Standing Up For Human Rights Can Make You A Terrorist In Canada

Jose Figueroa, a 13 year resident of BC and father of three children, was recently ordered deported by the Canadian government. This is because while in college 20 years ago in his native El Salvador, he spoke out against a military dictatorship that used death squads to kill any opposition. His case reveals that due to the excessively broad definition of terrorism introduced into the immigration and refugee act in 1992, any immigrant or refugee associated with an armed opposition group opposing a government is now at risk of being referred to as a terrorist—even if engaged in legal and democratic means of opposition.

On May 2010, the Immigration and Refugee board, on recommendations by the Ministry of Public Safety, claimed that Jose Figueroa was inadmissible according to anti-terrorism legislation. Jose was considered to be inadmissible because of his work with a student group, associated with the opposition group the FMLN—which was an organization that opposed the repressive  government of El Salvador using armed force during the civil war in El Salvador in the 1980’s. The Immigration and Refugee hearing member, that presided over Jose’s case, stated that Jose’s actions in speaking out against the repression of the state government were in fact commendable, and that there was no evidence to indicate that Jose Figueroa had committed any violent act. However, because it was determined that the FMLN group used armed resistance against the military dictatorship, and one sector of the FMLN’s organization had killed members of the government, the Immigration and Refugee Board ordered Jose be deported—because they claimed that his past association with the FMLN made him a terror threat.

People associated with the FMLN were opposing El Salvador’s government because of its human rights violations. The government in power at the time was violently repressive, not democratic, and killed any opposition. The United Nations Truth report about the war stated that the government was responsible for over 85 percent of the human rights abuses and killings of civilians and the FMLN only 5 percent. People joined the FMLN group in opposition to the state government because that offered hope for stopping the violence and oppression as there was no democratic means available to oppose the government.
It would be appropriate to refer to an armed group opposing a democratic government as terrorists. The aim of terrorist legislation should be to ensure that democratic means of opposition are used in a democracy. However, the application of anti-terrorism legislation is inappropriate in the El Salvadoran context because the government the FMLN opposed, in the 1980’s and the early 1990’s, was a murderous military dictatorship—it was not a democracy. There was no other option available other than to oppose the government with armed force. In fact, the Mexican and French governments recognized the FMLN as a legitimate military opposition August 28th, 1981 because of this.

So how is it that the Canadian government is mistakenly referring to the FMLN as a terrorist organization? During the conflict in El Salvador, the United States supported the violent repression used against civilians by the military dictatorship, attempted to keep the massacres a secret, and pretended that the El Salvador government was a legitimate democracy (source: ). As long as they kept that lie, the repression could continue with impunity and the FMLN could be seen as an illegitimate, terrorist opposition. However, in 1992, the atrocities that were carried out by the military dictatorship were revealed to the world when a lone survivor of a violent attack in the village of El Mozote spoke to two American journalists. At first the United States denied the evidence and discounted the witness’s testimony. However, this testimony led to the discovery of mass graves and a UN investigation. The UN Truth Commission report of 1992 detailed horrendous killing by the El Salvadoran government, with over 70,000 civilians deaths. Following the signing of a Peace Agreement in January 16th 1992, the FMLN was recognized as a legitimate political opposition.

Now it could be understandable that the Canada government prior to the 1992 Truth Commission report might have categorized the FMLN as a terrorist group due to the biased evidence available at the time. However, after 1992 and the publication of the UN Truth report when the truth of the conflict became known and it was acknowledged that the El Salvador state government had been responsible for the majority of the human rights abuses—then it is completely inappropriate that the Canadian government continues to refer to the FMLN as a terrorist organization.

Here is a case of someone, who as a student, stood up for human rights and voiced opposition against a violent dictatorship, is being deported as a terrorist. What is clear, regardless of how or why the FMLN continues to be mistakenly referred to as a terrorist group, is that the Canadian government continues to mistakenly refer to the FMLN as a terrorist organization. As a result, an innocent man and his family are being deported, and all members of the FMLN who stood up for human rights are at risk of being mistakenly referred to as terrorists by the Canadian government.

Please ask the Minister of Public Safety and the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration to correct this mistake.

-written by Sasha Wood


Implications of Jose’s Case

Jose Figueroa’s case, besides causing hardships for himself and his family, presents a number of potential problems for many other Canadians. Firstly, Jose’s case bears implications for the large Salvadoran Canadian community. Leaving the topic of country of origin aside, though, Jose’s case also presents implications for others going through the immigration process, and even for Canadian citizens more generally.

For other Salvadoran Canadians, Jose’s case is a troubling turn of events. What is especially unsettling about Jose’s story is that he did not withhold his participation in the Farabundo Martí Front for National Liberation (FMLN), and his speaking out against the brutally repressive regime in El Salvador upon moving to Canada. In fact, this membership was a central part of his original refugee claim. Only now, after living more than ten years in his community of Langley, B.C. and having fathered three Canadian born children, is he being asked to leave the country he now calls home due to his non-violent actions as a university student two decades ago. What’s more, the organization that Jose took part in during the Salvadoran civil war, the FMLN, now forms the democratically elected and internationally recognized government in El Salvador.

Jose’s case sends a daunting message to Salvadoran Canadians: that their status as Canadian citizens is neither stable nor meaningful. If the Canadian government was able to commit such a grievous mistake as to ask for Jose’s deportation, there is no reason to think that a similar misunderstanding could not repeat itself with fellow Salvadoran Canadians, regardless of their familial situation in Canada or the extent to which returning to El Salvador might harm their well-being.

