Transgender Irish teen's family fights to stay in Canada, trapped in 21-month immigration limbo
Family fighting teen's separate removal order, say it violates his right to explain risks of return to Ireland
An Irish family of five says they are desperate to stop Canada from deporting their transgender teen, all while fighting to extricate themselves from a complex immigration limbo.
The Tyrrell Haslam family from County Kildare has been living in a Vernon, B.C., motel room for 15 months provided by Turning Point, a homeless outreach organization. The family has been restricted from working or attending school and surviving on charity for 21 months.
Their journey to become permanent residents of Canada began in 2013 and highlights the complexity of this country's immigration system, particularly at a time when access to legal counsel and government services was affected by the pandemic.
The family says an employer — entering the wrong labour code on a document in 2013 — led to their permanent residency application being initially denied, which meant they returned to Ireland in 2015.
But since coming back to Canada in 2019, red tape and a wrong turn that saw them accidentally cross into the U.S. through a small B.C. town while attempting to meet with Canadian border officials, led to orders that they leave Canada.
Returning to Ireland is not an option, the family says, as this could put Adam, 19, in jeopardy.
Fear of stigma, violence in Ireland
The family returned to Canada on work and study visas in 2019, because they hoped to live in a country they say is more accepting of transgender people, given the uptick in hate crimes against the LGBT community in Ireland.
"[My son] would be isolated and bullied there — never able to be himself," John Haslam says.
Adam says he just wants to be able to finish Grade 12 and go to college and get a job — he dreams of his family getting back to a real life with his brothers back in school, living in their own home.
And he hopes to one day study psychology.
"It's been hard on all of us," the 19-year-old said. "We deserve to have a chance here."
Their court case
On Sept. 9, the family filed a lawsuit against the attorney general of Canada in B.C. Supreme Court, hoping it would lead to a hearing where Adam could describe risks he faces in returning to Ireland.
The statement of facts argues that Adam should be allowed the same hearing as his family members, so that he can argue he deserves to be designated a protected person and be allowed to stay in Canada.
It's still unclear why he was denied such a hearing in the first place, but his family told CBC they believe Adam's file was separated from theirs because he is now an adult.
On Nov. 3, the federal attorney general filed a response to the Haslam application saying it should be thrown out, because any challenge should have been filed in federal court, unless there were claims for damages.
It's another bureaucratic hurdle for the family. Unable to work for nearly two years, Haslam and his wife, Sharon Tyrrell, cannot afford a lawyer.
Instead, they have a legal agent, an Irish-Canadian they met in a Walmart who offered to help them for free. He told CBC the family opted to file a lawsuit in the provincial superior court, because the federal court is a five-hour drive away in Vancouver.
And time had run out for a judicial review of their deportation order.
Leaving stigma behind
When Adam was 13 and began to transition, the teen says he was isolated by students and teachers at his Catholic-run school in Ireland, where he was not allowed to use male washrooms, be recognized as being transgender or be called Adam.
He says transgender people in Ireland get "weird looks" and face discrimination and stigma, whereas in B.C., he says he's found a place of safety and support.
That's why his family says it's imperative they be allowed to stay.
"We realized the struggles and the hardship he was going to have becoming a boy in Ireland," Haslam said of his son.
"And we said, 'We aren't going to put our son through that. We decided to come back to Canada to give him a chance to become who he wants to be."
A spike in hate crimes
Though Ireland was seen to have made a progressive step forward when it approved same-sex marriage in 2015 through a referendum vote with 62 per cent majority, the republic's history has been marked by anti-LGBTQ sentiment — the country decriminalized homosexuality in 1993, compared to Canada's 1969.
And in recent years, there has been a spike in hate crime in Ireland. In January an anonymous spokesperson from Trans Equality Together told The Irish Times: "Trans people are not as safe as they once were. It saddens me to say that about Ireland, which would have been seen as probably a beacon of hope," they said.
"Around the world for trans people and LGBT people generally, things have deteriorated."
In October, Ireland's Minister for Justice Helen McEntee responded to the rising tide of hate crimes with new legislation that criminalizes the incitement of acts of hate against transgender people and others. A person who seeks to incite hatred can be sentenced to up to five years in prison. The new law followed a series of violent attacks — including the killing of two LGBT men in their homes in Sligo, Ireland, in April.
