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How bureaucracy and bad judgment undid a Canadian dream

After ten years of trying to become Canadian, Zsolt Hossu’s efforts seem to be coming to an end. It’s August 28, 2012. He’s about to be put on an economy class flight to Budapest by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA). His removal order from Border Services, delivered in the mail several weeks earlier, tells him in precise detail how to proceed when he arrives at Pierre Elliot Trudeau International: “Once at the airport, proceed to the international arrival level (ground floor) and follow signs, which will direct you to the Canada Border Services Agency-Customer services-Immigration. Locate the black phones, situated along the wall, and press button ‘G’ (Citizenship and Immigration Canada). This will put you in contact with a Border Services Official from the Immigration Section.” They will then make sure that Zsolt is good and deported.

Or so he thought. Yet when he walks through the terminal at Trudeau Airport and presents himself to the immigration counter, no one knows about his case, or even who he is. He waits three hours for a Border Services agent and then leaves. Seems like he’s got a week of respite.

This is about the least surprising thing that has happened to Zsolt in the last ten years. It would be an understatement to say that he has a complicated relationship with Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC). Zsolt is Hungarian (hence the ticket to Budapest). After coming to Canada in 2001, he succeded in passing himself as Gypsy, got married, had kids, almost got deported, got deported, illegally crossed the border back in to Canada, was detained by CIC and is now in Budapest. Put simply, Zsolt is a Hungarian who tried to be a Canadian, and failed.

* * *

I heard about Zsolt through a math professor in CEGEP that I’ll call Daniel*. I ran into Daniel on the street one day, and he told me he was shooting a documentary about his neighbour, an illegal immigrant he had been helping out over the last few months. If he was interesting enough to make a movie about, I thought, he was someone I wanted to meet.

I met Zsolt in bizarre circumstances. It was 7 a.m. on a rainy Sunday, and we sat on two balconies next door to each other. I got there early because apparently Zsolt talks more in the morning. He also talks more when he’s stoned, which he was that morning.

I was expecting to interview someone who looked like a helpless victim of the system. Zsolt, as it turns out, is short, muscular, and has clipped blonde hair and a strong jaw. He looks about as helpless as Bruce Willis. As we went through the first minutes of our encounter, he waved at people walking by, and chatted a little with a neighbour. Despite his calm demeanor, I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable interviewing a sleep-deprived, drugged immigrant across the railing of a balcony.

The story Zsolt told me on that balcony was, to say the least, confusing. Even though Daniel had convinced me of his neighbour’s honesty, I was unsettled by the fact that Zsolt had let me use his real name. Understandably, a lot of people aren’t comfortable commenting on their immigration file while it’s making its way through the system. The rest of my – and my editor’s – doubts came from the absurd details in his story. But, then again, as I write this, he’s in Budapest and not in his apartment in Côte-des-Neiges. Verifying this story would prove tricky, an odyssey in its own right. But, for the record, here is Zsolt’s version of events:

He was born in communist Romania, under Nicolae Ceaușescu, one of the most vicious tyrants of the late Communist era. In 1966, to drive up population growth, Ceaușescu made abortion illegal, leading to notorious orphanages packed with unwanted children. When his regime fell in 1989, he and his wife were executed on live TV. Zsolt’s family were ethnic Hungarians born in the Romanian province of Transylvania. His father, at odds politically with Ceaușescu’s regime, was forced to leave for Budapest, leaving his children and wife behind. After some time, Zsolt’s mother and the other children left to join their father in Budapest with only small luggage, all that Ceaușescu government would allow. They arrived in Budapest only to find their father with a new family. When you know Zsolt’s story, this bit of early misfortune fits in snugly with the long comedy of errors that plagues his life.

As an adolescent, his dream was to be a fighter pilot in the Hungarian air force. Prior to entering aviation school, he came to Canada in 2001 to learn English, and fell in love with a girl. So in love that he wanted to stay in Montreal. After spending the six months in Canada his travel visa allowed, Zsolt was faced with a choice: either leave, or find a way to become Canadian.

Zsolt’s wife was a “protected person” – a refugee – and a Romani (a Gypsy). Like Zsolt, she was from Hungary.

According to Zsolt, a lawyer he knew gave him an idea: try to pass as a Gypsy. The lawyer told him that Romanis have an easier time getting refugee status.

Zsolt’s ploy sounded absurd, even made up, when I heard it. But, like the average Canadian citizen, my knowledge of the refugee application system’s ins and outs is pretty limited. So I called up a law school course lecturer – who wishes to stay anonymous – to get some insight into the claims process for refugees.

