Deportation threatens to break apart family in Edmonton

A Guatemalan family living in Edmonton is desperate for reprieve from a looming deportation order they say would separate the children from their parents.

'We came to Canada because we thought we would not be separated,' says mother of Guatemalan family

A Guatemalan family living in Edmonton is desperate for reprieve from a looming deportation order they say would separate the children from their parents. 1:18

UPDATE: A deportation date has been set for the family. Read our latest story here.


Six-year-old Beverly Picon Duarte is scared to go to school because she's worried her parents will be taken away while she sits in class.

At night, she screams as she wakes up from nightmares, her parents say.

Her family is facing deportation after several failed applications to stay in Canada. Beverly's parents and oldest brother will be forced back to Guatemala if the order holds.

"I don't want to be apart from them," Duarte says through tears.

Her mother, Yolanda Duarte Martinez, rubs the girl's arm. She's fighting back tears herself.

"I've never been separated from my children," she says in Spanish. "That's why we came to Canada, because we thought we would not be separated."

Jilmar Picon Pineda said he is desperate to keep his family together in Canada. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

Four of her five children were born in Alabama and have American citizenship. 

Her husband, Jilmar Picon Pineda, said he believes his Guatemalan hometown is too dangerous for Beverly and her siblings, so they will be sent to live with a relative in the United States if his family is deported.

Their oldest son was born in Guatemala and is being ordered to return to the Central American country with his parents.

Picon Pineda said the deportation is a death sentence.

"I will die, they will kill my children," he told CBC News through an interpreter.

Though the family speaks English, they asked to explain the details of their situation in Spanish.

Violence and death threats

Picon Pineda fled violence and death threats nearly two decades ago. He worked as a truck driver and local gangs had threatened his life for refusing to smuggle drugs in his vehicle. 

Before leaving, Picon Pineda was beaten so badly the scars are still visible. 

He settled illegally in Alabama with his wife and son. The young couple had four more children before deciding to apply for refugee status in Canada in 2011.

At the time, a local politician was advocating legislation meant to rout illegal immigrants from the U.S., Picon Pineda explained.

A friend's successful refugee claim in Canada motivated him to take the same chance for his family, he added.

"We understood that Canada was here to unite families, not to tear families apart," Picon Pineda said.

We understood that Canada was here to unite families, not to tear families apart.- Jilmar Picon Pineda

They travelled to Montreal, where they turned themselves in as refugees.

Their claim was denied. 

Instead, Picon Pineda said the government issued three work permits and told him to wait for further instructions.

They found jobs in Edmonton.

Picon Pineda accepted a position as a technician assistant at the University of Alberta. His wife and oldest son worked for a cleaning service.

"He worked very hard," said Jose Salvador Lopez, Picon Pineda's supervisor at the time.

"It is not easy to adjust to other cultures, other languages, other climates and he has done that. He's trying to do that for his family because he knows that his family's going to do better here in Canada."

Immigration scam

Nearly two years after arriving in Canada, Picon Pineda said he received a government letter that informed him he could apply to stay in the country on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.

One of his wife's former colleagues, who speaks Spanish, offered to handle the application. Picon Pineda said he paid thousands of dollars to the woman over the course of two years.

In November 2016, Picon Pineda said he was asked to report to the Canada Border Services Agency office in Edmonton. He went, thinking his application had been approved.

But staff told him there were problems with his application and that the family was going to be deported, Picon Pineda recalled.

He hasn't seen the woman who was taking money from his family since.

"It's not that we didn't want to file anything. According to us, we were filing everything," Picon Pineda said about the faulty application.

Thick stacks of immigration papers show multiple attempts by the family to stay in Canada legally. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

Shirish Chotalia, an immigration lawyer in Edmonton, said the family isn't alone. Stories of immigrants who are exploited for money abound in her profession, she told CBC News.

"It is pervasive and it is fairly common," Chotalia said. 

"They are coming from desperate situations and they don't know the laws so if anyone reaches out to them they're prepared to take that chance." 

She recommended that anyone filing immigration papers hire a lawyer or registered consultant, who can be held accountable.

"It happens more often than it should," she said about immigration scams. "The system is just rife for abuse."

'Our life is depending on them'

The federal ministry of immigration, refugees and citizenship is aware of the family and staff are looking into the case, a spokesperson confirmed.

Ziad Aboultaif, the MP for Edmonton Manning, said he has also contacted the ministry's office to ask about the matter.

"We are monitoring this case closely and are willing to assist as required," he wrote in a statement.

The family has hired a lawyer and in February reapplied to stay in Canada on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.

But Picon Pineda said he fears it's too late. On Monday, he said the Guatemalan Consulate sent notice his tickets had been booked.

"My head feels like it's going to explode at any minute," he said. "I don't know what to do, it's like our life is depending on them.

"Our hope is that immigration would respond and see our problem."

The family is scheduled to meet with immigration officials in Edmonton Tuesday.

@ZoeHTodd