When Christina Schiller, 44, left Hungary with her two daughters to marry a Canadian seven years ago, she didn’t expect to end up broke and living in an emergency shelter.
When she was in that shelter, she never imagined things could get worse.
Now Schiller is facing deportation to Hungary and forced separation from her four-year-old son, Jayden, who was born in Canada. There is a court order, obtained by the boy’s Canadian father, requiring Jayden to remain in Canada, so Schiller would have no choice but to leave him behind.
“It’s the most painful thing that a parent could ever face,” Schiller said during an interview in her basement rental suite in Regina, Sask. “I lie awake at nights thinking about how I’ll miss out on the little things, like his first day at school. Is he eating? Is he brushing his teeth? All those things a parent worries about.”
Mounting evidence of ‘irreparable harm’
Schiller doesn’t have legal representation and filled out all of her immigration forms by herself. Her visitor’s visa expired years ago, and her attempt to stay in Canada on humanitarian and compassionate grounds — to keep her family together — was denied.
Immigration lawyer Leslie Morley, who has spent 30 years handling these kinds of cases in Ontario, said an argument that keeping a family together is in the best interests of the child is usually enough, if presented properly.
Morley said he is surprised a Canadian immigration officer would separate a child from his mother given the growing body of evidence from the United States on the irreparable harm such separations can inflict on a child. The U.S. separated an estimated 2,000 migrant children from their parents during a six-week crackdown at the Mexico-U.S. border in 2018.
“It’s not anecdote,” Morley said. “[Immigration officials] gotta know. They may not understand, but it really turns the direction of the child’s path away from the straight and narrow.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics stated last year that forced separation can cause “irreparable harm to children,” including disruption of their “brain architecture.” The American Psychiatric Association stated it can cause “lifelong trauma, as well as an increased risk of other mental illnesses, such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Other researchers have described behavioural and emotional changes, including anxiety, anger, withdrawal and aggression.
Stuck in Canada illegally
In 2011, Schiller fell in love with a Regina man whom she’d met online. He visited Schiller and her daughters, Mia and Kiara, aged one and 10 at the time, in Hungary and bought them plane tickets to move to Canada. The couple got married in Regina in January 2012.
Schiller said she wasn’t overly concerned that her husband didn’t want to fill out paperwork to sponsor her as a permanent resident or help her get a work permit.
“He wanted me to stay home with the children and be around when he was off work.”
Now, she suspects a darker motive.
“I think it was a way of control,” Schiller said.
We’ve just really tried to keep our family together and live.– Christina Schiller
The relationship collapsed after a year. Schiller didn’t have money to move her kids into a different home or buy airfare back to Hungary. She knew her visitor permit would expire by the end of that year.
“I asked him to either help us leave or stay, and he really did neither. We ended up stuck in the country.”
Schiller eventually entered a new, but brief, relationship with Ray Wuschenny, a Canadian. She gave birth to their son, Jayden, in September 2014, shortly before her relationship with Wuschenny ended. After the breakup she spent three months with her three children in an emergency shelter.
Shortly after Jayden’s birth, Wuschenny was worried about Schiller’s immigration status and obtained a court injunction in family court to prevent her from taking Jayden out of the country. Schiller said the non-removal order was “understandable.”
Schiller was unable to take her son back to Hungary but unwilling to leave him behind. She stayed illegally in Canada with her two Hungarian-born daughters.
Schiller said she couldn’t work without a permit and couldn’t afford a lawyer to help with her immigration paperwork. For three years, she did nothing to resolve her immigration status. She said she realizes it may have hurt her chances but felt she didn’t have any options.
Her home is listed as the primary residence for her son. She shares joint custody with Jayden’s father. She and her three children survive on provincial social assistance and child-support payments from Jayden’s father.
“We haven’t tried to scam any system at all. We’ve just really tried to keep our family together and live.”
Morley said the joint custody ruling is essentially a court order saying Schiller has to stay in the country.
“If Immigration is deporting her then they’re violating a court order that says the child should be with her certain periods of time,” he said.
Best interests of the child
In 2017, Schiller received a deportation order. She borrowed $1,340 from Jayden’s grandmother to apply to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada for permanent residence on humanitarian and compassionate grounds, which can apply to exceptional cases and considers “the best interests of any children involved,” according to the department.
Sixteen months later, in November 2018, Schiller received a letter that said she had been rejected. The letter did not cite a reason.
In response to an inquiry from CBC News, made with Schiller’s consent, the department said the officer who reviewed the case “was not satisfied that Ms. Schiller’s circumstances, taking into consideration the best interests of the children, merited an exemption on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.” It declined to provide more information.
Jayden’s father said he can’t believe Canadian officials consider it in Jayden’s best interest to be separated from his mother. Ray Wuschenny is scared his son will resent him for Schiller’s deportation and be scarred by the loss of his mother.
“The mom’s love and cuddling with him,” Wuschenny said. “It’s hard to explain it. I know I’m close with my mom. I know the bond. I’m scared he won’t have the bond.”
Wuschenny said he also worries about Mia, an eight-year-old who has spent seven of those years in Canada. She can sing O Canada in Cree but only speaks four words in Hungarian.
“I don’t want to leave. I don’t want to leave my brother,” Mia said. “There are no friends [in Hungary]. No family. No life there.”
Kiara, 18, has a few credits left to complete high school. She wants to finish high school and get a job, but without residency her life is in limbo. She’s trying to raise money to hire a lawyer for an appeal.
The Immigration Department won’t comment further, pending a judicial review requested by the family. The Canada Border Services Agency has stayed their deportation until after the review, which has yet to be scheduled.
Search your Cities weather below