Is Randy Quaid abusing Canada’s refugee system?

Canada is the only country that processes refugee applications from the U.S.

Asylum, indeed

Stuart Davis/MCT/Landov/ Darryl Dyck/CP

When actor Randy Quaid asked authorities in Vancouver for asylum last week, one day after his arrest in the city’s posh Kerrisdale neighbourhood on an outstanding U.S. warrant, he claimed he’d simply come here to accept a movie award and start a new life. Oh, and to escape a shadowy cabal of Hollywood assassins out to kill him and his wife, Evi. Quaid touched off a media frenzy as only a Hollywood actor on the lam suffering paranoid delusions can. But local movie reviewer Ian Caddell, a member of the Vancouver Film Critics Circle—which named Quaid best supporting actor in 2009 for his role in a little-known Canadian flick, Real Time—figured he should be prepared just in case. “We’re ready to print up an award certificate if he really wants to come and get it,” says Caddell. (The Oscar-nominated actor missed the ceremony, held in January of that year at a dimly lit pub atop a downtown 7-Eleven.) “If he comes, he comes. If not, it’s only five bucks.”

Caddell may be willing to give Quaid the benefit of the doubt, but there’s little sign the rest of the world is ready to be so understanding. The bizarre refugee ordeal is just the latest twist in the couple’s descent into apparent madness over the past couple of years. “What the hell happened to Randy Quaid?” a New York Post headline blared.

At the same time, the case has angered critics of Canada’s federal refugee policy, who see it as the latest in a long line of instances where Americans with spurious refugee claims have managed to land themselves immigration board hearings and tie up the resources of Canada’s Border Services Agency. “Canada is the only country that takes seriously claims from Americans,” says Martin Collacott, head of the Centre for Immigration Policy Reform. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Canadian officials processed 725 applications from U.S. citizens for refugee status last year alone. Of those, just seven applicants were granted asylum, and insiders say they were most likely American-born children of refugees from other countries. But the UN agency lists no other country as having even processed the asylum applications of individuals originating in the U.S., least of all from individuals in trouble with the law.

As Maclean’s went to press, the Quaids were still behind bars awaiting an Immigration and Refugee Board hearing that was scheduled for Oct. 28, a hearing that could have resulted in their being sent swiftly back to the U.S. There were also reports they might simply give up their bid for asylum. But the incident has been a stark reminder of how swift and public Quaid’s downfall has been.

The older brother of the more famous actor Dennis Quaid, Randy broke onto the scene with an acclaimed role in the movie The Last Picture Show, and gave admired performances in other ’70s films including The Last Detail, Midnight Express and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, as well as 2005’s Brokeback Mountain. Even so, Quaid is most famous nowadays for playing a motley assortment of unbalanced characters, from Cousin Eddie in the National Lampoon’s vacation movies, to the drunken crop-duster who flies his fighter jet into an alien ship in Independence Day.

It was last year that the couple first ran afoul of the law. Quaid and his wife failed to pay a $10,000 hotel bill in California, leading to three felony charges. After failing to appear for five court dates, the couple was found in Quaid’s native Texas, where a deputy sheriff jailed them for a night. The case was settled, but in turn Quaid launched several lawsuits against his financial advisers and the producers of Brokeback Mountain for trying to defraud him. Last month, the Quaids were back in the news when they were charged with illegally living in a Santa Barbara, Calif., house they no longer owned. The new owner not only accused them of squatting, but of causing thousands of dollars in property damage. The couple was released on US$500,000 bail, but when the Quaids failed to show up in court, a warrant was put out for their arrest.

By then they had fled to Vancouver. According to locals who witnessed the couple being arrested in Kerrisdale, Randy had just come out of a bank after trying to apply for a mortgage. A cop car pulled up around 2:30 p.m., followed by other unmarked cars. Over the next few hours local shop workers watched as police emptied the contents of the couple’s car onto the sidewalk and questioned them. Only toward the end of the episode did many onlookers realize who was under arrest. “It’s very sad,” says Maria Bastone, an employee at a nearby lingerie store who saw the incident unfold. “Such a talented man and it’s really sad to see him caught up in this.”

