After living under the radar in Canada since she was 12, Laura Emmanuelle Souchet tried to do the right thing by coming forward to immigration officials in November and applying to stay on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.
What happened next floored her.
On Jan. 7, border enforcement agents showed up at Souchet’s Toronto home and arrested her, detaining her for two days at an immigration holding centre. And on Tuesday, the now 30-year-old, who came here with her mother from France in 2002 to care for her ailing grandmother, was given just four days’ notice that she would be deported on Saturday.
But on Friday, with her ouster only hours away, the immigration minister stepped in, granting Souchet a temporary permit to stay here while her permanent residence application is being considered.
“I’m overjoyed, I can’t believe it, I’m so thankful,” a relieved Souchet said Friday.
While she was granted a last-minute reprieve, many others are not so lucky and face speedy removal, according to immigration lawyers who have seen a recent spike in such whirlwind deportations.
The speed in which these ousters are carried out calls into question an alleged practice by Canada Border Services Agency to expedite removals toward the end of the fiscal year that ends March 31, when removal data is reported and the operational budget is revealed.
“This ramp-up on removals appears to be a year-end practice considering other people under removal are typically given a few weeks’ notice so that they can exhaust their legal options if they choose,” said Souchet’s lawyer, Graciela Flores Mendez.
In response to the Star’s request for comment, the Canada Border Services Agency said it “works to remove those deemed inadmissible to Canada as expeditiously as possible.” The removals take place “only once they have exhausted all recourse measures, as part of our fair immigration system,” CBSA spokesperson Ashley Lemire wrote in an email.
In closed online forums and social media groups, immigration lawyers have complained about the stepped-up removal efforts and a spike in expedited deportations of people like Souchet in recent weeks. They say it appears border agents tend to go after the easy targets — those whose addresses they already know, for example — in order to ramp up their numbers.
Toronto immigration lawyer Aisling Bondy said her law firm has seen at least five cases since the beginning of January of clients being detained and quickly scheduled for removal.
“The CBSA is scheduling some of them to be deported within just a week or two of being detained, meaning that it’s challenging for them to retain a lawyer to file a request for a deferral and stay of removal,” said Bondy, who has practised immigration law since 2007.
“CBSA seems to ramp up removals starting in around December. This is really unfortunate since often the client’s lawyer is away or not available over the holidays, and it’s really hard for someone to find a lawyer to take on urgent work during that time,” she added, calling this “the worst year” she has seen in the number of removals and the short notice given for deportation by border officials.
The Star has requested statistics on removals from the border agency, but was told those figures were not immediately available.
Souchet, who was just a child when she came to Canada with her mother, said they received bad advice from an immigration consultant and made a refugee claim to try to extend their stay here. When the claim was rejected in 2006, she said, they were told by the consultant to move underground and wait for an “amnesty.” Souchet declined to disclose her mother’s current whereabouts.
Souchet said she only became aware of her lack of legal immigration status at 16 when she tried to get her driver’s licence and realized she didn’t have a social insurance number. After finishing high school, she started her own company cleaning offices and homes to support herself.
She said she finally found the courage to come forward to immigration officials in November after a frightening experience in which a client exposed himself to her while she was cleaning his house. She realized then that she couldn’t go to police because of her immigration status. Before that, she had a bike accident and broke her front tooth and needed stitches but was too afraid to get medical help for fear of getting on the radar of authorities.
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“I said to myself, ‘Enough is enough. I am going to make things right by righting the wrong done by the (immigration) consultant’,” said Souchet. “I have been here since I was 12. I have built a life and a business here. I’m part of the community.”
An online petition pleading with Canadian officials to stop Souchet’s removal has already collected more than 8,000 signatures since its launch on Wednesday.
Immigration lawyers, meanwhile, want to see the situation rectified for others.
“I can’t see any reason why the CBSA can’t schedule the removals with more notice than a few days other than for the purpose of frustrating the person’s ability to retain a lawyer to file a stay,” said Bondy. “We are doing our best to refer clients who need representation but it’s hard to keep up with the demand. It’s a lot of work that needs to be done very urgently.”