Death of Mexican woman in CBSA custody sparks call for accountability

VANCOUVER – Many questions remain surrounding the death of a Mexican woman who had been held by Canada Border Services Agency at Vancouver’s airport, and the agency is revealing no answers.

Lucia Vega Jimenez was taken into custody at Vancouver International Airport last month. BC Coroners Service confirmed the 42-year-old collapsed shortly after being transferred to a cell on Dec. 19. She died in a Vancouver hospital nine days later.

News of Vega Jimenez’s death surfaced in media reports this week, prompting civil liberties activists to question why CBSA did not disclose information about the death sooner.

“It took a month for the story to break through the media, and we think it’s completely unacceptable that someone should die in the custody of a law enforcement agency and no disclosure’s made to the public,” said Josh Paterson, executive director of the BC Civil Liberties Association on Wednesday.

Jean-Pierre Fortin, national president of Customs and Immigration Union, said he only learned of the woman’s death from media reports this week. He said while Vega Jimenez was in the custody of CBSA, she was detained by a sub-contracted security company.

“It’s not common practice, but I know it’s taking place in certain places in Canada. B.C.’s one of them,” he said.

The group No One Is Illegal said three people, including a reverend who administered last rites at the hospital where Vega Jimenez died, have confirmed that she tried to hang herself with a shower curtain in the holding cells.

“We find this whole incident to be very troubling,” said Paterson. “Someone has died in custody — it appears in reports she committed suicide —and we have questions as to how that came to be. Could her death have been prevented? What were the circumstances of it?”

The BC Coroners Service is not disclosing the cause of death because of the ongoing investigation, but Coroner Barb McLintock said Vega Jimenez was in custody at “a different facility” before being taken to the holding area at Vancouver International Airport.

In a written news release, No One is Illegal said the woman was transferred to jail and then sent to the CBSA holding cells to await deportation.

Vega Jimenez was a migrant who worked at a Vancouver hotel when she was arrested last month over an unpaid transit ticket, the group said.

No One Is Illegal also claims that when Vega Jimenez’s sister came to Vancouver last month to take her sister’s remains back to Mexico, she signed a non-disclosure agreement with Canada Border Services Agency.

None of the allegations have been confirmed by CBSA. The agency declined a phone interview and did not provide a written statement.

McLintock said there have been “very, very few” CBSA in-custody deaths in B.C. An inquest will be ordered into the death, which RCMP has concluded was not criminal in nature.

Both BC Civil Liberties Association and No One Is Illegal are calling for an independent civilian inquiry.

Several hundred names were added to an online petition initiated by No One is Illegal on Wednesday calling for the inquiry. It is addressed to nine people, including CBSA officials, Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney and Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

“Lucia did die under the custody of CBSA and basically the only investigation, as far as I understand, has been the Richmond RCMP and we find this extremely inappropriate because it is only a police-on-police investigation,” said Shireen Soofi, a member of No One Is Illegal.

Police and RCMP conduct issues are investigated by independent agencies, but no such oversight exists for CBSA, said Paterson.

“You’re left in a position where you have to basically send a complaint email through their website or write them a letter and hope for the best,” he said. “That is not by any stretch an appropriate level of oversight for a police service.”

The petition also calls for a comprehensive review of migrant detention policies that Soofi said has forced at least two other migrants or refugees to take their own lives across Canada in the past few years.

“Canada is refusing more and more people who are fleeing their lives … and causing extreme distress that is putting migrants into these terrible circumstances, where they are desperate enough to do terrible things and unfortunately take their own lives,” said Soofi.

No One Is Illegal said a vigil to honour Vega Jimenez will take place on Friday afternoon in front of the CBSA offices in downtown Vancouver.

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