Hollywood observers say Quaid’s wife, Evi, played a central role in his troubles, though the relationship started well. In 1989, Quaid met and married Evi Motolanez, 13 years his junior, when she worked as a production assistant on one of his films. Today, she’s infamous for sending nude photos of herself to a Seattle newspaper, and directing The Debtors, a feature film with over 100 uses of the F-word that premiered at the 1998 Toronto International Film Festival. She’s been accused of using fake credit cards and obtaining prescription drugs last year from Conrad Murray, the same doctor who allegedly supplied pills to Michael Jackson prior to his death.

But if there was a single turning point in the Quaids’ self-destruction, it came in 2008 as the actor played the role of Falstaff in Lone Star Love, an updated musical version of The Merry Wives of Windsor. Before the show could even hit Broadway, all 26 of Quaid’s fellow cast members went to the actors’ union and claimed he “physically and verbally abused” them. After a hearing, Quaid was banned for life by the actors’ union, and he has not gotten a major role since.

Evi responded first with anger—she called the actors’ representatives “Nazis” and told them she’d like to “terminate your existence on this planet”—and then with intense paranoia. She became convinced, and in turn convinced Randy, that a union mob was behind the deaths of several actors, including Heath Ledger, David Carradine and Natasha Richardson.

Becky Altringer, a private investigator Evi hired to look into the deaths, and who housed the couple for three months last year, soon realized the depth of Evi’s paranoia. “There’s no conspiracy, there’s no one out there trying to kill them,” she told Maclean’s. “Evi would think a picture my nephew had painted two years earlier was tied to the Mob, or that some nearby towers were put there by people coming after them.” After kicking the couple out of her Los Angeles home, Alt­ringer says she was forced to take out a restraining order against Evi. When she saw the Quaids’ Vancouver immigration lawyer hold up a scrawled note that read, “Yes, we are requesting asylum from Hollywood Star Whackers,” she immediately recognized the handwriting as Evi’s.

But while the couple took a uniquely Hollywood path to their refugee claim last week, they’ve had plenty of company. In fact, Canada has become a haven for Americans on the run. For the most part, U.S. refugee claimants have tended to be people wanted on minor drug charges, says Collacott, the immigration reform advocate. That was the case in 1999 with refugee claimant Renee Boje, who said she was a political pawn in the U.S. war on drugs. After six years of legal wrangling, she was eventually denied refugee status and ordered extradited. Yet another appeal delayed her deportation, and she eventually settled the case with the U.S. courts with a one-year probation during which she was allowed to stay in Canada.

To put an end to the influx of American asylum seekers, Collacott argues the government should eliminate even the possibility of applications from Americans by establishing a “safe countries” list—including the U.S, but also other democracies like Britain and New Zealand—from which refugee claims would never even be considered.

It’s not clear what will happen with the Quaids, since there are no rules for fast-tracking frivolous refugee claims. In fact, contrary to some reports, the Quaids have not yet been given an opportunity to formally request asylum. That’s because their first immigration board appearance was strictly a detention hearing. Anyone the Canada Border Services Agency is holding must be granted such a hearing within 48 hours of being detained. In this case, the immigration board ordered the Quaids released if they put up two $10,000 bonds and provided a Vancouver address where they would be staying. But they remained in detention, which an official said meant they hadn’t met those conditions.

At least one Toronto immigration lawyer, Lorne Waldman, has said it could take up to six months before the Quaids’ claim is finally thrown out. The episode has already strained the refugee board offices, which have been swamped with calls from U.S. media, particularly Hollywood-oriented celebrity journalists. One fan even showed up at the agency’s Vancouver office fearful about the fate of the couple’s dog, which the Quaids had with them when they were arrested, and which has been at a local shelter since then.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office said prosecutors are co-operating with Canadian authorities and will defer extradition proceedings until immigration proceedings are wrapped up.

At their admissibility hearing, slated for Oct. 28, it’s likely the CBSA argued the couple should be sent back to the U.S. for two straightforward reasons: they face serious criminal charges in the U.S., and lied at the border when crossing into Canada. Since the CBSA rarely loses in this type of hearing, history is not on Randy Quaid’s side.