Thursday, March 14, 2013


CBSA raid on migrant workers, complete with TV camera crew, raises concerns in Vancouver


Commercial St Cafe owner Margot Skelhorn comments on a raid by CBSA agents at a construction site in the 3600 block of Victoria Dr, March 13 2013.

Photograph by: Gerry Kahrmann, Vancouver Sun

An ordinary day on a condo construction site in east Vancouver took a turn for the dramatic Wednesday when Canada Border Services agents burst in searching for illegal migrant workers — all while being shadowed by a camera crew apparently recording footage for a reality TV show.
The raid, which took place at the Porter development on Victoria Drive near 20th Avenue, was one of about 10 that reportedly occurred throughout the city Wednesday.
A site foreman for the condo developer Cressey said two CBSA officers arrived around noon hunting for two Honduran nationals who were quickly located. A short time later, as many as 17 officers surrounded the building and began sweeping the construction site floor by floor, checking identification.
The site foreman, who did not wish to be named, said he was shocked and had not seen anything like it before. He said the raid began with two people who seemed to know who they were looking for, then there were 15 more, as well as camera crews.
He said about eight people, all of whom worked for a subcontractor, were taken away from the site.
Other witnesses reported seeing between five and eight workers handcuffed and removed by CBSA agents while a film crew circled. Many also heard workers speaking of 10 to 15 other raids occurring the same day.
One man was reportedly apprehended after attempting to hide in a bathtub.
Ryerson Palmer, who works at a mechanical repair shop across the alley from the site, said, “They just had everyone in handcuffs out by the side of the building. They were more talking to this one guy, who was probably the site manager.”
“People were actually getting put in handcuffs by guys in black vests, and there was one film camera,” said Margot Skelhorn, who owns a coffee shop around the corner.
The CBSA confirmed Wednesday it took enforcement action at the east Vancouver site, but would not confirm the presence of a camera crew or additional raids.
Last summer, the Canada Border Services Agency announced plans to participate in a reality TV show documenting the “high-stakes drama” and daily duties of its agents.
The first season of Border Security is on air now on the National Geographic Channel and Global TV. Laurie Case of Force Four Entertainment, the production company behind the show, refused to say Wednesday if film crews were out with CBSA agents. But she did say the show is now shooting in the Lower Mainland.
The raids and TV crew have migrant worker advocate Byron Cruz incredibly concerned about the safety and security of the workers.
Cruz said he’d learned of 10 workers who were apprehended Wednesday, most from Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico. He said he’d also heard of additional raids.
“We have information right now that they were at 10 different sites,” said Cruz, an outreach worker with Sanctuary Health, which provides health care for migrant and undocumented workers.
Cruz said workers had told him CBSA officers arrived in black, unmarked Suburban SUVs Wednesday, which was traumatizing for some because it brought back memories of kidnappings in Latin America.
“All the migrant workers that were detained, each of them have a different immigration status,” said Cruz. Some are awaiting approval of refugee claims, while others have had claims denied or are in Canada illegally, he added.
Some workers who escaped from the raid were afraid to return to their apartments Wednesday evening, said Cruz, adding he had been told CBSA officers were searching the apartments of detained workers.
Cruz said he feared the CBSA is unfairly cracking down on migrant workers, staging raids more frequently than it has in the past, for instance when migrant workers were relied upon to complete Olympic venues.
“Some of the families are very concerned because they don’t have any information about their relatives,” he said. Cruz added the presence of camera crews at raids only adds to the fear that is a fact of life in migrant worker communities.
“For sure if they use this in a reality show, that’s going to be a very bad thing,” he said, noting the cameras raise many questions about consent and safety of migrant workers.
Jason McMichael, first vice-president of the Customs and Immigration Union, which represents CBSA officers, has long had concerns about the reality TV show, arguing it puts agents at risk of identification and retaliation by organized crime.
McMichael said the presence of a camera crew for internal purposes at CBSA is virtually unheard of.
“I’ve been a customs officer for 14 years ... and I’m not aware of any (instance) of filming raids,” he said.
He added he is privy to footage of the show before it goes to air and has “never witnessed anything but exceptional professional behaviour,” on the part of CBSA officers.
Coffee shop owner Skelhorn, whose Commercial Street Cafe is across the street from the Victoria Drive raid site, said many of the Mexican workers on the site are regulars at her coffee shop.
About a dozen workers came flooding in Wednesday after the raid, warning colleagues at other sites and connecting with family on their cellphones, she said.
“As far as we know, one person we know as our customer is being deported,” she said.
“It didn’t sit well with us, we know these people, they have families.”

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