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Under deportation threat, 17-year Langley resident can't attend his own case review

El Salvadoran asylum-seeker José Figueroa won't have the chance to speak in his defence before a long-anticipated judicial review hearing on Monday, which will pave the way for him to either stay or be deported.

But in a rare move for an immigration case, the Canada's Federal Court has granted the 17-year Langley resident permission to listen in remotely from the city's Walnut Grove Lutheran Church, where he and his family have been holed up since last Oct. 4, avoiding deportation.

Figueroa arrived legally with his family in Canada in 1997, and since then he has been allowed to live and work in the country. However, in 2010 he was ordered deported because of his involvement a decade earlier in a political movement that took up arms in El Salvador's bloody civil war.

Figueroa says he told immigration officers of his connections with the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) when he arrived. The FMLN has held the reigns of government power since 2009, over two elections. FMLN is not on any Canadian terrorist entities list, and Canada maintains diplomatic relations with El Salvador.

"We have been living in Canada legally since 1997," said Figueroa. "I have been able to work and raise my family. It doesn't make sense."

The Canada Border Services Agency confirmed that it still has a warrant out for Figueroa's arrest, but faces a judge's order to halt his deportation pending the Monday hearing.

The notion of churches offering sanctuary to individuals like Figueroa stems back centuries to Europe when outlaws could find reprieve in places of worship. A handful of churches have adopted sanctuary seekers across Canada, including a Downtown Eastside United Church currently housing a U.S. Iraq war veteran.

In an emailed statement, a CBSA spokeswoman insisted that "there are no places in Canada where individuals can retreat and be immune from Canadian law," but admitted the agency "prefers to negotiate with those individuals who are hiding in a church or place of worship and to have them voluntarily leave for arrest."

"The CBSA reserves its right to enter a place of worship to make an arrest for cases involving security threats and/or exceptional circumstances," agency spokeswoman Jennifer Lee added, for instance if the agency deems it necessary to protect the integrity of the program, national security or public safety.

"Previous cases have been resolved in a number of ways, including discussions with local church officials that led to the individual leaving the place of worship," she said, "or through arrest by the CBSA or other law enforcement agency outside the place of worship."

Figueroa's supporters are planning a rally outside the courthouse on Monday morning.

David P. Ball is a staff reporter with The Tyee.

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