Working the System: American Refugees in Canada


In recent weeks, the Canadian government has been criticized for their decision to only accept 1,300 Syrians displaced from the conflict as refugees and for the fact that the vast majority of these refugees have not yet made it to Canada.  Canada’s failure to bring Syrian refugees, in genuine need of protection, to Canada was made all the more controversial this week after news broke that a female sex offender from Florida was recently approved for refugee status in Canada.

Florida mom Denise Harvey was convicted of 5 counts of unlawful sexual activity with a minor in Florida in 2008, resulting in a 30 year prison sentence.  The minor in question was 16 at the time the offense took place and was a friend and baseball teammate of Harvey’s teenage son.  While Harvey still maintains that she did not have a sexual relationship with the 16 year old boy, a recording of her attempting to convince the boy to lie to police and insisting that she would deny the claims as well as DNA evidence produced during her trial suggest otherwise.

While Harvey was released on bail pending the appeal of her conviction, she and her husband fled to Canada and started a life in Pike Lake, Saskatchewan.  Harvey was arrested by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police a year and half after she initially fled to Canada, and immediately claimed refugee status upon her arrest, citing the 30 year prison sentence awaiting her in the United States as “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Although the United States is a “Designated Country of Origin,” or safe country, with respect to Canadian refugee claims, all refugee claimants are processed regardless of their home country.  While an American being granted refugee status in Canada is incredibly uncommon, it has been known to happen.  In 2013, 69 Americans applied for refugee status in Canada, but only 3 were granted status.

While the United States wanted Harvey to be extradited from Canada, the Canadian government could not extradite her on grounds of criminality because the crime she was convicted of does not have a Canadian equivalent.  In Florida, where Harvey was convicted, the age of consent is 18 years of age, resulting in her sexual relationship with the 16 year old boy being a criminal offense.  In Canada, the age of consent was recently raised to 16 years of age, and at the time of Harvey’s conviction it was 14 years of age, meaning that had she committed the act in Canada, it would not constitute a criminal offense.

The Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board sided with Denise Harvey and agreed that a 30 year prison sentence for a crime that is not illegal in Canada was cruel and unusual punishment.  The Canadian federal government challenged this ruling in court, and initially won, but that decision was overturned and Harvey was ultimately granted refugee status.  Now that Denise Harvey is a refugee in Canada, she can apply for permanent residency.  After a designated timeframe, that permanent residency will allow Harvey to apply for Canadian citizenship.

Expressing his frustrating about Harvey’s refugee case, Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander said that he “find[s] it mind-boggling that individuals from the United States, which has been designated a safe country precisely because it respects human rights and does not normally produce refugees, think it is acceptable to file asylum claims in Canada. Lucky for them, they have no understanding of what true persecution is, and what it means to be a genuine refugee.”

FWCanada is a Montreal-based immigration law firm that provides professional legal services on Canadian immigration. For more tips and updates on Canadian immigration follow FWCanada on Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *