When Veronica Castro was in a Canadian detention centre awaiting imminent deportation back to Mexico, she wrote a letter to a friend saying she feared the worst: "I will really need your prayers."
She had been struggling to stay in Canada since her refugee claim, based on domestic abuse and fear of returning to her family home, was denied a year earlier.
The odds had been against Castro from the start, as claims from Mexico have a high rejection rate — 82.9 per cent in 2011. And critics argue the Harper government's Bill C-31, designed to speed up the refugee claim process, will make it even more difficult for refugees from Mexico to stay in Canada.
For Castro, her letter to her friend now seems prescient.
She wrote that her deportation was a matter of "life or death … I'm shaking and terrified every time I think about my deportation. I am really scared."On Jan. 12, 2012, Castro was beaten and robbed. She died three days later. She was 41 years old.
Living the Canadian life
Rarely is it possible to trace what happens to refugee claimants who are deported. They get on a flight and disappear back into their old lives. Usually that's when their stories end.
But Castro had touched people's hearts, and when friends in Canada heard about her lonely death they openly wept.
Her story is both ordinary and complicated. The denial of her claim for refugee status in Canada was likely also ordinary and complicated. She was but one of thousands of claimants from Mexico considered in 2010. The domestic abuse she described had taken place more than a decade earlier and couldn't be substantiated to the satisfaction of the adjudicator.
Why claims from Mexico rejected
- Drug cartels considered a general danger, not an individual danger.
- Mexico is a democratic country with its own social safety net.
Castro was poor, lacked professional skills and had a drinking problem.
But she was also described as someone who believed in justice, a hard worker, exceptionally honest, a people person who was naturally social and feisty, a mother who wanted to keep a close bond with her son living in the U.S., and someone connected to her cultural and spiritual world. She left behind a caring partner and a 16-year-old son.
While she lived in Toronto awaiting her hearing, Castro told the story of her early years in Mexico. She feared returning to a broken family who were heavy drinkers, living on the fringes of the drug trade. In particular, she feared an abusive stepfather.
The irony, her friends say, is that in her years away from Mexico, she had lost her street smarts and become very trusting. They were concerned that a faith in society developed over 15 years in Canada and the U.S. might get her into trouble in a country that had become more violent over the years.
The U.S. connection
Castro snuck across the Mexican-U.S. border in 1996 with her one-year-old son in order to join her boyfriend and father of her child in Minnesota. He had legal documents to live and work in the U.S. and she lived with them for nearly 10 years until she was caught.
Her partner, and father of her child, had refused to marry her in this decade. In fact, she said, he beat her and taunted her, using the possibility of legal status for her and the son as a carrot. She said that's when she first started drinking.
Eventually Castro was stopped on a highway for a traffic violation. Being undocumented, she had no driver's licence and was possibly charged with drunk driving. The police reported her to immigration and she was deported to Mexico.
Back in Mexico, she decided not to return to the partner in the U.S. who had beaten her, but instead come to Canada and claim refugee status. She said she could not be emotionally safe in Mexico — even everyday, ordinary things reminded her of the earlier abuse and caused her unbearable pain. Optimistically, she planned to send for her son who continued to live in the U.S. with his father.
Castro claimed refugee status in Canada in March 2008 while attending an English-language school in Toronto.
A secretary in Mexico, she trained and got work as a waitress and was passionate about her job. Her friends say she demonstrated great resilience.
It took two years for her paperwork to go through the Canadian refugee system, and in that time she established a life for herself, including meeting a new man who introduced her to Alcoholics Anonymous. She got a small dog and named it Coco, and did volunteer work. She sent money to her son regularly every month.
Her path through the immigration system was similar to that of many claimants from Mexico — her fear of returning to that country was judged not credible and her claim was denied. In October 2010, the decision by an adjudicator of the Immigration and Refugee Board was "that the applicant is not a convention refugee nor a person in need of protection."
Since there is virtually no appeal process, many claimants disappear underground once they are denied. At least 200,000 people are believed to be living undocumented in Ontario. In 2008 the auditor general reported that the Canadian border agency had lost track of 41,000 files for illegal immigrants.
But Castro stayed in the system.
She had a fall in October and bruised her face. She was embarrassed, became depressed, and missed two mandated check-ins with the Canadian Border Services Agency.
Then when a neighbour called the police over a shouting incident, she was taken to the Vanier Centre, where she was incarcerated and appeared for her last detention review hearing alone. Her counsellor was unavailable, her partner was undocumented and could not help her, and the lawyer assigned to her did not show up.
In November 2011, after a year of vacillating between hope and hopelessness and taking steps to take control of her drinking, her deportation was swift.
Castro was taken to the airport and a friend was able to meet her there briefly to give her some warm clothes from her apartment. Castro told her again about her premonitions of death.
A tale of death
The rest of the story is only partially known, concluding in the brutal death of a desperate woman who no longer had a sense of the dangerous streets. She landed in Mexico City and soon after headed to the border state of Coahuila. She phoned back to Canada and asked for money, saying she was trying to find an underground way to return. Money was sent to her.
Then she called to say the money was gone and that she'd been beaten. With the help of a local man she got to the town of Hermosillo, another departure point for illegal immigrants, and found a place to rest. But her injuries were critical and after saying a tearful goodbye via cellphone to her partner in Canada and to her son in the U.S., she died in a stranger's home.
When Castro died at 41 she had spent almost half of her life looking for a safe home without painful memories for herself and her son.
You could say she disappeared without a trace, but not quite.
She left behind Coco, a book, a religious medal, a wristwatch, two of her son's stuffed toys that she was keeping for him, and a couple of CDs, which have been sent to her son so he can remember her, and her last letter. In that letter she asked her friends to look after Coco. They are trying to find a way to get the little dog to her son.
She was a great reader, and a well-used book she appeared to treasure was in Spanish and subtitled, "Saying goodbye forever to suffering."
Many refugee claimants are ordinary people like Castro who have emotional scars from the troubles they fled.
A growing issue for both the U.S. and Canadian governments are claimants being dubbed "narco-refugees." These are people fleeing the drug wars in Mexico which started in earnest in 2006 when President Felipe Calderon declared war on the drug cartels.
A March report by the Bertelsmann Foundation concludes that "as a result of government strategy, violence has escalated to levels previously unknown in Mexico, with policemen, soldiers, drug dealers and an increasing number of innocent people being killed every day."
A human rights activist from Mexico recently told a Canadian audience that her country is facing a "humanitarian crisis" because of the number of "forced disappeared" connected to the drug cartels.
Castro was almost a "forced-disappeared." The drug cartels run the human smuggling trade and it is believed that Castro fell into their hands. She was beaten, robbed and left to die.
But by using her cellphone on her deathbed, she was at least able to let her loved ones know the end of her life story.
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An earlier version of the story said Veronica Castro was murdered. In fact she died three days after being beaten and robbed.Jul 17, 2012 1:30 PM ET