Federal government ‘exploring’ ways to reduce immigration detention

The federal government is “exploring potential policy changes” to reduce the length of immigration detention and get non-violent migrants out of maximum-security jails, according to a new report.

The Canada Border Services Agency’s “New National Immigration Detention Framework,” released late Friday, is not a concrete plan as much as it is a general set of intentions. But, if implemented, it would signal a substantial shift in how Canada treats its unwanted immigrants.

Based on a series of stakeholder consultations conducted last fall in response to mounting public pressure, the report from Canada’s border police agency says it wants to “better align” itself with international and domestic standards for immigration detention by reducing the use of maximum-security jails, expanding alternatives to detention and “drastically” shrinking the number of children in detention.

“By implementing the Framework, Canada Border Services Agency is taking concrete steps to exercise its responsibility for detentions to the highest possible standards,” the report reads.

Canada’s border police can detain immigrants who have been found inadmissible to the country if they believe they are a danger to the public, will not show up for their deportation, or if their identity is in doubt. The average length of detention last year was 23 days, but hundreds of detainees end up languishing in deportation limbo for months or years.

A recent Star investigation found Canada’s immigration detention system regularly subjects difficult-to-deport migrants to indefinite detention — often in maximum-security jails — and is routinely unable to solve long-term detentions.

Highlighted in the series is the fact that Canada is one of only a handful of developed countries that do not have a maximum length of detention for immigration detainees. In Europe, maximum lengths of detention range from 45 days to 18 months. Mexico has a 60-day limit on immigration detention, while the United States doesn’t technically have a limit, but the Supreme Court there has ruled that, if after six months deportation is not reasonably foreseeable in the near future, the detainee should be released.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee called on Canada in 2015 to set a “reasonable” time limit on immigration detention, but the federal government has thus far been reluctant to change its policy, concerned that such a deadline would provide an incentive for detainees not to co-operate with authorities.

Although the new report doesn’t specify what policy changes are being considered, it does suggest the government is interested in detaining fewer immigrants who “do not pose a danger to Canadian society and who collaborate with the government” in their deportation.

Since taking power in the fall of 2015, the federal Liberals have already detained fewer people for immigration purposes than the Conservatives did. They have also significantly reduced the use of provincial jails, at least in Ontario, where federal immigration detention payments have declined sharply in the past year.

Federal payments to the province for immigration detention in the 2016-17 fiscal year are projected to be a little over $13 million, after three years in which annual payments averaged $21 million.

Since immigration detainees are a federal responsibility, Ottawa has to pay the provinces to hold them in provincial jails. They also pay the provinces a 20-per-cent premium on top of the per capita costs. In Ontario last year, immigration detention cost the federal government $258.83 per detainee per day, according to figures provided by Ontario’s Ministry of Corrections.

The federal government runs three facilities dedicated to immigration detention — one each in Toronto, Vancouver and Laval, Que. — but none currently complies with international norms for immigration detention, according to the government’s report.

That’s why two-thirds of the total number of days spent in immigration detention are in maximum-security provincial jails, where immigration detainees — who have not been charged or convicted of a criminal offence — are treated the same as inmates serving a criminal sentence or awaiting trial.

The roundtable consultations that spurred the report followed last summer’s announcement by Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale of a $138-million investment aimed at improving immigration detention, primarily by expanding and upgrading federal detention facilities.

The report repeats previous commitments to replace inadequate detention centres in Laval and Vancouver, but it also promises to upgrade Toronto’s Immigration Holding Centre, which, because of its design and an agreement with its private service provider, the agency said is currently equipped to handle only “low-risk” detainees with no criminal record.

According to the CBSA’s own policies, immigration detainees with a non-violent criminal record should, in most cases, be held in an Immigration Holding Centre rather than a provincial jail.

The CBSA outsources the provision of services within Toronto’s Immigration Holding Centre to a private company called Corbel Management Corp., which provides maintenance, housekeeping and food services. The agreement with Corbel appears to preclude the housing of immigration detainees with any criminal record — even non-violent, petty offences that did not result in any jail time.

Corbel’s certificate of insurance, obtained by the Star, stresses it is a “low-risk detention centre,” which “does not deal with any criminal-related immigration.”

The company did not respond to questions from the Star, but a CBSA spokesperson said Corbel “does not play a role” in deciding where detainees are held.

Echoing the report, the spokesperson said pending upgrades to Toronto’s Immigration Holding Centre will allow it to accept “higher-risk” detainees. Once the “appropriate infrastructure enhancements” have been made, the CBSA will upgrade its service contract with Corbel to increase the facility’s ability to hold “higher-risk” detainees, she wrote.

“These enhancements will see an important reduction in the use of provincial correctional facilities for higher-risk detainees.”

The government is also asking individual Canadians for their input on immigration detention, inviting feedback to the report by way of an online questionnaire.

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