An American mother with five Canadian children who lives in B.C. is shedding light on an immigration dilemma she says leaves her family at risk and dependent on charity.

"It’s a heartbreaking scenario — to watch your children when they are going to school and they are hungry," said Heidi Roggero.

Roggero is the ex-spouse of a Canadian — with no legal status in Canada — who can’t go back to the U.S. unless she abandons or kidnaps her children.

"I have a restraining order that prevents me from taking my children across the U.S. border," said Roggero, who relies on friends and neighbours, as well as the food bank and the school, to help feed and clothe her kids.

"I also cannot legally work in Canada … and we can’t get welfare or assisted housing. We have heavily relied on the goodwill of just the average Canadian citizen."

Roggero moved to B.C. with her Canadian husband in 2000 and they separated in 2009. They have five children, all under the age of 14, who are all considered to have dual citizenship.

Husband didn't sign papers

Roggero said that while she was married her husband repeatedly failed or refused to sign immigration papers to sponsor her to stay in Canada.

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Roggero is now living here illegally — because her temporary visitor status expired in 2010.

"It’s a day to day thing. Do we have food today? Do we have milk for you to drink today?" said Roggero. "It’s an unacceptable situation … we are between a rock and a hard place."

The courts have barred her from leaving Canada with her children, because their father shares custody. Records show Roggero’s ex-husband was ordered to pay $3,290 in support every month, but he is more than $33,000 in arrears.

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Roggero is a U.S. citizen, but can't go back to the U.S. unless she abandons or kidnaps her children. (CBC)

Roggero said his wages have now been garnished, so she has received some partial payments. CBC News tried to reach her ex-husband, Todd Reid, for comment on this story, but got no response.

Roggero was advised that she can apply to stay in Canada legally, on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. However, she says she is reluctant to do that because that might cause immigration authorities to deport her.

"I'm told there’s very little guarantee [of success]," she said. "I don’t want to 'out' myself and then get deported and have to leave my children in this situation."

Deportation fears

Even though she's American, Roggero said she is terribly afraid of being deported to the U.S., because she couldn’t take her children home with her and also wouldn’t be able to come back.

She said she feels safer going public with her story, in the hopes that will get her children some assistance.

"You want your children to feel like they are important to somebody — that what they are going through matters to somebody," said Roggero.

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YWCA shelter director Lisa Rupert says she knows of dozens of women in the same situation as Roggero. (CBC)

 

YWCA Metro Vancouver recently studied this problem, after hearing from 60 mothers in the same dilemma.

Lisa Rupert, director of the YWCA’s Monroe shelter, said the women they interviewed are stuck between a rock and a hard place — some even resort to prostitution so they can buy groceries.

"Some of the women that I’ve talked to are engaging in the sex trade — or they are dating new men that they wouldn’t have chosen to be with otherwise to put food on the table for their children. Some are working under the table," said Rupert.

Meantime, Rupert said, it takes two years for applications under humanitarian and compassionate grounds to be processed.

Wait too long

"It can drag out for years," said Rupert. "We would like to see some sort of special measure so that women in this situation have a special category or else are fast tracked."

Rupert said the YWCA is also working with the B.C. government on a program that would give social assistance to foreign-born mothers stranded in Canada while they wait for their immigration files to be processed. The B.C. government indicated that has yet to be finalized.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada told CBC News that women in Roggero’s situation do have special grounds to apply for status, in the "best interests" of their children.

"The applicant must prove that their hardship is unusual, undeserved or excessive and the result of circumstances beyond their control," wrote CIC spokeswoman Johanne Nadeau. "During the processing of an [humanitarian and compassionate] application, the decision maker also considers the best interests of any child affected and the individual’s establishment and ties in Canada."

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Rick Dykstra, parliamentary secretary to the immigration minister, says the government is working on speeding up applications through immigration reform. (CBC)

Figures from the department show approximately one-third of all applications in the humanitarian and compassionate  category are denied.

The parliamentary secretary to the immigration minister told CBC News the government is hoping to cut down on the application backlogs, through immigration reform legislation.

"That would bring a 'just in time' delivery process," said Rick Dykstra, who encouraged Roggero to apply for legal status as soon as possible.

"We certainly then will be able to work with the file and actually have someone make a pre-determination as to what the current status would be," said Dykstra.

"There definitely are cases where mothers have been successful in very similar circumstances under humanitarian and compassionate grounds to be able to remain here in Canada."