Union activist fights deportation

Argentine's family sought refugee status in Canada Immigration adviser blamed for lost claim
Thursday, November 14, 2013

It was early for a New Year's Eve check for impaired drivers, but Juan Videla figured that's why the Toronto police cruiser had pulled him over. Darkness had just set in, and he and his wife, Maria, were heading home after cleaning a client's downtown building. Riding in the car their son, Emmanuel, 20, whom they had just picked up, and daughter, Flavia, 11, who had spent the day with her parents.

There would be no Breathalyzer test, no traffic ticket. The police asked for Juan's licence and went back to the cruiser. A few keystrokes on a police computer brought to a sudden and unexpected end the life the Videlas had built for themselves since coming to Canada from Argentina four years ago.

The Videlas learned they were "illegals." They had been wanted on immigration warrants for nearly a year. And they had no idea, they say. If they knew, why would they have filed income-tax returns last March and kept everything they own, including their vehicle and business, in their own names?

Despite a lawyer's letter asking that deportation be deferred until after the school year, the family must report Wednesday for removal. They'll probably be driven to the U.S. border and left to fend for themselves.

Their slim hopes of staying or delaying that drive are pinned on one hope That they can convince authorities they have been done wrong by an immigration consultant - one who says he's no longer in the business and was having serious problems of his own while advocating for the Videla family.

Hugo Avendano and his wife were convicted by a Toronto judge last year of sexually abusing a former client, a woman who was seeking refugee status. In August, he was sentenced to three years in prison. His wife was spared jail time. In the midst of their 2003 trial, Avendano, 43, and his wife were slapped with new charges, based on similar allegations levelled by another female client. That case is before the courts.

Juan Videla believes Avendano, whom he paid several thousand dollars since he arrived in Canada in 2000, has, at the very least, misinformed him.

"He kept saying everything was fine," Videla said in an interview. "Here we are circling around, cleaning, doing all of this, not knowing there was a warrant out for our arrest. We're doing all this stuff and immigration is looking for us."

In telephone interviews with the Toronto Star, Avendano, free on bail pending an appeal of his conviction, agreed he has had many things on his mind, and had trouble recalling what he did and didn't do for the Videlas.

He couldn't explain how it was that a key December 2003 government decision that resulted in the family being deemed illegal was sent to his office, but the information was never conveyed to the family.

He also had no idea why crucial questions on the family's Pre- Removal Risk Assessment applications (PRRA), a last-ditch step in the refugee claimant process, were left unanswered.

"If they're saying, 'Listen, he was the one at fault,' it's okay with me," Avendano told the Star. "I'm not defending myself, saying, 'Yeah, I did this, I did everything, they're to blame.' That won't favour them in anything. It won't favour me in anything, also. It could have been human error; probably there was some human error.

"However ... they knew that once they lost the refugee claim that at the PRRA, it was all over."

On paper, it was all over for the Videlas in early 2004, when warrants for their removal became enforceable. But it was paper they never saw until after their New Year's Eve arrests.

Videla, his wife and son were placed in handcuffs for the ride to the police station. Once there, Flavia, the youngest, was escorted to a separate room by an officer, and the rest of the family strip- searched. Instead of spending the last night of 2004 with friends, they were held for immigration officers.

They spent New Year's Day and the next four at a Rexdale immigration holding centre. Flavia would not go back to join her classmates at St. Pius X Catholic School. Nor would Emmanuel start the New Year back at Western Technical-Commercial School, where he is one credit shy of his diploma.

Now out on a $9,000 bond, they are sleeping on mattresses on the floor of their surety's home, hoping that somehow the inevitable will not come to pass.

"There's nothing we can really do. Nothing," says Maureen Elizondo, an immigration consultant who is helping the family for free. "We need to stretch out their time."

Juan Domingo Videla had worked in Argentina as a machine operator, and then as a baker, and had been involved in union activism. In his Canadian refugee claim, he said that he had been involved in many protests and been picked up by police on a few occasions.

In 1978, he said, he'd organized a march against human rights violations committed by the military junta. For that, he said, he was detained and beaten. After the junta was gone, he said, he continued to press to hold the military accountable for what it had done.

After a May 1, 2000, speech he gave at a Workers' Day march, he said in his claim, he was intercepted by two men in a van, beaten and taken to a warehouse, where they called him a communist. Then, he said, one of them men stabbed him twice in the stomach. Another man kicked him in the mouth.

Videla and his family made plans to leave. He went ahead of them, on July 27, 2000, flying via Chile and Peru into the United States. The following day, he completed his journey with a taxi ride into Niagara Falls, Ont. Through people he initially stayed with in Toronto, he was referred to Avendano.

