Nova Scotia

'We feel like this is our home': American family struggles to stay in Halifax

An incident at the Johnson family's home last winter in Wisconsin and the Cape Breton if Donald Trump Wins website ultimately led the family to Halifax, but Canada's complex immigration system means they may not be able to stay here.

'As a parent, you just really want your children to be safe,' says Leith Johnson

The Johnson family, from left, dad Les T. Johnson, Liam, 15, mom Leith Johnson and DJ, 12. (Submitted by Leith Johnson)

It was an incident last winter that made the Johnson family realize they had to leave the United States.

Leith Johnson and her husband, Les T. Johnson, were down the street from their home outside of Milwaukee for just minutes, talking to a neighbour.

Their two sons, then 14 and 11, were playing in the front yard.

By the time they returned home, a man had cornered their oldest son in the garage.

DJ Johnson, 12, is working on a book about his family's journey to Halifax. Here, he's holding a picture of the incident with his brother that made the family decide to move to Canada. (CBC)

"[He] was calling the police and claiming that there was a black man breaking into our house and just kind of a danger to the neighbourhood — it was our kid. We're like, 'It's our kid, he lives here,' and the man would just not let up," she said.

"My mom was even like, 'You have to go.' It was just never a question."

They saw the website that went around the world, Cape Breton if Donald Trump Wins, and thought it sounded like a good idea to head to Canada. The couple eventually decided on Halifax, but the problem now is they're not sure if they'll be allowed to stay.

The family is in Halifax now as temporary residents because Leith Johnson has gone back to school. She and her family can stay for four years while she attends the University of King's College, but once she finishes classes in 2021, in order to stay the family will have to become permanent residents, which is an expensive and complicated process.

'You want your children to be safe'

The struggles for the family in America began even before Trump was elected.

The Johnsons face a number of unique challenges because, as Leith Johnson puts it, the family is "a menagerie of many things."

"My husband and I are both transgender. We adopted two boys, one is African-American and our youngest is Latino. We're also Jewish," she said, adding with a laugh, "we're just charming."

Leith Johnson describes her family as 'a menagerie of many things.' (CBC)

Johnson said both she and her husband were outed while working in America and lost jobs because of that. But they were focused on creating a stable environment for their two sons, Liam, now 15, and DJ, 12, so they stayed.

"And then after the election, it really seemed that the gloves came off. People were very much in your face," she said.

"As a parent, you just really want your children to be safe. It's hard enough with different things like the internet ... but to find yourself in a situation where their personal safety is just at risk just by living where you live, it's really unsettling."

Uncertain future

The Johnsons have applied for permanent residency through the Express Entry stream of the Federal Skilled Workers Program, a points system based on age, language skills, work experience, education and whether you have family in Canada.

"Essentially you need to score a winning number of points," said Lee Cohen, who has been an immigration and refugee lawyer in Halifax for more than 30 years.

Immigration lawyer Lee Cohen says he'd like to see Canada offer more than one type of permanent resident application. (CBC)

He said if your name is pulled from the pool, you're invited to apply for permanent residency, but that doesn't mean you'll get it.

"So many people are shocked to realize that once they've applied, they end up in a kind of battle with the immigration authorities as to the quality of the paper they've submitted, the constant request for more or different information," said Cohen.

"Then at the end of the process, people are often very surprised to find out they've been refused and don't know why."

'This is our home'

Les T. Johnson is 45 and his wife is 53, meaning they get zero points for age.

If he were to get a job, their points and chances of staying would increase.

"What's frustrating is we feel like this is our home," he said.

"Not having a place to go to after this is really frustrating, really challenging and stressful for us."

Cohen said there may be other options for the family, such as using the job offer itself to help immigrate or using Leith's Canadian university experience to springboard into permanent residency.

"Again, it highlights how complex it is and the nuances that one must understand to know if I should go this route or that route," Cohen said.

Canada's complex immigration system

He said Canada's immigration system is complicated and needs to be reworked.

"There's no wonder that people who are trying to apply to immigrate get confused by the rhetoric of government that says 'Welcome to Canada' and the reality of a process that actually turns them down and rejects them. So I think the entire thing needs to be rethought."

Cohen said he'd like to see more categories instead of just one type of permanent resident.

"It's all or it's nothing ... one size does not fit all," he said.

The Johnson family says they hope to stay in Halifax for a long time. (Emma Davie/CBC)

Les Johnson, who is working remotely for the University of Wisconsin and teaching a gender and women's studies class at Dalhousie University, said he remains hopeful.

"I think once people start to recognize ... the value that both my wife and I bring in terms of our backgrounds and our expertise in different areas, which I think are really valued here in Nova Scotia, I think something will happen for us," he said.

'Where do we go next?'

It's been almost a year since the family decided to move, and Leith Johnson still can't believe how well her kids have adjusted, especially her younger son, DJ.

"I didn't really want to move here. I mean, I wasn't surprised either because we had kind of already decided if Donald Trump won, then we would be moving," the 12-year-old said.

"Our family is like mixed up of everything that Donald Trump really dislikes."

A picture of Donald Trump drawn by 12-year-old DJ Johnson. (CBC)

But now, DJ said he wants to stay in Halifax for a long time.

"We really like it here," he said.

Leith Johnson said no matter what happens, she and her family won't be returning to the United States.

"If we don't get permanent residency in Canada, it's really, where do we go next?" she said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Emma Davie

Reporter

Emma Davie is a reporter, producer and videojournalist in Halifax. She loves listening to, and telling stories from people in the Maritimes. You can reach her at emma.davie@cbc.ca.

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