* * *

The lawyer, whom I’ll call Gagnon*, explained the possible ways of successfully achieving refugee status. Hypothetically, a refugee arrives in Canada, and, at a border point, asks a CIC agent to be considered for refugee status. If they haven’t already been given refugee status in another country, rejected in Canada before, haven’t been convicted of a crime, and haven’t passed through “a safe third country” already, they would receive the first authorization and move on to the next step.

Next, the refugee has to have to prepare a file – often with the help of a lawyer – to present in front of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRBC). If they’re Hungarian, they might have a more difficult time than if they’re from, say, Somalia. The harsher the conditions of the refugee’s country of origin, the better the applicant’s chance of convincing the court. If our hypothetical immigrant succeeds, they are granted refugee status or “protected person” status. If the first claim did not succeed, they can then apply for a review in federal court, and start over from scratch with the IRBC again.

If the first claim does not work, there is always the “Pre-removal risk assessment.” If our hypothetical refugee candidate has been rejected and is about to be sent home, the people at CIC may consider that it is too dangerous to send them back to the country they came from. The criteria for “risk” are as follows: if your life is endangered, if you are at risk of torture, at risk of persecution, or at risk of cruel or unusual treatment or punishment. A successful “pre-removal risk assessment” also grants the status of a “protected person.” Of course, if that last decision is negative, you can still appeal to the federal court to have that decision overturned, too. However, you have to leave the country (for often a year or so) while your file is being reviewed, which is alarming considering you claim that returning home would endanger your life.

Potentially due to his blonde hair and blue eyes (uncommon physical traits for someone of Gypsy background), Zsolt claimed his refugee claim was rejected by the IRBC. Unlike many refugee applicants, Zsolt’s situation was not dire: his family lives in Budapest and he had the possibility of a future there. He could become a Hungarian fighter pilot and settle down. Hungary, after all, is not Somalia. But there’s a catch: Zsolt’s lover was in Montreal, and she was five months pregnant.

* * *

According to Gagnon, having children doesn’t guarantee a successful application, so Zsolt received his removal order from Border Services during his lover’s pregnancy. The removal order was the first of three he received during his ten years in Canada. The language of the immigration enforcement bureaucracy is a curious thing, authoritative yet evasive. An excerpt reads: “If you do not leave Canada as instructed the Canada border services will make arrangements to enforce your removal from Canada.”

At that point, in April of 2002, when he was told to leave the country, Zsolt’s file was being managed by a caseworker, whose job was to handle the immigration bureaucracy and push Zsolt’s file through the system. On the morning before his planned deportation, he received a call from his caseworker – she said if he wanted to stay in the country, he had to get married within the month. That way, his wife could sponsor him as a refugee, a process that requires her to support him for a year, he told me. He had to pay for the wedding and for the caseworker, whom he had been paying $300 a month for several months. Zsolt said his expenses ran up to $7,000 for May alone, in order to have the right to keep living in Montreal. Pretending to be a refugee was getting to be expensive.

I asked Gagnon if any of this made sense. Firstly, he clarified that it would be under Border Service’s purview rather than the CIC’s. Secondly, sometimes Border Services push back the date of deportation for compassionate reasons, but usually not by a month. Gagnon was surprised that despite the marriage Zsolt didn’t get deported, he put it this way: “When you get your removal order in the mail, there is not much recourse left.”

* * *

Against the odds, Zsolt was allowed to stay in Canada. Though, ‘allowed’ might be too strong of a word. Zsolt had a refugee claim with his wife as a sponsor somewhere in the cogs of the CIC, but didn’t hear from immigration officials for two years. In the meantime, he lost his job, found another, had a second child, and moved to another apartment. Then his caseworker disappeared. Just vanished. No phone call, no warning.

If he had been more attentive, Zsolt would have been aware of his pending sponsorship application and would have given CIC a call, just to make sure they had his or her new address. Zsolt did not, and sure enough, trouble came. His sponsorship application was accepted in 2004, but the CIC couldn’t reach him. Gagnon says the CIC generally calls twice, and then closes your file. The CIC tried four times. At some point after 2004, Zsolt’s file was closed. It was only in 2006, four years after he applied for sponsorship status, that he found out that he was back to square one.

So, he filed a “Pre-removal risk assessment” application, undeterred by the fact that he was a Hungarian from Hungary, and was under no threat back home whatsoever. “After that, I had to go to the immigration office every week, say hi,” he said. This might not sound so bad, but for Zsolt it was excruciating – each Friday night he could have been told to leave Canada by the following week.  “I didn’t go to the bank because I was afraid that one time they would find me through the bank and they’re gonna take me from the kids,” he told me.

By 2007, he couldn’t take it anymore. One Friday he decided not to show up at the immigration office. After that, he had to lay low, he couldn’t receive treatment at the hospital, and he had to avoid the police. In June, knowing he would be deported, he decided to stop avoiding the inevitable, and left for Hungary.

