News broke this past week of the tragic death of Lucia Varga Jimenez while in the custody of the Canada Border Services Agency.
Lucia was a 42 year old Mexican migrant and hotel worker in Vancouver. In 2010 her refugee claim was denied by Canadian Immigration officials. She was deported but returned in 2013. She found work in the hotel industry and sent her earnings home to support the health care needs of her ailing mother, as well as her sister and three children.
On December 1, 2013 she was stopped by transit cops for an unpaid fare and because she was undocumented, she was incarcerated in a provincial prison while awaiting deportation. On Dec 19th she was transferred to the detention centre at the Vancouver Airport. The following day she was rushed to hospital in critical condition, and 8 days later she died while still under CBSA’s watch. The coroner and other sources confirmed that Lucia tried to commit suicide while in the detention centre.
The CBSA and public authorities kept her death secret for a month, and when Lucia’s sister arrived from Mexico to take her home, authorities forced her to sign an agreement not to disclose anything about her sister’s death. The reason for this secrecy is not yet known and raises many questions.
The Richmond RCMP was tasked with investigating the incident and they concluded that there was no criminal cause to her death. Many, however, are not satisfied, and a petition with over 6800 signatures is calling for a full coroner’s inquest and an independent civilian-led investigation into Lucia’s death.
Lucia is not the first migrant facing deportation to take their own life. In 2010 Habtom Kibreab, an Eritrean refugee facing a removal order, took his life in Halifax and in 2012 Iranian refugee Hossein Blujani committed suicide in Vancouver under the imminent threat of deportation. This past October, Mohamed Shyroz and Qyzra Walji died in an act of murder-suicide rather than be deported.
The prospect of deportation clearly filled these individuals with unbearable despair, and the threat of removal continues to instill fear into many, many others as well. Mexico is a key trading partner with Canada under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and the Canadian immigration system considers Mexico a ‘safe’ country. But in the past four years, at least two Mexican women have died upon being deported back home. For them and many others, it is not safe at all, and no doubt international trade agreements such as NAFTA play a role in making it unsafe by contributing to economic inequality and hardship.
There are many unanswered questions surrounding Lucia’s death and CBSA needs to be held accountable. But beyond that, the brutality and violence that is inherent to the Canadian immigration system must be put on trial. Lucia’s case reveals so clearly the routine ways the system operates: it regularly denies requests for sanctuary, criminalizes ongoing presence, generates oppressive conditions of fear and intimidation, and activates processes of punishment (detention and deportation). Under the Harper regime, immigration has become more restrictive and increasingly punitive as it serves the political interests of power and social control. Last year there were over 14,000 deportations and 9,000 migrants detained, including 289 children.
The real crime in this case is not an upaid bus ticket or undocumented labour, but a violent and racist system of capitalist and colonial state power that produces poverty and desperation, and then punishes those most impacted who struggle to survive with dignity.
As we remember Lucia, let’s continue the fight for migrant justice and the elimination of borders.