenge, they just kill you. That's it. Now I'm trying to digest my new life here and what I'm going to do.”
Larger problems for Mexicans seeking asylum
But with her permanent residence assured by her humanitarian and compassionate approval last week, she said that the “problems of the world are much larger” than her own individual struggle.
“If I weren't a journalist, I don't think people here in the media would have paid attention on the same level,” she said. “In our work, we always run a risk for the information we put out to the public.
“For many others at risk, their voices aren't listened to. Now, I am going to do what I can to study English, because I want to give voice to others, and I want to continue doing what I love: writing, being a journalist, and trying to work for the rights of others.”
That work on behalf of others, she added, means fighting for the rights of other refugee claimants, immigrants and temporary foreign workers.
“We have to fight,” she said. “In the case of refugee claimants, if you have a real, solid case, you have to fight very strongly.
“Mexicans will continue coming here to ask for asylum. I think we have an obligation to keep denouncing (corruption).”
Last Wednesday, No One Is Illegal groups across Canada took action as part of a campaign to oppose Bill C-31, which has come under fire for clauses of automatic detention for asylum-seekers deemed “irregular” by Citizenship and Immigration minister Jason Kenney. Activists occupied immigration offices in Vancouver for several hours, while Ottawa, Toronto, St. Catherines, and Edmonton saw NOII members take over Conservative MP officers and drop banners in Halifax and Montreal.
Tensions between the migrant justice group and the government came to a head last week when Kenney lambasted New Democratic Party immigration critic Don Davies, who is the MP for Vancouver-Kingsway, for attending an anti-racism rally organized by NOII and posting a photograph online.
On March 26 in Parliament, Kenney criticized Davies, alleging the latter's “endorsement” of NOII, “an anarchist organization that supports Black Bloc violent anarchist tactics and opposes any limits on immigration, including the deportation of criminals.”
For NOII, this is evidence of both hardening attacks on dissent, but also increasing success in mobilizing the public around immigration and refugee issues.
“That type of cheap political slander is really part of the Tory arsenal,” Walia said. “Tories in general have attacked social and environmental justice movements with the label 'extremist.'
"The label has been used against environmentalists and Indigenous nations
opposing the Enbridge pipeline. The attack on No One Is Illegal is
representative of the power of migrant justice movements. No One Is
Illegal has radical ideas, but the movement is not as marginal as the
Tories would like to portray. Opposition to Bill C-31 isn't fringe either.
There's such wide opposition to it and the Conservatives are trying to
undermine that widespread opposition by using cheap political attacks."
The omnibus refugee bill is particularly troubling because it simply repackages previous Conservative proposals which had faced significant opposition, Davies said, and undermines the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“My main concern is that there is automatic detention without review,” Davies told the Vancouver Observer in an earlier interview. “That's the most shocking and illegal part of it.
“It's illegal because governments, when they pass legislation, are subject to the Charter (of Rights and Freedoms). When a government tries to pass a law that says there will be mandatory detention without review for a period of time . . . you can't do that. It goes right back to habeus corpus – it's established right in our Charter of Rights. You can't have arbitrary detention.”
When asked earlier for comment, the Immigration and Refugee Board said it could not comment on specific cases. But last month, Mexican legislators ramped up legal protection for journalists in the context of widespread threats for reporting on corruption, organized crime, or the deadly war on drugs.
Ramírez was granted her exceptional status based on evidence of continued threats against her, No One Is Illegal said.
“She was found to have established herself in Canada, and that she was at risk if she were sent back to Mexico,” Walia said. “In a Humanitarian and Compassionate claim, they tend to look for new grounds for risk – either changed country conditions, or that her going public increased her risk if she were deported. Both were the case here.”
Now, Ramírez wants to find ways to thank those who helped her stay in Canada.
“Retribuir – I can't find the right word to say that in English, but I'd like to reward people and the community,” she said. “I looked it up in the dictionary: it said 'to reward,' which sounds financial, like paying back.
“But it's about returning something that we received. I still want to volunteer. I love all the fights for human rights and the environment – that's become a passion of mine.”