The Conversation by Yasmin Jiwani 09 April 2018
One night last week, while flipping through the available channels, I came across a program called Border Security: Canada’s Front Line, a reality TV show that, though discontinued, is still being broadcast in different countries. It portrays the work of the Canadian Border Security Agents as they encounter refugees, immigrants and visitors to Canada.
I watched in fascination as the border security agents turned away people from a variety of different racial backgrounds. Several years ago, the program was criticized for its violation of the privacy of bystander rights as well as its unfair representation of racialized minorities who were all portrayed as criminals.
This time, Border Security featured a range of people from different backgrounds. Nonetheless, I was struck by the incredibly strong law and order message of the program, where the security agents were the “good Canadians:” law abiding, tolerant and reasonable, who, unfortunately, had to deport or refuse admission to immigrant “suspects” because they had lied to them.
This idea of the good versus bad citizen has been used time and again to portray racial minorities as “others” who can never fit into Canada or whose difference can only be tolerated if they become like “us.” Mahmood Mamdani, a philosopher at Columbia University, describes how this dichotomy has been used in media reporting in his book Good Muslims, Bad Muslims.
Crime TV shows, as the research proves, are designed to discipline populations by intimidating them with demonstrations of the negative outcomes of transgressing laws.
These shows also work to instil fear of “others” who are seen as different and inferior and therefore disturb the moral and social order of Canada.
But Canadian agents, unlike their U.S. counterparts, are in this show and other crime shows, generally represented as kind, compassionate and generous. This is in sharp contrast to what we see in popular television programs of U.S. security agents who conduct the dreaded Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids.
Fast forward a week later to the imminent deportation of Lucy Francineth Granados, a Montréal community organizer advocating for the rights of undocumented women and workers and member of the Temporary Workers Association. Granados was forcibly and violently arrested at her home by the Canadian Border Security Agency (CBSA) on March 20 at six o’clock in the morning.
While her story has been reported in the Québec news, there has been scant mention of it within the national media landscape.
Granados is now confined to the Laval Immigration Detention Centre where she awaits deportation. A single mother of three who fled the violence of the maras (gangs) in Guatemala, Granados has been in Canada for nine years as an undocumented worker after her application for refugee status was denied in 2012.
It is estimated that an average of 450 to 500 individuals, including children, are detained at the centre at any time, and that the length of time they spend in detention is excessive and inhumane. Moreover, these detention centres have been condemned by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions.
Not having status has meant that Granados has been working in unprotected and exploitative conditions just to be safe and to provide for her three children, who are still in Guatemala.
What rarely comes to the surface, and perhaps unknown to the CBSA, is that the maras are violent street gangs. According to an article in The Economist these highly organized gangs are formed by individuals formerly incarcerated in U.S. prisons who end up in Central America. They have infiltrated several countries in the region.
This raises the question of our complicity in creating dangerous conditions elsewhere; a complicity that has been well documented in the research concerning the contemporary “war on terror.”
Not only have the maras become increasingly sophisticated in extortion, crime and violence, but they have also been recognized by the U.S. government as significantly involved in transnational criminal activities such as human and drug smuggling.
This is the environment that the Canadian government is going to deport Granados to — a place where her own life may be at stake, along with those of her children.
Unlike the kind and compassionate work of Canadian border security agents portrayed in the reality television show, Granados’s arrest was sudden, forceful and illegal.
Montréal claims to be a sanctuary city, a designation unanimously passed in city council last year meant to ensure undocumented people can obtain services without fear of deportation. However, this measure has been called false by Solidarity Across Borders who last year issued an alert to warn undocumented residents.
Granados applied for permanent residency in 2017 despite the inherent difficulties in the process, which requires considerable knowledge, language fluency and money. Soon after, the CBSA told her that her application, based on humanitarian and compassionate grounds, would not be considered unless she presented herself to the authorities.
The Minister of Immigration has a legal obligation to review a humanitarian claim — under section 25(1) of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA). The few exceptions are not applicable in Granados’ case.
The requirement to present oneself to authorities contravenes the law. To then apprehend her and confine her with the intent of deporting her violates her legal rights and the state’s obligations, not to mention our moral sensibilities.
Canada’s vision as a nation
Since being in detention, Granados’s physical and mental health has deteriorated. She was taken to the hospital after she collapsed, but then returned back to the detention centre.
Last year, there was a hunger strike at the detention centre in Ontario, and several immigrants have died while in custody.
Sadly, Granados’s deportation is imminent. Unless, the Minister for Public Safety Ralph Goodale and Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen intervene, she will be sent back. This is despite the confluence of state violence, street violence, economic violence and racial and gendered inequalities that make Granados eminently qualified for asylum within Canada.
Reality TV shows are not real in the sense of being authentic representations of social reality. However, they exercise considerable power on the imagination and in shaping popular sensibilities.
What they do show, is a reflection of how we as a nation think of ourselves as an imagined community — our representation to ourselves and others of an ideal self-image.
The reality of Granados’ case, unless we intervene as a public, demonstrates that the imagined community that is Canada, as a country that welcomes immigrants, is as remote and divorced from reality as are President Trump’s various policies and practices.
We have to wonder whether the influence of Trump’s anti-immigration policies have seeped through our borders, to bolster the persistent legacy of our previous federal government.
It is time that the idea of Canada as a benevolent and welcoming nation is grounded in real practices and makes a pointed departure from its history and the fiction of television crime shows.
Yasmin Jiwani is a Professor of Communication Studies at Concordia University.