By Kim Pemberton/richmond-news.com
Lucia Vega Jimenez was picked up by Transit police in December for not paying her fare. She was placed in a holding cell at YVR, unwatched, to await deportation. When officials later checked in on her, she was hanging unconscious from a shower curtain.
A Mexican woman desperate to remain in Canada hung herself in the Canada Border Services Agency holding cells of Vancouver International Airport rather than face deportation.
Lucia Vega Jimenez, 42, used a shower curtain to strangle herself on Dec. 20, a day after being placed in the stark holding facility. She died eight days later at Mount St. Joseph’s Hospital in Vancouver.
She left no suicide note.
Vega Jimenez had previously made a refugee claim in Canada that was rejected in 2010. It is not known whether she was deported, but she was back in Canada shortly before Christmas when she was picked up by Transit police.
She had not paid her bus fare and when police learned of her identity, they called Border Services, said Father Eduardo Quintero, the priest who administered her last rites.
“She was being deported at the airport and she took her own life,” Quintero said. He did not know Vega Jimenez but was contacted by her family in Mexico when they found out she was dying. They wanted him to visit the hospital, anoint Vega Jimenez and provide spiritual comfort to her sister Martha, who had travelled from Mexico to be by her side.
She had no contact with relatives in Mexico or friends in Vancouver while in detention, Quintero said.
Immigration lawyer Phil Rankin said lawyers are not allowed to visit YVR’s holding cells, which are run by the Canada Border Services Agency, and in 15 years he has only been able to get in one time.
“It’s a very lonely, isolated place out there,” he said. “No one gets in or out. It’s very impersonal, very secure (and) very private. There’s no John Howard Society, no visits from family or lawyers. They want to move these people without fuss or muss. There’s no oversight by nonofficials.”
Rankin said if someone was distraught, there would be little opportunity for an outsider to come to their aid.
Josh Paterson, executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said the watchdog is “very troubled” by the death in custody.
“We have a lot of questions and very few answers,” Paterson said. “Nobody should die while they are in the custody of law enforcement. The Canada Border Services Agency must be accountable for this tragic death of a woman who was in their care and custody. The public needs answers. How did this happen? Could this tragedy have been prevented?”
There is no independent oversight of the agency’s operations, he said, unlike other law enforcement agencies in B.C.
A spokeswoman for the Canada Border Services Agency, Amitha Carnadin, refused to answer Vancouver Sun questions emailed to her regarding the policies and procedures in place at the YVR holding cells. Nor would she confirm which security agency is contracted with CBSA to work there.
Carnadin said Richmond RCMP investigated and determined the matter was not criminal in nature.
“The health and safety of those in our care is of paramount concern,” Carnadin said in an email. “We take this responsibility very seriously and it is important to determine the circumstances surrounding any loss of life.”
The national vicepresident of the Customs and Immigration Union said he was “shocked” to hear about the death, via the media.
“None of my members (federal law enforcement officers with CBSA) are involved in this case,” said Jason McMichael. “(Vega Jimenez) was not in my members’ custody. I can only speculate she was in the custody of the contractors.
“I should have been briefed by the CBSA, but that is their prerogative.” Rankin said he assumes the private security contract CBSA has at the airport is with Genesis Security, since that firm also does the CBSA contract for the immigration holding cells at 300 West Georgia in Vancouver. But, Rankin added, when he visited YVR’s holding cells recently, it was very clear to him that federal corrections officers from CBSA were in charge and the security staff, likely from Genesis, were not doing anything without their oversight.
Calls to Genesis Security’s president and vicepresident were not returned.
News of Vega Jimenez’s death one month ago was only made public Monday.
Neither the Canada Border Services Agency nor the B.C. Coroners Service would say how Vega Jimenez died or provide any information about the circumstances of her death.
“The CBSA is not in a position to release further information while the B.C. Coroners Service investigation is ongoing,” Carnadin said.
Coroners Service spokeswoman Barb McLintock said she couldn’t confirm the cause of Vega Jimenez’s death or even its classification.
McLintock said it’s also not yet known whether a coroner’s inquest will be held.
Rankin said he believes a coroner’s inquest is necessary, particularly since the case could shed light on what goes on at YVR holding cells given the lack of civilian oversight.
Quintero said he believes it would be helpful if priests could regularly visit people in detention at YVR. While he was a priest in Mexico, he said, it was common for him to visit immigration centres there to provide spiritual support to detainees.