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Canada's refugee policy risks tearing parents from their children, activists say

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MONTREAL - For the past month, Sheila Sedinger woke up every morning fraught with worry over the prospect of being deported to Mexico without her two young children.

But Sedinger, who came to Canada in 2005, was recently granted a stay, guaranteeing her at least two more years in Montreal with her eight- and six-year-old daughters while a custody battle with their father plays out.

Other families haven't been so lucky.

Activists and legal experts say Canada's refugee policy regularly threatens to break up families and often fails to take into consideration the interests of the children involved.

"We're very often in the business of tearing families apart," said Sharry Aiken, a law professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.

"In the scheme of things, these are not the people that Canadian public immigration officials should be worried about deporting."

It's unclear exactly how often such cases come up.

The Canadian Border Services Agency doesn't track the number of instances where an individual is deported while their Canadian-born children stays behind, said Esme Bailey, a spokeswoman for the agency.

In a statement, Bailey said the best interests of the child are taken into consideration "at all times."

She added those facing removal have a number of options available for their Canadian-born children, including "finding a suitable guardian for their children in Canada, or, if there is no one who could assume guardianship, advising them to contact the provincial child protection authorities."

Overall, 10,505 failed refugee claimants were removed in 2013 and 4,632 so far in 2014, according to the CBSA.

The Montreal-based activist group Solidarity without Borders contends several recent claims in the city involving families suggest a worrying trend.

Ivonne Hernandez, also from Mexico, was granted a last-minute reprieve in February until a court hearing to regain custody of her son. She had lost custody to her ex-partner, in part because of her lack of status in Canada.

In another instance, a Chilean man sought residency on humanitarian grounds to care for his ailing mother, a Canadian citizen suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease. He went into hiding in early August to avoid deportation.

On Friday, a mother and father were forced to return to Egypt after their own stay of deportation was denied. They chose to bring their two Canadian-born children.

According to Aiken, Canada's approach doesn't always seem to satisfy the provisions outlined in the United Nations convention on the rights of the child, which Canada ratified in 1991.

"I've seen immigration officers go through the motions," she said.

"As long as immigration officers kind of tick of the boxes and say, 'yes I looked at that, and here's why I don't think it matters,' that's usually pretty immune from challenge, unless there's an extremely egregious case."

For her part, Sedinger has been involved in a lengthy struggle to gain status in Canada.

Her children are the subject of an ongoing custody battle with her ex-husband.

Sedinger said she originally fled Mexico to escape a series of traumatic experiences and a violent ex-partner in that country. Deportation would have separated her from a network of friends and family, including her father, she said.

But on Saturday, the day on which she was scheduled to be deported, Sedinger remained in Montreal, celebrating her younger daughter's sixth birthday.

"I was just so, so happy, and holding her in my arms and thinking, 'Oh my god, thank you for letting me still be here.'"

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