Greg Weston: How a terror suspect slipped through immigration's cracks

Almost 20 years after Raed Jaser was ordered kicked out of Canada as a bogus refugee with a criminal past, he was still living in Toronto when police charged him with plotting an al-Qaeda-backed attack on a passenger train. Greg Weston explains how he fell through the cracks.

Just what does it take to get thrown out of this country?

Raed Jaser in the back of a police cruiser, on his way to a court date in Toronto in late April. (CBC)

Almost 20 years after Raed Jaser was ordered kicked out of Canada as a bogus refugee with a fake passport and a criminal past, he was still alive and well and living in Toronto last month when police charged him with plotting an alleged al-Qaeda-backed attack on a Via Rail passenger train.  

Far from being deported, Jaser had been pardoned for his previous crimes, while his illegal entry into Canada was equally forgiven with the ultimate immigration hug — permanent residency.  

While most Canadians were no doubt horrified by the alleged plot to derail a passenger train, Jaser's stunning history of avoiding deportation has also raised fundamental questions about Canada's immigration system, and what it takes to get kicked out of this country.  

Even Immigration Minister Jason Kenney confessed that the Jaser file gave him a holy cow moment, and prompted him to call a full investigation.  

How could this have happened?  

Was Jaser just a bureaucratic screw-up that spanned almost two decades? Or has Canada been running an immigration system verging on the theatre of the absurd?  

CBC News spoke to senior officials in a half-dozen different areas of government for answers to these and other questions raised by the Jaser case, and this is what we found out.

The story so far

Raed Jaser was 15 when he arrived at Toronto's Pearson airport on March 28, 1993, with his mother, father and two siblings. 

Artist's sketch of alleged Via Rail attacker Raed Jaser and his lawyer in a Toronto courtroom in April 2013. (Reuters)

He was born in the United Arab Emirates where his Palestinian family had moved from Gaza, and where his father had worked for more than two decades. They came to Canada from Germany where they had lived as refugee claimants for about two years.  

The family arrived in Toronto with fake French passports, and immediately claimed refugee status.

A year later, in 1994, the Immigration and Refugee Board rejected their refugee claim and ordered the whole family deported. But that decision was immediately appealed to the Federal Court.  

Almost four years later, the appeal still had not been heard.

In the meantime, the then Liberal government of Jean Chrétien had introduced a new refugee program to try to deal with a growing backlog of appeals, but it, too, turned into something of a fiasco.  

It was called the "deferred removal order class" and, in a nutshell, it allowed failed refugee claimants to apply for immediate permanent residency on the grounds that they had been waiting a long time to be deported.  

Between 1994 and 1997, over 10,000 questionable refugee claimants became permanent residents under the program before it was cancelled when authorities admitted the obvious: thousands of people with deportation orders were intentionally stalling their cases to the point that the whole system was grinding to a halt.

5 counts of fraud

No matter, Jaser's family was accepted under the program just before it was cancelled in 1997, and before its appeal could be heard.

All of them — except Raed — eventually became Canadian citizens.  

That same year, at age 20, Raed was convicted of five counts of fraud, automatically making him ineligible to apply for permanent residency under the deferred removal program.  

Instead, the following year, the Federal Court confirmed he was a bogus refugee to be deported forthwith.  

At that point, he applied for a "pre-removal risk assessment," claiming that his safety would be in jeopardy if he were deported.  

That assessment was negative, and there was nothing stopping his deportation.  

But enforcing deportation orders is the job of the Canada Border Services Agency, and for six years no one showed up to escort Raed Jaser out of the country.  

He wasn't the only one. The government has long admitted that at any given time, authorities lost track of tens of thousands of failed refugee claimants and other people ordered deported.  

Court records indicate that, during those six years, Jaser may have lived under multiple aliases.

Pardoned and more

But it was not as though he was impossible to find — in 2001, he was convicted in court of uttering threats.  

Finally, in 2004, a full decade after he had first been ordered out of the country, Jaser was arrested for immediate deportation.  

But at a court proceeding equivalent to a bail hearing, Jaser's lawyer argued that the accused was a stateless Palestinian, and therefore had no country to which to be deported.  

The immigration official hearing the case ordered Jaser released on a $3,000 bond until the government figured out where to send him.  

At the time, Canada was successfully finding foreign homes for many failed refugees claiming to be "stateless." But for some reason that never happened with Raed Jaser.  

Shortly after his release on the $3,000 bond, he applied for permanent residency on "humanitarian and compassionate grounds" — a move generally considered in the immigration world to be the appeal of last resort.  

That process kept the deportation police at bay for another several years.  

In 2009, almost 16 years after Jaser and his family arrived in Canada with false papers, he applied to the federal parole board for a pardon from his convictions for fraud and uttering threats.  

The fact that he was still under a deportation order at the time apparently had no effect on the decision, and he was granted his pardon.  

But the pardon certainly had an effect on his threatened deportation, then in its 15th year.  

With his criminal record effectively expunged, he was eligible to apply for permanent residency.  

That delayed any further deportation hearings until his residency was granted in 2012, ending all further proceedings.  

In the meantime, much has changed since Jaser's 20-year ride through the immigration system.  

The former Liberal government got rid of its own "deferred removal order class." And more recently, the Harper government has streamlined the appeal process for failed refugee claimants, and no longer allows deportees to apply for "humanitarian and compassionate" exemptions. 

It has also changed the criteria for pardons, but not in a way that would have affected Jaser's case.  

It is not known if or when Jaser celebrated officially becoming a permanent resident of Canada last year.  

Perhaps, as police allege, he was too busy plotting a terror attack against his adoptive country.