Just before the end of the year, Lucia Vega Jiminez took her own life while in immigration detention at the Vancouver airport. It took three weeks for this news to work its way into the public domain, and now, even a month later, we know little more than we did when Vancouver's free newspaper, 24 Hrs, broke the story.
That a young woman in good health would take her own life is deeply unsettling, and an inconsolable loss to those who loved her. Beyond this, there are at least four things seriously troubling about this story that all Canadians should be concerned about.
First is the fact that we still know very little about what happened. Jiminez was in the custody of the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) at the time of her death. The CBSA did not make her death public, and has publicized little information about it, beyond confirming the bare fact of its occurrence. This is simply unacceptable. All policing agencies should be required to report, investigate, and report the results of the investigation, whenever a death occurs in their custody. This is routine for agencies across Canada -- the CBSA should not be immune.
A second troubling fact is that it is not clear whether Jiminez was legally detained at the time of her death. Not having immigration status within Canada is not a legal reason for detention. Immigration detention has strict legal parameters.
Permissible reasons for detention in Canadian law include that a person is a danger to the community; that she is unlikely to appear for her next immigration proceeding, or that her identity cannot be established. The government must make the case for detaining someone, and that requires evidence. Given the lack of information about this case, there is no ability to assess whether such evidence exists. Certainly there is nothing to suggest that Jiminez was a danger, nor that her identity was in doubt.
Third, it is troubling that Jiminez was arrested on public transit for riding without a ticket. Most non-status migrants in Vancouver know that riding the Skytrain is one of the riskiest things they can do. But the problem here is not that Jiminez apparently wasn't aware of this. The issue is that transit authorities do not have a mandate for immigration enforcement. They have insufficient training and experience, and only the thinnest of legal authorities linking them to the CBSA. Transit police should not ever be put in charge of the liberty of individuals.
Finally, the role of the independent contractor running the detention centre has not been clarified. At one level, this is unimportant. When a person is in CBSA custody, the CBSA is responsible for them, even if they choose to contract that responsibility out to someone else. But the role of an intervening agency adds intricacies to the story that should certainly be explained.
There is a pressing need for a public inquiry into Jiminez's death. Key questions for such an inquiry will be:
- Who was supervising her?
- What were the protocols for supervision?
- Were these being followed?
- Why was she detained?
- Why was she at the airport facility?
- What assessments had been made of her mental state?
- What did the brief RCMP criminal investigation of her death find?
When these questions, and more, have been answered, we can begin the process of finding a legal response to this event, and to acting to ensure it does not happen again. Without a full inquiry, we can only assume that the CBSA has something to hide.
We, as a society, know a great deal about how to prevent deaths in custody, and about the desperation of those who are facing deportation. CBSA has a responsibility to integrate this knowledge into its day-to-day work. A basic respect for human rights demands nothing less.