It was the day before Christmas Eve, and all through Walnut Grove Lutheran Church cheers erupted as a Salvadoran exile took his first, tearful steps out the doors of the building that sheltered him for two years.
"When I took my first step outside the church," José Figueroa said after authorities cancelled their deportation order against him, "it brought joy to my whole family."
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister John McCallum intervened in Figueroa's case, according to a federal decision handed down Dec. 21.
The decision stated that if the 49-year-old meets medical and criminal requirements and is "self-supporting," he could finally gain permanent residency in the country he has called home since 1997.
The Langley, B.C. church had been Figueroa's de facto prison since 2013, after the Canada Border Services Agency ordered him returned to his home country because he'd once been a professed member of a group involved in El Salvador's 13-year civil war, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN).
That leftist group, formed in 1980 to resist the country's U.S.-backed and bloody military regime, has now long been a peacetime political party in the Central American country. Since 2009, FMLN has formed government and elected two presidents, including current leader Salvador Sánchez Cerén, himself a former guerrilla leader.
Last year, Figueroa told The Tyee that he never took part in FMLN's armed activities, but was an outspoken advocate in an affiliated student union -- a claim confirmed by Federal Court Justice Richard Mosley last year, who also ruled that FMLN was a "broad based legitimate resistance group… much like the African National Congress in South Africa's struggle against apartheid."
But even though a peace accord ended El Salvador's civil war in 1992, Figueroa said he faced revenge threats for his student leadership and fled to Canada. Today, despite the federal ruling in his favour, Figueroa worries that the government continues to view FMLN as terrorists even though it's never been on Canada's list of terror groups, which puts others like him in danger of removal.
Figueroa's wife was granted a humanitarian exemption and allowed to stay in Canada several years ago, and his three children are Canadian citizens by virtue of being born here.
Here's what else Figueroa had to say in a Dec. 24 interview with The Tyee.
The Tyee: After two years in the church, now that your deportation order has now been cancelled, how do you feel?
José Figueroa: When I took my first step outside the church, it brought joy to my whole family. I cannot explain how happy we are about this situation.
Tell us a little about your case, for those who don't know. Why did you end up in the church in the first place?
It's a long story, but I'll summarize it: my wife and I came into Canada in 1997 and made a refugee claim, which was heard in 1999. In 2000, our refugee claim was refused because the immigration board decided El Salvador was a safe place, so it was safe for us to be returned. In 2002, we filed an application for humanitarian [and compassionate] grounds; in 2004 it was approved in principle. But in 2010, I went through an inadmissibility process brought by [the Canada Border Services Agency] and issued a deportation order. By the end of September 2013, CBSA was trying to remove me.
Right now [after this decision], there is no way they can backtrack on this. The issue of inadmissibility is off the table. I am going to become a permanent resident, even though I should have become a Canadian citizen by this time.
When you stepped out of the church, you commented on the nature of Canada. Some people -- particularly in the 'We Are Jose' campaign that sprung up around you -- had said your case was an indication that Canada was not a very welcoming place, or that we'd taken a turn against welcoming people from other countries that need asylum. What are your thoughts now you're actually released?
Canada is not the government. It is the people. We're talking about millions of Canadians. Right now, that compassion is being shown also with the refugees from Syria; there's a lot of welcoming to those refugees. That is part of the values that identify Canada and the reasons why, in 1997 when we came, we had always looked at Canada as a place where human rights were respected.
But because of all this bureaucracy that's been built around immigration, there are decisions being made that really don't make any sense. Those decisions by CBSA officers who do not understand the realities of other countries determine who can stay and who goes. The decision is made at the discretion of a CBSA officer, and the chance for anybody to stay or be deported depends on that one person. It is the bureaucracy that created this problem for me. It has created this problem for many other immigrants. That's the one thing they need to look at how to solve.
I read that Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister John McCallum directly intervened in your case?
It was the third decision made on the same application [for humanitarian and compassionate consideration]. The difference in this one: [it says], "You were found inadmissible to Canada … for being a member of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, an organization that, on reasonable grounds, is believed to have engaged in terrorism. However, on Dec. 16, 2015, the Hon. John McCallum, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, found that there are sufficient humanitarian and compassionate considerations in your case to warrant an exemption from this inadmissibility."
So they are still thinking that membership with the FMLN is grounds for inadmissibility. That needs to be clarified.
Of course, the FMLN actually elected the president of El Salvador, Mauricio Funes, from 2009 to 2014.
Exactly. And now an ex-commander of the FMLN is the president of El Salvador. He has come into Canada. Actually, the FMLN has not and has never been a listed [terrorist] entity in Canada. If the FMLN is not a terrorist organization, there is no reason why I should have ever been brought into this process.
What's the first thing you'll do now that you're out of the church? It must have been pretty cramped in there.
I've already done it. The first thing I wanted to do was to visit Rodney Watson [a U.S. ex-soldier in Vancouver who refused redeployment to Iraq]. He's been in sanctuary in First United Church since 2009, and he needs some hope. My wife, kids and other members of the community gave us a ride to his place to give him some hope that his situation will be solved pretty soon as well.
And for yourself? How are you planning to settle down now that you're free?
We have had a home for a long time -- 18 years! I went back home after the Christmas Eve service. It was the first time I could actually be able to attend a service and go back to my home.
I just want to say a big thank you to all in the community who, for many years, have been behind us and supporting us. People not only from Walnut Grove Lutheran Church but from Langley, all across Canada, and even from far-away places like New Zealand, Australia, El Salvador, the U.S., who have always been behind us.
Interview edited for clarity and length.
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