"Being arrested was an event that I feared for the past one year and three months. I knew it could happen, but I never thought it would happen on the International Women's Day (March 8). This made my arrest a very special event. However tortuous, it brought to the forefront the situation of non-status people in Canada," Wendy Maxwell wrote from Costa Rica where she was deported on March 15, 2005. This was her second letter sent to her friends and supporters who have launched a campaign - Support Wendy Maxwell Committee (SWMC) - to get her back to Canada again.
Maxwell was picked up by the Toronto police at the Ryerson University campus while she was selling cookies at the Women's Day fair to raise money for CKLN, a local community radio station.
During her stay in Canada, Maxwell, managed to highlight all that is wrong with the Canadian immigration system when it comes to non-status women. Non-status immigrants are those people who do not have a legal status to live permanently in Canada. When people are listed in the non-status category, as in the case of Maxwell, their refugee claims are rejected. People who have no official identity documents, or whose visa or work permit has expired also fall in this category.
Although the government does not collect official statistics for non-status people, researchers put the current number anywhere between 50,000 and 200,000. Cities offer non-status people jobs usually at their own terms with lower wages and no benefits. Toronto has 50 per cent of all the non-status people, according to a November 2004 study, `The Regularization of Non-status immigrants in Canada 1960-2004'.
Given their lack of legal status, these immigrants are exposed to multiple forms of mistreatment at the hands of employers, landlords or other authorities. This is compounded by the fact that they face significant barriers in accessing public services such as education, health care, social services, legal support and housing. The brunt of such exploitation is suffered by immigrant women who fail to press charges against abusive partners or other forms of violence.
Maxwell first came to Canada in 1997. Like most new immigrants, she went through a series of jobs, including working as a telemarketer, customer service representative and interpreter. Unlike most people, Maxwell was trying to forget a chaotic past in Costa Rica. According to WMSC, when Maxwell was in Costa Rica, she had to contend with police repression and violence from members of a gang with whom she had previous dealings. In Costa Rica, she was once picked up by the police, known for racially profiling Black people, and sexually assaulted by them.
Fearful and running from the police and organized crime, she came to Canada and filed for a refugee status. Her claims were rejected by Immigration Canada and she was ordered to be deported in December 2003. No reason is given for refusing refugee status. That's when she decided to stay in Canada without status. In February 2004, she filed her Application for Landing on Humanitarian and Compassionate (H&C) Grounds.
Explains WMSC member Stefanie Gude, "H&C applications have an estimated four per cent chance of success, cost hundreds of dollars (this before the cost of legal counsel) to file, and typically take two years to be processed. The other catch is that such an application, as is true in Maxwell's case, can be filed for months or years, and does not prevent deportation from taking place in the meantime, often before a decision is made on this application." Maxwell was deported in March 2005, a month before the decision on her H&C application was to come up.
Now in Costa Rica, Maxwell faces serious risks. In a statement sent on March 29, 2005, she wrote: "I know that if this last application is refused, I will need to move to another country once again because I can't stay in hiding for the rest of my life in this country. The gang tried to kill me before, will try again, and they will find me."
What is exceptional about Maxwell's case, which has resulted in a groundswell of support for her, is the fact that during her stay in Canada she not only fought for her own rights but for the rights of the people around her. Her supporters talk of her impressive volunteering experience that includes work with the Latin American Coalition to end violence against women. Maxwell also worked as an interpreter at the Barbara Schlifer Commemorative Clinic which works on social justice issues and provides services to women. She also worked at the multi-purpose community facility Ralph Thorton Community Centre and at the Black Coalition for Aids Prevention (BlackCAP).
On Toronto Radio Station CKLN 88.1, Maxwell hosted shows as part of a collective of Latin-American women called Sembradores. Her visible public life, in the face of constant fear of deportation, is in contrast to the life-in-hiding that other non-status people in Canada live. Emphasises Gude: "This campaign has always been seen by Wendy herself as an opportunity to draw attention to the massive obstacles faced by non-status people, and especially women, fighting for a status in Canada."
A number of organizations have been repeatedly taking up cases of non-status people caught between countries. Rights groups support communities of Algerians, Palestinians, Chinese and Pakistanis. A campaign that has been working at the local policy level for a year-and-a-half is the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT) campaign." DADT has been launched by a group of like-minded organisations trying to bring a municipal policy that will prevent city officers, including the police to share the immigration status of any person with the federal government and immigration department. A similar policy is present in 23 states across the US.
Krista Johnston of DADT explains that the objective of the campaign is to create a place where people without status will not have difficulty accessing food banks, health, education and shelters. She says, "With the fear of being reported to the immigration department, people without status live under constant threat."
The need for such a policy comes from the awareness that non-status people offer valuable services to the province. They pay taxes when purchasing anything and form an important portion of the unorganized labor. Says Gude, "Had such a policy been in place in Toronto, the university security guards, who worked with the police, who worked with Immigration officials, could never have started the chain of events leading to Wendy's arrest."
Says Johnston: "We have no specific number for non-status people or the percentage of non-status women in that number. The number of women will no doubt be higher given the discriminatory nature of the Canadian immigration which favors easy immigration in sectors which are male-dominated like construction etc."