For other, non-Salvadoran people going through the immigration process, Jose’s case holds serious implications as well. Jose’s participation in the resistance against the former authoritarian regime in El Salvador was not violent, nor did he commit any acts deemed as violent or subversive while living here in Canada. Does this mean that anyone who has spoken out against a violent or repressive state prior to his or her coming to Canada is eligible for deportation? While this is most likely untrue, Jose’s case highlights the uncertainty that nonetheless surrounds immigration and refugee application to Canada.

Finally, Jose’s deportation is significant in that it arguably goes against Canadian values. We are a country that views civil liberties and democracy as matters of the utmost importance and worth. The deportation of Jose Figueroa, who lobbied against a repressive authoritarian regime and for a democratic alternative in a non-violent manner, does not seem to be cohesive with Canadian values. As Canadians, we should stand by these values instead of neglecting them and allowing a grave misunderstanding that may define our immigration policy.

-written by Julia Malmo

Terrorism, Nelson Mandela, and a Salvadoran refugee: The human cost of legislative vagueness in Canada’s refugee law

Jose Figueroa’s deportation ordeal may be attributed to what was arguably an avoidable misuse of section 34(1)(f) of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. This component of Canadian refugee law states that all members of organizations considered terrorist or subversive to any government, are inadmissable to Canada [1]. In Mr. Figueroa’s case, the Canadian government defines “terrorism” as any “act intended to cause death or serious bodily injury to a civilian, or to any other person not taking an active part in the hostilities in a situation of armed conflict, when the purpose of such act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or to compel a government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act” [2]. Although this legislation may seem reasonable at first glance, section 34(1)(f) has been repeatedly challenged for its vague character [3]. However, some of these challenges have been checked with a legal provision [3], found in the same act, which  allows ministers to grant exemptions to applicants whom they find to not threaten Canada’s “national interest” [1]. One could interpret this as the mistakes made by the discretionary vagueness of one law being corrected by the discretionary vagueness of another.

Consider the case of Eugenio Chicas. He is a prominent Salvadoran judge who, after being invited by Elections Canada to a conference in Ottawa, was detained for 24 hours in June 2009 on the basis of his FMLN membership [4]. Fortunately for Mr. Chicas, a well respected, high level official in the currently elected FMLN government, he was eventually allowed to partake in the conference and received apologies from Elections Canada and Canadian bureaucrats for what happened [4]. Unfortunately for applicants such as Mr. Figueroa, the majority of cases are not so high profile. Thus, the majority of applicants are often resigned to a queue where they wait in limbo for years [3]. Ministerial relief is refused in the majority of cases [3].

In light of such cases, one can see how problematic it is that government employees, who are not specialists on the geographic regions from which refugee applicants originate, are simply matching up vaguely defined criteria [5, 6]. These criteria can easily be applied even to people whom normally it would be unthinkable to label as dangerous, let alone accomplices to terrorism. Case in point: Nelson Mandela. Celebrated as a hero of social justice throughout the world, Dr. Mandela is well known to have been a prominent leader and later president of the African National Congress, the rebel movement that eventually toppled the racist Apartheid regime. Because this noble goal was accomplished with violent means, someone like Dr. Mandela could easily be refused if he were to apply for refugee status in Canada. Arguably, Mr. Figueroa’s application could be considered even less contestable than Dr. Mandela’s would be. In the words of the Minister’s representative who singlehandedly assessed Mr. Figueroa’s case, the “very young” student Mr. Figueroa was “a member only of some political part of the organization [who] never killed, never carried weapons, didn’t direct anyone else to do that [and who’s] only purpose was to co-ordinate matters so as to open up the minds of the people to new and better political realities” [6]. He is also a respectable, productive member of his community who has lived in Langley with his wife and three Canadian children for over a decade, and who’s friends and pastor have repeatedly voiced their support for him [2]. Thus, it is evident that Mr. Figueroa poses no danger to Canada’s national interest and so he is very much eligible for ministerial relief. Unfortunately, this last legal safeguard may be as elusive for Mr. Figueroa as our government’s current refugee legislation is vague.






[6] Edelmann, P. (2010, October). Teach-In: Fighting Unjust Deportation. Speech presented at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC.

-written by Pawel Mirski

Jose’s Story

We Are Jose is a Canadian campaign to reverse the deportation order on Jose Figueroa. We are asking the Canadian government to respond on January 16, 2013 in honour of the end of the Salvadoran Civil War.

We are ordinary citizens who believe that Jose is just as Canadian as any one of us, and we want Canada to hear his story.

Jose Figueroa is a Salvadoran-Canadian living in Langley, B.C. He’s a loving father of three and a productive member of the community. He has lived in Canada for 15 years.

He applied to Canada because he faced danger, having stood up against a repressive military dictatorship during a violent civil war in El Salvador. Canada accepted him on these grounds, but 13 years later, the government wants to deport him for the same reason because of a mistaken view of who Jose is and the politics of El Salvador.

Twenty years ago, Jose was a student organizer for the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN)—an organization that opposed the military dictatorship. After the civil war ended in 1992, the FMLN became a political party and is the current government of El Salvador.

Due to some overly broad legislation, Canada has mistakenly labeled the FMLN as a terrorist organization, and Jose by extension as a terrorist—when he stood up for human rights against a military dictatorship that used death squads against any opposition.

Jose and his wife have settled down in during the past 15 years, and have three Canadian born children, including an autistic son. His children have lived in Canada all their lives, and it would be a tragedy to uproot him and his family just because the government doesn’t understand his story.

We are asking all Canadians to help us reverse the deportation order. Help us get a response from the Canadian government on January 16, 2013 in honour of the end of the Salvadoran Civil War. Visit the “Tell Your Story” section for the ways that you can support Jose.

To learn more, please visit the tabs “Canada” and “El Salvador” found above, and visit the following websites: