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Only a broom for support

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By Monisha Martins
Maple Ridge News
March 31, 2009

With his left arm wrapped in dirty cotton bandage, Réné Escamilla is the last prisoner to limp into the visitor’s area.

It is crowded with overturned tables, a hastily cleaned whiteboard and has a view of a small concrete-walled prison yard.

Réné hobbles slowly, breaking into a grin when he sees his wife.

Marta frowns as he lowers himself, carefully, into a chair.

“Why the beard?,” she asks in Spanish, her voice drowning in the cacophony of a crowded visitor’s room at the Fraser Regional Correctional Centre in Maple Ridge.

Sitting flush against a L-shaped wooden barrier, behind yellowed Plexiglas, the 34-year-old El Salvadorean with scruffy stubble on his chin asks Marta to hold up his baby.

Leylani, at the time just three months old, has the tiny hand and delicate, fragile face that’s typical of premature babies. She’s lost in her yellow woolly cardigan and pink blanket.

Asleep for the hour-long journey from Vancouver to the 256th Street jail, Leylani’s eyes open to tiny slits as soon as she hears her father.

Réné coos in Spanish.

“Hola bebé, te estrano, te amo.” (Hi baby, I miss you. I love you.)

Marta holds wriggling Leylani higher, but makes sure she doesn’t touch the Plexiglas.

Prison staff, dressed in navy blue uniforms, keep close watch on the visitors for any semblance of contact. Marta will be asked to leave and banned from visiting her husband if she touches the plastic pane.

•••••

The distance between Réné’s hometown of San Salvador, El Salvador and Vancouver, Canada is 5,012 kilometres.

It took the slight Latino 20 days to journey from a country with the longest history of dictatorship in Latin America to Los Angeles in the spring of 2006 – attempting the trek just four months after he was deported from the U.S., where he’s stayed illegally for nine years.

He travelled on foot, train-hopped, hitch-hiked and swam, beginning the voyage with 3,000 other Latin Americas – mothers from Honduras, fathers from Ecuador, uncles and aunts from Columbia, all surging north for a new life.

Réné waded through sewage three times and spent three days crossing the Sonoron Desert, which straddles the U.S.-Mexico border, with only a gallon of water to quench his thirst.

The desert was littered with garbage – shed clothes, plastic bottles, abandoned backpacks and sun-bleached skulls.

By the time he reached the U.S. border, only 100 people remained.

He knows he was lucky. In 2004, there were 1,139,282 apprehensions of immigrants on the southern border.

“I had my family in L.A. to help me out,” said Réné, who fled El Salvador after gang members, irked by his tattoos, swarmed and stabbed him in his left arm.

Protected in his pocket through the whole journey was a printed-out email with the address of a girl in Canada he loved.

•••••

Marta met Réné three years ago while on holiday in Los Angeles, instantly falling for his joie de vire, sense of humour and a quality, she describes coyly as “nice.”

They emailed each other everyday, even after Réné was deported from America in January 2006.

In one of those emails, Marta, who had made the same treacherous journey to Canada from El Salvador when she was eight, sent Réné her address in White Rock, a suburb of Vancouver.

On Oct. 19, 2007, Réné scampered across the U.S. border from Blaine, Washington, onto O Avenue, carrying two pairs of pants and two T-shirts. He ducked past the border guards and cameras, staying hidden amongst a stand of trees.

He took a bus, asked the driver for directions to Marta’s house in White Rock and within an hour stood on her doorstep, tired, but smiling.

She opened the door, speechless.

“I’m here because I love you,” Réné said with a grin.

By February, Réné and Marta were married, settled, and seemingly happy about starting a new life together.

Marta, a Canadian citizen, applied to sponsor her husband to stay. They paid an immigration consultant $1,000 to file their papers. He took their money, but didn’t turn the papers in.

In June, Réné and a cousin were stopped by Vancouver police. The cops couldn’t find a trace of him on their computer. He was turned over to the Canada Border Service Agency and released on bail.

A month later, at an immigration hearing, Réné was deemed a flight-risk and detained - indefinitely.

He’s been held at the Fraser Regional Correctional Centre since.

•••••

At 34, Réné is lean and runs through a list of his many jobs like an eager auctioneer.

“I do everything,” he says confidently. “A driver, a cook, baker, carpenter. I’m a good worker.”

Assigned to the top bunk in his cell, Réné tumbled to the floor while asleep last September.

The fall broke his wrist, twisted his ankle, aggravated an old fracture and hurt his back.

He saw the prison doctor, had X-rays taken and received a daily ration of pain-killer pills.

Six months later, Réné’s ankle is still swollen. He wakes up at night with a pinching pain in his back that stings and makes him lose all feeling in his legs.

At first, prison staff gave him a wheelchair. They took it away a month later and handed him a pair of crutches.

Not long after, Corrections staff switched the crutches for a walking stick.

In December, his walking stick was deemed a weapon and Réné was told to “suck it up” and stop complaining.

He’s been limping around since, supported by a broom.

“I’m not faking in,” Réné said with a singing Latin accent, conditioned by four years spent in Hollywood, California and five years in Boston.

“As soon as I walk, I feel like I have needles pricking me.”

Prison staff responded to Réné’s repeated pleas and referred him again to the prison doctor, who told Réné he was just “getting old.”

He’s had several more X-rays and the only medications he’s been given are Ibruprohen or Aspirin.

He’s complained to B.C. Correction’s Investigation and Standards Office, immigration and the El Salvadorean consulate.

“I keep asking for help,” said Réné.

“They treat me like an animal. I always thought Canada, they are the good guys, but not any more.

“Who is going to give me a job when I’m like this? I have a family. I don’t want money. I just want to go home the way I came over here.”

•••••

Réné is one of 23 men – refugee claimants and illegal immigrants – detained at the Maple Ridge prison.

At the end of February, B.C. Corrections had a total of 34 people currently being held on immigration violations throughout the province.

Some are awaiting deportation, others languishing while immigration processes their cases, while more are serving out sentences for immigration violations. Some are held for days. Others like Réné stay locked up for months.

B.C. Corrections, the provincial agency that runs the prison, insists inmates can access any medical services available in B.C.

Marie Mayhew, a spokesperson for the agency, could not discuss Réné’s case, but said staff would not ignore a person because he has no status in Canada.

“We have medical personnel who are on site. If there is anything required beyond basic attention, those services can be provided too,” Meyhew added.

“There is no difference between a person on an immigration hold or whether you are remanded or sentenced. They have the same access to services as any other inmate in the facility.”

The El Salvadorean Consulate is also monitoring Réné’s condition and has been aware of him since he was detained in July.

Consul General Rosa Elena Moreno Maldonado said consulate staff became concerned about Réné’s health when he wrote to them about the injury suffered during his detention.

A delegate from the consulate visited Réné soon after the consulate received his letter.

Moreno Maldonado said the consulate has been in “constant contact with the Canada Border Services Agency” since and have informed it that although Réné has received proper medical attention, his injuries are still not healing.

“They assured us that proper care will continue to be provided to Mr. Escamilla,” Moreno Maldonado added.

“We will continue monitor Mr. Escamilla’s condition and will make sure of his well being and prompt recuperation.”

Canada Border Services refused to comment on Réné’s case, but said all detainees receive proper medical attention.

•••••

Since 2002, Canada has been among the top three resettlement countries in the world. In 2005, Canada resettled 10,400 refugees, who accounted for 13 per cent of the refugees resettled globally that year.

But the Canadian Council for Refugees reports that only a small minority of refugees and asylum seekers make claims in the world’s richest countries, including Canada.

In 2006, Tanzania alone hosted more refugees than Canada, France, Australia, the United States, Germany, Spain and Japan combined.

While Syria, Chad, Kenya, Thailand, China, Iran and Jordan each hosted more than 250,000 refugees in 2006, Canada hosted only 43,500.

No One is Illegal, a grass roots collective that fights for immigrant and refugee rights, says Canada often falls short of its humanitarian goals.

“The government’s humanitarian attitude towards people is very, very different than what’s projected to people outside,” said Harjap Grewal, an organizer with No One is Illegal.

“If Canada has a humanitarian record that they want to project around the world, and if someone has a medical ailment in Canada and you don’t want to provide him medical assistance, it is sort of a hollow projection of those values around the world.

“Especially we are looking at a situation where this man is basically walking around with a broom in prison.”

Although the U.N. High Commission for Refugees won’t comment on individual cases, a Canadian spokesperson calls their detention “inherently undesirable.”

If a refugee is detained, the organization believes the person should be entitled to legal counsel, translation services, a judicial review and have access to the local UNHCR office or other advocacy groups.

It recommends Canada house refugees deemed a flight risk or those facing deportation in a separate facility.

•••••

From a small window, in his cell, Réné can see the tops of Douglas fir trees that shrouded the prison.

He hates weekends inside. Saturdays and Sundays were days he’d spend with Marta and his step kids – Daniel and Elenita. He’s never held his baby daughter, now eight months old. She started teething last month.

“I miss my family so much,” says Réné, who also craves pupusas, a hand-made corn tortilla usually stuffed with pork, cheese and beans – an El Salvadorean speciality.

At his monthly detention reviews, Réné doesn’t speak anymore. He says the immigration officer claims that he belongs to the notorious El Salvadorean gang Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13.

The officer points to Réné’s tattoos of Native Indian faces, a clown, skulls and the initials SDR as proof and bring up he was charged after a bar fight in Boston when he was 24.

Réné stresses he’s never been in a gang and says he picked tattoos that were popular when he was young. The initials SDR stand for Susan, his first wife, her son Daniel and himself – Réné. He admits the initials could be mistaken for the MS mark “SUR,” which means sureno, or southerner.

The immigration officers told him he will be safe when he goes back to his three-room home in San Salvador.

“If I was OK in my country, I wouldn’t be here,” Réné says.

“I love my country, but it is not a place where you can have a family or a good life. You can lose your life in a minute.”

For now, he plans to stay in Canada, stubbornly, until he heals. He hopes eventually someone will listen.

He doesn’t know how long that will be – some people in the immigration unit have been in detained for almost a year.

“I came to Canada to look for a better life. I had an accident in jail where they put me with criminals. I haven’t done any crimes here,” Réné says.

“It’s not right that they keep me here.”