Protesters gathered outside the glass doors of Vancouver's federal immigration offices on Thursday, deploring a series of raids at construction job sites where border services agents rounded up immigrant workers who allegedly lacked proper work permits.
They allege the Canada Border Services Agency brought in film crews to document surprise blitzes against the workers for a reality TV show, called Border Security.
Harsha Walia, with the group No One Is Illegal, called the raids alarming. She said they are reminiscent of similar mass raids south of the border.
"From what we know, there were at least three raids that happened (Wednesday) at construction sites across Vancouver," Walia said. "One in particular ... was raided by anywhere from 20 to 40 CBSA officers that had a reality TV show crew filming with them."
Walia said she was particularly shocked that producers for the television show, which airs on Global TV and National Geographic, would try to profit from "the violence of detention and deportation."
Walia has spoken to detainees who are currently undergoing interviews, she said. A few are expected to have hearings on Friday.
She said a number of them have been asked to sign film-release waivers.
Force Four Entertainment, the company behind the show, issued a statement saying no one is filmed without advance verbal permission. It said a written release is obtained only after CBSA officers speak to the detainee.
It also said that before any program is aired, it is vetted by the agency and lawyers to ensure privacy rights are not violated.
Border Security crews are currently filming in Toronto and Vancouver.
One detainee is Pedro Banegas Rosales, a 39-year-old Honduran national who was rounded up Wednesday at his construction job site because he did not have a permit to work in Canada, said his Canadian-born partner of nine years, Angela Joseph.
Joseph joined the protest with the couples' children, aged six and two. She said the threat of deportation will devastate their family.
"It's hard on the kids when they see their father taken away from them," said Joseph, wiping away tears.
She only heard about her common-law partner's arrest on Facebook, she added.
"I think it was wrong of them to ambush them for a TV program," she said. "They have no sympathy for families at all."
Joseph said Rosales' case was on "shaky ground" and things weren't looking good, based on limited information she received from an immigration officer.
"Honduras is a very dangerous country. We've had friends killed," she said. "I worry about his safety."
One lawyer said he is concerned about ensuring privacy and fair hearings for those detained, if the allegations about the film crews are true.
"The thing I wonder about is whether these (raids) were orchestrated for the cameras or if they were actions that could have been taken on a regular basis," said Joshua Sohn, former chair of the Canadian Bar Association's national immigration law section. "If people are all going to be rounded up, en masse, and quickly put through the immigration process."
Sohn said footage identifying migrant workers can pose a danger to those seeking refugee status, especially if they're being persecuted or threatened from groups or individuals back home.
Jennifer Bourque, a spokeswoman with the CBSA, said the agency is involved with the Border Security documentary, which follows the day-to-day duties of officers.
"The CBSA’s participation in this television series is an opportunity to communicate Canada’s commitment to border security," Bourque wrote in an email, adding the agency has established "clear practices" with TV producers to ensure safety, security and privacy.
"Most filming is done at a distance and employees are only identified by their first name," Bourque wrote. "Participation in the television series is strictly voluntary."
She said protester and media accounts of the raids are "inconsistent" with those of the CBSA.
Officers raided only one construction site, she said, to locate and arrest a previously deported person "with significant criminal history."
In the course of that search, Bourque said border services agents identified several foreign nationals, who were subsequently arrested for working without proper authorization.
A total of 369 illegal workers were reported last year, according to CBSA numbers. More than a hundred of those were cases in B.C. and Yukon.
A spokeswoman for the federal immigration ministry, Alexis Pavich, said she had no knowledge of a reality show.
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version misspelled Jennifer Bourque's name.