So it was concern about Adam's safety, and an ongoing housing crisis in Ireland, that cemented the Tyrrell Haslam family's plan to return to Canada for the second time.
The return journey to Canada
By 2019, the family was in Vernon, B.C.; Haslam in construction, Tyrrell had a job at Walmart and their three children were in school.
But an accidental crossing over the U.S. border with expired visas complicated everything. The family says it was an honest mistake made after being mired in endless red tape.
They had tried to reapply for permanent residency before their visas were to expire on March 31, 2021, the couple told CBC News, but their younger son's Irish passport had expired during the pandemic and the family learned they couldn't complete the permanent residency application.
On April 1, 2021, the family drove to Osoyoos, B.C., on the advice of a local member of Parliament, hoping to speak to Canadian immigration officials there about how to proceed.
The B.C. community is just four kilometres north of the U.S. border and that's when the family says they inadvertently drove past the Canadian checkpoint and crossed to the U.S. port of entry.
They immediately realized their mistake, but it took hours to correct. They were eventually allowed back into Canada, but they had been stripped of their right to work or send their children to school.
On Nov. 4, 2021, Immigration Division Member Michael McPhalen gave the Tyrrell Haslams an exclusion order — an order that they leave for one year — but Adam was excluded.
According to court documents filed by the family, McPhalen said Adam had not been given due process by being personally served notice of an admissibility hearing now that he was an adult.
On March 4, Adam was interviewed by an immigration official on his own. The family hoped this would get Adam's immigration process realigned with the family's. Instead, he received an exclusion order to leave the country, and he wasn't given the option of a pre-removal risk assessment — a hearing where he could explain any risks associated with a return to Ireland.
It's not clear why Adam was shifted to a different immigration stream than his family. But he wants the decision reversed, he says, for violating his rights — the reason for the lawsuit the family filed this fall.
In the past, Adam stayed silent about his identity.
"Adam did not say anything, as we had not made anyone aware of our life in Ireland. We were afraid, we taught Adam being transgender was just another reason for them to have us removed. We had kept it very private," his mother wrote in an email to CBC.
"Me and John spent all that time dealing with the process of Canada, then Adam became of age and was questioned he was completely lost in that process he didn't understand."
In the meantime the family's life is stalled by this complex tangle of immigration minutiae, which they continue to fight. "I feel so hopeless for my future and for my kids … to be ordered out of Canada, it destroyed us, it feels like there's no compassion from immigration that they simply don't care," Tyrrell said.
She said Adam is also dealing with a retinal tear in his eye that could lead to blindness, but the family has no access to provincial medical care.
"We're just a family that came to Canada for a better life."
Vancouver immigration lawyer Zool Suleman reviewed the Haslam Tyrrell family's case for CBC and said it shows the difficulties of navigating the immigration maze.
"This case highlights the compounding effects of COVID and complex immigration rules. Enforcement measures do not respond well to the needs of this family," said Suleman.
"This claim appears to be in the wrong court, seeking remedies, which the court is ill equipped to provide."
Instead, he suggested the best option for the family's success in trying to stay in Canada would be for a federal minister to intervene — leading to a stay of removal and the potential for a humanitarian application.
CBC reached out to federal justice and immigration officials, including federal Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister Sean Fraser before publishing this story. All declined an interview, citing privacy laws, despite the Tyrell Haslams giving written consent for them to comment on the case.
On Thursday, Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) responded by email, providing general information but still would not speak about the family's situation.
Instead, the agency wrote: "CBSA has a legal obligation to remove all foreign nationals and permanent residents that are inadmissible to Canada under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA). The decision to remove someone from Canada is not taken lightly."
A spokesperson for Immigration Canada responded on Dec. 5, saying anybody "subject to a removal order" will be informed by CBSA "if they are eligible to apply for a pre-removal risk assessment (PRRA)" hearing to ensure they are not returned to a situation of risk.
It's not clear from this response if Adam was or was not eligible and why he'd be any different than his family.
The family's legal agent, Irish-Canadian Padraig Mac Roibeaird, said ordering an eager-to-work family out of Canada over technicalities makes little sense and this lengthy ordeal has hurt them.
The family is now seeking damages, said Roibeaird, adding, "Adam did not wish to create any great drama over his situation."
As for Adam, he says in Canada he's found a place of belonging, and he hopes to stay.
In Ireland, he felt left out.
"It was lonely. Even to find anyone that could really relate to you."