London

Is the secrecy surrounding the detention of 12 Mexican men in London, Ont., a problem?

The arrest and detention of a dozen Mexican men on unspecified charges and in an unspecified location has highlighted the lack of independent oversight at the Canada Border Services Agency, some lawyers say.

Bill that would have provided independent oversight for the CBSA died in the Senate

Migrant workers work on farms in southwestern Ontario. (Martin Diotte/CBC)

The arrest and detention of a dozen Mexican men on unspecified charges and in an unspecified location has highlighted the lack of independent oversight at the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), some lawyers say. 

The fate of the 12 men, possibly migrant workers, in London, Ont., has been shrouded in secrecy since their arrest by London Police on June 22 following a "citizen complaint." 

"Why was police called? The idea that they would interrogate 12 people and then go on and turn them over to the custody of the CBSA, that's worrisome," said Swathi Sekhar, a Toronto immigration lawyer who works with the Migrant Worker Alliance for Change. 

"There is significant reason for the public to be concerned about this. Everyone has a right to privacy, but at the very least people should be able to access counsel, and we should have minimal information about these people so we can make sure they can be protected. I don't think the CBSA can be trusted to safeguard those rights." 

The CBSA has refused to answer repeated questions from CBC News about the men's charges, where they're being held, the status of their detention or whether they've had access to legal counsel. The agency cites privacy as a reason for not answering questions. 

The Liberal government's plan to set up an independent oversight body to keep tabs on misbehaving border agents died on the Senate floor before the parliamentary session ended on June 21, a day before the Mexican men were arrested on a quiet street mostly deserted because it is in a neighbourhood occupied mainly by Western University students. 

'The most vulnerable'

Critics, including Sekhar, have long argued the CBSA needs an independent oversight body. 

Migrant workers are among the most vulnerable people in Canada, because they're often at the mercy of their employers. 

In southwestern Ontario, migrant workers work as farm hands, picking mushrooms and other crops, as well as working with livestock. 

"They come with hopes and they come with dreams and what they get is a nightmare," said Karin Callejas, a London, Ont., woman who has worked with migrant workers, including running a recruitment agency for farm workers with her father. 

"They get mistreated, they get treated like slaves, they get hurt on the job and they get told you have to show up for work or get back on the plane and go home," Callejas said. 

She doesn't know the 12 men who were arrested, but said everyone should be concerned about their welfare.

"These are human beings, just like us. It's very concerning that there's not enough information for us to know what's going on."

London human rights lawyer Susan Toth said agencies such as the CBSA shouldn't hide behind privacy as a way to keep information away from the public. 

'Do they have lawyers? We don't know'

The CBSA lists people wanted on immigration warrants on its own website with pictures, date of birth, country of origin and last known address, she pointed out. 

"It seems to me that when they're being looked for, privacy doesn't matter, and all the information is fair game until we no longer have any information from them. What evidence were these warrants based on? Do they have lawyers? We don't know any of that," Toth said. 

"Any agency that can function with that degree of secrecy, and have no accountability, that's problematic. We are only as good as we treat our most vulnerable.

"The more power an agency has, the more important that there be some kind of scrutiny. Because secrecy is where our rights disappear." 

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