But Budapest simply didn’t feel like home anymore. He missed his wife and his children in Montreal. In 2008, they joined him in Budapest, but his wife was constantly judged for being Romani. “We would go to the restaurant, and people at the next table would start saying things about Gypsies,” Zsolt explained. So he tried briefly to live with her family, in a Romani settlement in the outskirts of the city. The new living situation proved even more difficult. According to Zsolt, the Romani way of life is pretty much impossible to sustain for anybody except Romanies. Zsolt emphasized the lack of showers: “It’s pretty freaky the way they live; I can show you on YouTube.”

Thus the Hungarian adventure was a failure. Zsolt’s wife moved back to Montreal with their sons.

In 2009, desperate to see his family, Zsolt flew to the U.S., and tried to spend Christmas with the family in Plattsburg, New York, about 100 kilometres south of Montreal. When his family couldn’t make it into the States, Zsolt tried to get across the border illegally. After two failed attempts, he managed to get into Canada. “I was back, like Rambo, you know?”

Back in Canada, he had to hide again. But if that was the price to pay to stay with his children, he was willing to do it. If the law prevented him from seeing or protecting his children, he would break it.

He successfully hid for two years until a fight broke out at a party in April 2011. The police came and identified him. He was taken to a detention centre in Laval. When he was released, he received a removal order. For good measure, Zsolt filed one last “Pre-removal risk assessment.” It was promptly rejected.

* * *

Between me and Zsolt is a gap about one foot wide. It’s not much, but enough to make me feel more comfortable. On the day I interviewed him, Zsolt’s wife and his two boys had left because, as he tells me, “she was mad.” He was losing weight, and surviving on instant coffee, cigarettes, and marijuana. I extended my arm over the railing to hand him a cup – it seemed like the peak of empathy on that morning.

Daniel asked me in French: “Have you ever met a guy in such deep shit?” I had seen people in deep trouble, but I have never come face to face with someone that seems so “normal” – a word Zsolt uses a lot – but, because of bureaucracy and a few poor decisions, is in such a bad spot. Zsolt knew he would lose his family. Soon after, Daniel played with his daughter on the balcony, and Zsolt looked away.

After many hours of being interviewed, Zsolt started to crash from the instant coffee.

Zsolt didn’t look angry, but his frustration was palpable. He’s in the prime of his life, resourceful, gregarious, but the government of Canada won’t let him work. He kept stressing how he wants to be an active part of society, but keeps encountering obstacles. “There is a lot of people like me who cannot really advance with their future because they try to have normal jobs and for some reason, by law I always get pushed away,” he said. When I spoke to him, he was working as the janitor in the building he lives in – under his wife’s name.

He recalled an immigrant he had befriended a couple years back. “We worked together in construction and renovation, he started his company and now he has a house in Dollard-des-Ormeaux,” a wealthy enclave in the West Island. I asked him why he couldn’t fulfill his own sort of North American dream. “I can’t have a driver’s license,” he replied.

He sees himself as the man of the family, but he’s impotent in face of a larger system, and procedures that take time and money. He spent his entire twenties trying to have the right to stay here. “Since 2001, all I did was try to work and try to raise my children.”

He told me one of his last dreams: if he had a driver’s license, he would take his wife on a road trip to Niagara Falls for the honeymoon they never had. Maybe it was the lack of sleep, but talk of the honeymoon was enough to make him weep.

Two days after the botched deportation in August, Zsolt received a new removal order, telling he had to leave the country in a week. This time the Border Services agent showed up. Zsolt was finally deported on September 6, 2011.

His family decided to follow him. On September 28, Daniel escorted them to the airport, treating them to a final meal at East Side Mario’s. Zsolt’s family joined him in Budapest on October 3.

* * *

Is Zsolt a victim of a flawed system, a casualty of indifference? Certainly, he’s made mistakes. But for him, like droves of other immigrants, the Canadian immigration system is an expensive labyrinth. I encountered that system in trying to verify Zsolt’s story. I called the CIC multiple times before speaking to someone – sometimes they put me on hold, sometimes the automated system just hung up. When I finally got the form filled out by Zsolt to allow me to look at his file, I delivered it personally to the CIC’s office on Saint-Antoine. A security guard took the form, scanned it, and dropped it in a basket. For my inquiries, he encircled the phone number of the CIC’s call centre on a small handout. I came out thinking the CIC was probably what Max Weber had in mind when describing the iron cages of bureaucracy.

The consequence of this bureaucracy is that Zsolt has given up on Canada. “This is how they create criminals. The difference between me and criminals is that they make money.” It is safe to say that the cost of this large, tangled system is paid in part by numerous small tragedies.


*Name has been changed.