Avendano says he got into the immigration consulting business in the late '80s. Although he had no formal training, he worked at community centres and at a food bank that catered to immigrants.

He took on Videla's refugee claim, and, those of his wife and children.

The family kept in contact with Avendano, speaking, says Videla, at least once a month. They'd occasionally bump in to each other in the area of Dufferin St. and St. Clair Ave. W., where Avendano has his office and the family attended a church.

"He told us everything was fine, not to worry. So long as immigration didn't contact us, everything was fine," says Videla.

The Immigration and Refugee Board rejected Videla's claim on May 1, 2001. A year later, it rejected the claims made by his wife and children. Although evidence had been produced that Juan was indeed a union man, none, the board noted, had been submitted in support of the problems with police, nor was there anything entered regarding the May 1, 2000, incident. Even if it had all been proven, current research on Argentina suggested it would be safe for the family to return, noted the board's decision.

In any event, the family would not be removed to Argentina. They'd go to the U.S., because that is the last country they were in before crossing into Canada, and there was no risk for them there, the board noted.

Avendano, according to documents viewed by the Star, helped the Videlas through the next phase of their bid to stay. Juan was sent to psychologist Judith Pilowsky in October 2002 for an assessment.

"Mr. Videla continues to be affected by the apparent persecution he experienced in Argentina. The decision by the IRB appears to have exacerbated his symptoms," the psychologist wrote. "This fear is real to him and regardless of whether danger is still present, he could be re-traumatized if forced to return. It seems that he has learned to associate the country itself with his persecution, assaults, and potential death. Mr. Videla would certainly benefit from the safe environment that Canada provides for him."

Pilowsky's report accompanied the pre-removal risk assessment applications Avendano's office had prepared for the family. The overall success rate of such applications - aimed at convincing immigration officials that a failed refugee claimant might face risk of life, torture and other hardships if returned - is very low.

In such a crucial document, key components of the family's application - including a section that asks the applicant to set out a chronology of incidents that caused them to seek protection outside their country - were inexplicably left blank.

Meanwhile, and unknown to the Videlas, Avendano and his wife were making headlines in a case reported in the Toronto Sun. The pair had each been charged with two counts of confining and seven counts of sexually assaulting a female client over a period of time in 2001.

The client, according to one Sun story on the trial, told court the couple were "sexual fiends." Avendano and his wife maintained their innocence. In response to one alleged sexual assault, he told court that the client had simply performed a Mexican hat dance in his office to taped mariachi music, and then they left.

A judge questioned the Avendanos' credibility and found the pair guilty on two counts each of sexual assault in 2003. In the midst of that trial, Avendano and his wife were charged with a second set of sexual assault charges, which are still before the courts.

A short time later, Avendano's office was sent copies of the decisions turning down the Videla family's PRRA applications. The reports were dated Dec. 9, 2003, five days after Avendano and his wife were found guilty of the sexual assaults.

Juan Videla says he never received those decisions, nor did he know of their existence. He says he last paid money to Avendano in the summer of 2003, and last spoke to him last fall.

The sign above the street-level door to Avendano's walk-up office on St. Clair Ave. says he's still in the business of immigration and legal services, and fights for accident victims. But that's no longer the case, he says. Avendano says he now only offers translation services and is fighting to clear his name.

He maintains he is innocent in both sexual assault cases.

Avendano says he thinks he did his best for the Videlas, even though his office apparently failed to answer key components of the last-ditch pre-removal applications.

The family knew their chances were slim, he says. "Honestly, it's a 3 to 5 per cent chance - no matter who they hire."

In denying Juan Videla's initial refugee claim, the refugee board noted that no medical evidence had been entered at his hearing in support of his story that he had been beaten and stabbed.

In the offices of Maureen Elizondo, a paralegal who has now offered to do what little she can for his family, Videla rises from his chair and lifts his shirt, exposing a faded, 10-centimetre long scar on the lower left side of his abdomen.

From a knife, he says.

He slides a finger under his moustachioed lip and lifts. A row of upper teeth is missing, from the front to right back molars.

A kick to the mouth, he explains.

"I had all my evidence to prove that I had been a union defender in my country," he says. "But they didn't believe me because I didn't have the proof of what had happened to me with the police. In Argentina, nobody's going to give me proof that I was detained and that I had been beaten. Who is going to give me that?

"The proof, I have right here on my body. I have the marks," he says. "This is the proof I have."

Credit: Toronto Star 



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