Memos suggest border agency broke rules in ‘vehicle safety blitz’ that deported 13

Investigative Journalism

Note: My investigative reporting took serious critical thinking and research skills. Learn more about my process.

Published on, March 7, 2016.

A controversial “vehicle safety blitz” in Toronto that saw work vans carrying migrant day labourers stopped and their occupants arrested — with 13 later deported — was planned and orchestrated by border agency enforcement officers conducting an indiscriminate round-up of foreign-born workers, documents obtained by Global News suggest.

The revelation raises pointed questions as to whether the border agency acted outside its legal boundaries –- spearheading the crackdown and even choosing vehicles to be pulled over.

Even the border agency itself seems to have recognized something was wrong. According to a spokesperson, it amended its practices after the blitz.

Twenty-one people were arrested for immigration violations, such as overstaying a visa, when inland-enforcement officers with the Canada Border Services Agency and Ontario transportation officials conducted the operation the morning of Aug. 14, 2014 at coffee shops in northwest Toronto — locations an activist group says are known pickup spots for undocumented day labourers.

Thirteen were deported, with one more person leaving Canada voluntarily.

The incident sparked accusations the safety blitz was a thinly veiled scheme by border officers to arbitrarily stop vans carrying migrant workers, mostly from Latin America, in order to check their immigration status — something activists say amounted to racial profiling.

Border officers do not have the power to question the residency status of people at random, but can run checks and make arrests on immigration grounds when individuals are stopped by law enforcement such as police or vehicle inspectors and then handed to border officials.

Though the border agency has participated in several vehicle-safety checks in Ontario, an internal memo bluntly notes it “does not take a lead role” as it “has no authority Inland to stop a vehicle to conduct/verify immigration status.”

Though the CBSA denied it was behind the Toronto operation, documents obtained through Access to Information after nearly a one-and-a-half-year delay indicate the blitz was in fact masterminded by border officials looking to round up those here illegally.

Records show border officers were already watching the primary area — a Coffee Time parking lot – after it was identified as an undocumented-labourer pickup spot, and state immigration enforcement officials not only selected it as the location for the blitz but even pointed out which work vans they wanted pulled over.

“Inland with help from Intel were monitoring the Coffee Time restaurant, based on a tip receive(d) weeks ago, about illegal workers being picked up and dropped every morning to work in a nearby warehouse,“ reads an internal email. Two immigration warrant arrests were made there in the previous month.

Contrary to their later statements, the operational plan for what the CBSA dubbed “Project Coffee Time” suggests border officials were firmly in charge on the ground.

Border officers picked out vans they wanted stopped by provincial vehicle inspectors, the plan says: “lntell(igence officers) on site to point out potential vehicles of interest.”

And once a vehicle was pulled over, occupants inside would be checked with the explicit aim of finding those without legal residency.

“Work Vans would be stopped via a traffic stop and escorted to MTO (vehicle) inspection site. Immigration (border officers) would then be looking to speak with all passengers looking for persons without status in Canada.”

Even the timing of the operation — 5 a.m. — was chosen to “get much better results on the Immigration side of things” in light of workers’ early pick-up times, the plan reads.

Macdonald Scott, an immigration consultant who represented two of those arrested, said the internal records show the border agency went “above and beyond” their lawful authority — making the subsequent deportations of questionable legality.

“The initial detention was completely illegal. And the detention was necessary for deportations, so it throws the deportations into doubt,” Scott said.

Records also shed light on one key question arising from the blitz — who chose the location — suggesting CBSA was behind the decision to target the worker-pickup parking lots, despite its later denials.

In the aftermath of the blitz, the Ontario Ministry of Transportation conducted an internal review stating CBSA “invited” provincial safety officials to the Toronto operation. Following that review, which Global News obtained in a records request, the ministry cut ties with the border agency.

For its part, according to an internal email the border agency told media at the time it did not take a “lead role in commercial vehicle safety blitzes.”

But an internal email from a top CBSA manager for the Toronto-area states otherwise, stating the border agency — not the province — first proposed targeting the coffee shop parking lot, with transportation officials passively going along.

“MTO (Ontario) didn’t ‘select’ the final location. The location was mutually agreed upon in that MTO could have said no – they didn’t and agreed with the area for the blitz.”

Scott, who viewed the documents, said they show border officials “openly lied in the media.”

When asked about the apparent discrepancy, a CBSA spokesperson said only that the location “was mutually agreed upon by the participating partners.”

The Toronto operation prompted the border agency to rework its guidelines when it comes to vehicle-safety blitzes, the agency said.

“Should the CBSA elect to participate in any similar projects, we will clearly define the level of involvement and scope of duties of any CBSA participant,” the spokesperson said in an email.

The border agency refused Global News’s request for a copy of the guidelines, saying they could only be released through an open-records application.

Photo credit: British Columbia Emergency Photography/Flickr CC