This Canadian Criminal’s Fight to Regain Citizenship May Set a Precedent For New Citizenship Laws

Muna Mire, Vice Magazine,13 August 2014

Deepan Budlakoti has been living a nightmare for the last four years. Stripped of his status as a Canadian citizen, despite being born in Canada as the son of former Indian diplomats, he has a current charter challenge before federal court in Ottawa. His case is likely being closely watched by Immigration Minister Chris Alexander and the Conservatives to set a precedent, or at least the tone for the conversation on the controversial measures put forward in Bill C-24. Bill C-24, which passed at the end of June, is ironically also known as the “Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act.”

There are already at least two constitutional challenges to the new law, which has come under fire from critics because it grants the immigration minister a wide berth to strip Canadians of their citizenship. Depending on who you ask, Budlakoti was either stripped of his status because he committed a crime-—or because he never should have been issued papers in the first place.

Budlakoti’s nightmare begins and ends with his criminal charges. His rap sheet is long, and he admits himself he was a bad kid-—running afoul of the law on breaking and entering, weapons, and drug trafficking charges. Budlakoti is far from innocent, it was likely his criminal charges that triggered the process of the government flagging his file and reviewing and revoking his status. It is important to note however, that despite serious criminal charges, Budlakoti has served his time and repaid his debt to society. To strip someone of citizenship and all of the rights and benefits it affords is an entirely separate issue from a criminal past.

If we’re now taking away citizenship for breaking the law, it constitutes a serious erosion of the legal notion of “a citizen.” It seems, unfortunately, that this is exactly the message our government is sending.

Budlakoti’s case has significant legal implications for citizenship that link up with the new law Harper’s Conservative majority has successfully pushed through. The law empowers a single official—the Minister of Immigration, Chris Alexander-—to strip Canadians of their citizenship at his discretion, if they have committed a crime and the government can prove it has reason to believe they are also citizens elsewhere.

Besides this, there are a host of other potentially nebulous legal justifications for stripping Canadians of their status contained within the language of the law (something that was only possible if citizenship was obtained through misrepresentation or fraud before). The law also contains provisions that make it harder to become a citizen through residency and language requirements, and to make punishments for citizenship fraud much harsher.

Critics have said the law won’t hold up in court. Budlakoti’s Charter challenge is itself a test case for how far the courts will let Conservatives go in redefining the legal limits of citizenship. Budlakoti’s case demonstrates what it looks like when the law works specifically to strip Canadians of their status. Budlakoti lived as a Canadian for more than two decades-—he had twice been issued a passport when Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) took it away claiming it was issued in error. The issue? A technical question of Budlakoti’s parents being diplomatic officials at the time of his birth on Canadian soil, a condition that would disqualify Canadian citizenship from being issued. Meanwhile, Indian nationals claim that Budlakoti will not be issued documents by them.

Despite assurances from Minister Alexander that the law would not leave people stateless, that’s exactly what has happened to Budlakoti, a man who calls himself “stateless in Canada.” Canada has revoked his citizenship and India will not issue him documents.

“While the bill promises that it will leave nobody stateless, it’s unclear how Canada can force someone to obtain citizenship in a foreign country before deporting them,” parliamentary reporter Justin Ling wrote for VICE when the bill was first introduced.

If the law survives legal challenges, those who find themselves in Budlakoti’s position in future would no longer have clear recourse to a challenge before federal courts. The point is, if it survives legal challenge, the new law will make what has happened to Budlakoti far more common. It would turn citizenship into something determined at one official’s discretion–so if the Minister doesn’t want you here, you’re gone.

That’s a scary prospect.

As for the government’s stance on Budlakoti, Alexis Pavlich, spokesperson for Chris Alexander, the Citizenship and Immigration Minister, told VICE: “This convicted criminal has never been a Canadian citizen. He should not have chosen a life of crime if he did not want to be deported from Canada.”

Budlakoti’s lawyer, Peter Steida, told VICE via email that he believes the new law and the outcome of Budlakoti’s federal challenge will set the tone on stripping so called “undesirables” of their Canadian citizenship.

“The present government now seeks to broaden the already far-reaching powers of the state in immigration law with the [Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act]. The legislation seeks to empower the government to strip Canadians of citizenship pursuant to a number of scenarios including when a citizen’s behaviour is ‘contrary to the national interest of Canada’… will that include political activism?” Steida asks.

The language of the law is vague enough for Steida’s concerns to be worrisome. He also explained that the new law would give the government-—in the form of the Immigration Minister—the jurisdiction to make most citizenship revocation decisions. “The court (federal court) would only have jurisdiction to deal with revocation in limited situations,” he said. Ultimately, there will be no grounds for questioning the Immigration Minister’s authority, and there will be no due process.

“If Bill C-24 survives legal challenges, we can anticipate that the will of the Minister to revoke [the] citizenship of undesirables will be rubber-stamped by the Minister’s delegate. True due process, in which evidence can be tested before an impartial decision maker, will simply be a conceptual notion limited to books of law, and that will have no application in the trenches of immigration law,” said Steida.

Steida told VICE that Deepan Budlakoti’s case before federal courts in Ottawa is illustrative of the direction in which the government is headed. Given the numerous times Harper government’s “tough on crime” approach has clashed with Canadian courts lately, you would think that Harper and his majority would take care to stop pushing through legislation that steamrolls over civil liberties and is unduly punitive, wide-reaching and vague in powers granted to the government. Lawyers and judges warn that Parliament is coming close to a breaking point with the courts given its confrontational rather than cooperative approach. C-24 is simply one of a laundry list of current court challenges: C-13 and C-36 are also on the docket.

“Deepan’s plight simply illustrates the mad direction in which the present government is embarked,” said Steida. “Harper seeks to reduce citizenship to a club to which ongoing membership remains at the discretion, for the most part, of the minister. But citizenship strikes at the very heart of our identity. Such an effort compromises the very essence of our [Canadian] identity.”

Budlakoti’s court decision is expected to be handed down any day now in Ottawa. For more information on Deepan Budlakoti’s campaign (supported by The Council of Canadians and Amnesty International amongst others) to reinstate his citizenship, check out his website.

@muna_mire