A Canadian-born child with a serious illness may soon lose the benefits of B.C.'s health-care system if the federal government deports his Mexican father, who was once a member of a U.S. criminal gang.
"I am not just another Mexican trying to stay," said the father, Nicolas Rodriguez. "I'm just another parent, trying to save my son's life and keep him healthy."
Six-year-old Ariel Rodriguez was born in Vancouver in 2003, two years after his mother and father came to Canada from Mexico and claimed refugee status. The boy has Hurler's disease, a genetic enzyme deficiency that is rare, debilitating and often fatal.
Ariel has had several medical treatments in B.C., including a bone-marrow transplant, which improved his condition and prognosis significantly. His doctor expects he can now live with his illness but he still requires life-long, complex medical care.
"He will always have to be close to centres where people know about the disease and where the symptoms that can occur can be treated," said Dr. Sylvia Stockler, a biochemical disease specialist at B.C. Children's Hospital.
"These children still have lots of problems after the [bone-marrow transplant] treatment."
Parents under deportation order
His parents are facing imminent deportation as failed refugee claimants.
"Ariel has no cure. He is going to need help forever," said his father. "How am I going to afford all of that [health care] in Mexico?"
During his teens and early 20s, Nicolas Rodriguez was a member of a criminal gang in California, called the Blythe Street Gang. He then did prison time in the U.S., for drug trafficking and robbery, before being deported to Mexico, his homeland.
"I am very lucky to stay alive," said Rodriguez. "I have been shot three times — I even got shot in the head."
He said he decided to come to Canada with his wife, Leticia, to make a fresh start. His criminal history was his stated reason for claiming refugee status when he arrived.
"I wanted to change. I wanted something different. I didn't want to spend the rest of my life in prison or killed or in a wheelchair," said Rodriguez.
"So I come here. From the time I filled out that form for refugee status, I listed all of my convictions."
Once in B.C., Rodriguez found work as a roofer. Last year he opened a Mexican restaurant in Burnaby and he has no criminal history in Canada.
"This is not someone abusing the system or abusing the refugee system," said Rodriguez. "My file has been sitting there forever. They're not looking at me as who I am now. They are still looking at me as who I was before."
Criminal past unnoticed
According to case documents, Rodriguez should have been deemed automatically inadmissible to Canada — ineligible to make a refugee claim — when U.S. police reports were received in 2002, confirming his previous membership in an organized criminal enterprise.
Immigration Refugee Board panel member Michael McPhalen, who reviewed his file last year, wrote, "[immigration officials] who dealt with this case … did not realize that this membership could possibly render Mr. Rodriguez ... inadmissible."
McPhalen said no official flagged that issue until 2006 — three years after Ariel was born.
"It cannot be said that the delay … was justifiable," he wrote. "It took officials four years from when they learned Mr. Rodriguez ... was a member of the Blythe Street Gang, until they reported him [to the Immigration and Refugee Board]."
Submit your story ideas:
- Go Public is an investigative news segment on CBC TV, radio and the web.
- We tell your stories and hold accountable the powers that be.
- We want to hear from people across the country with stories they want to make public.
By that time, Ariel was in the process of getting his bone-marrow transplant. Rodriguez and his wife had lost their refugee claims but were given a temporary reprieve from deportation, on humanitarian and compassionate grounds, while their son recovered.
Now they are again facing deportation.
At an admissibility hearing scheduled for Vancouver on June 30, Rodriguez will ask federal Public Safety Minister Vic Toews to give him an exemption from removal, on the grounds that he has turned his life around and is no threat to Canada.
"Any other decision would be unconscionable," said Rodriguez's lawyer, Blake Hobson.
"I have been dealing with Mr. Rodriguez for nine years. From our first meeting, he was honest about and accepted responsibility for his previous criminal history. He is not a bad person — simply a person who made mistakes when he was younger."
Calls by CBC News to Toews's office were not returned.
Child needs more surgery
Meantime, Ariel continues to face medical challenges. Stockler said that even though the transplant effectively saved his life, he still needs several orthopedic surgeries.
"These are quite complex surgeries and [in other countries] … that is certainly very, very expensive," said Stockler. "We do not yet know what the situation is in Mexico — if there is a centre — and if would he have access to the health care there."
"He's Canadian, born in Canada," Rodriguez said. "In Mexico, he would have been dead by now."
All this comes while Ottawa is trying to limit and speed up bogus refugee claims, particularly from Mexico.
Last year, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney brought in new rules requiring Mexican nationals to qualify for a visa before entering Canada. At the time, Kenney said he wanted to stem the tide of Mexican refugee claimants, who generated 22 per cent of all claims.
Then the government passed Bill C-11, which, if approved by the Senate, will speed up the refugee application process significantly. According to Kenney's office, most claims will be heard within 90 days and failed claimants will be deported within a year of that final decision.
Changes already in force mean if Rodriguez were to try to come to Canada from Mexico today, it's unlikely he would even get an entry visa because of his criminal background.
"It's not about me," said Rodriguez. "It's all about Ariel. And if he is getting the help he needs — then by all means, please, keep me here."