Saturday, February 10, 2007

It's time to probe deeper on immigration (March 2006)

When you think about controversial immigration stories, what is the first name that leaps to mind?

Chances are, you said ‘Portnoy’.

This is not a surprise, given the massive amounts of media that the Portnoys have generated in recent months. Unfortunately, there are other, far more important immigration stories out there that are receiving little or no coverage.

Let’s strip away the emotion from the Portnoy case. If sent back to Israel, are their lives at risk? No. Will they live in poverty and hardship? Probably not. (In 2005, the United Nations ranked Israel at 23 of 177 countries in terms of life expectancy, education and income.) What occupational skills does Portnoy bring to this country? He knows how to make pizza. There’s also the murky area of Portnoy’s alleged criminal record and the fact that he lied to immigration officials.

Donna Jeffrey is the Director of the Refugee Immigrant Advisory Council, a volunteer group that advocates on behalf of those trying to navigate the immigration labyrinth. Before Christmas, Jeffrey was quoted in a media interview saying, in effect, that the Portnoy case was drawing public attention away from other more pressing cases.

In an interview last week, Ms. Jeffrey was more circumspect in her remarks, noting that some of her colleagues were not pleased with what she had said. She was careful not to criticize the Portnoys and emphasized that she did feel for their plight. “All I can say is, there are other cases. And I think the cases speak for themselves.”

For example:

Alexander Kruglov fled St. Petersburg Russia, after the political candidate he worked for lost the election. The winning candidate, an organized crime leader, promptly began murdering those who opposed him. Kruglov and his wife fled for their lives, leaving behind well-paying jobs, a comfortable home and a good life. But Immigration Canada has rejected their application and the Kruglovs will be deported. “This man cannot go back,” Jeffrey said. “He will be killed if he goes back there.”

Until recently, Igor Kharpol was in charge of quality control at Exploits Design, a textiles manufacturing facility in St. John’s. Kharpol’s immigration application has been denied and he will soon be deported, despite the fact that his skills are critical to the operation. Exploits Design will likely have to leave the province, taking five local jobs with it.

There are other examples, such as Vladimir Ronenson and Alexi Kolosov, but space doesn’t permit me to use them here (though I will say this – any reporter who invests 30 minutes talking with Donna Jeffrey is going to get some strong story material). On March 4, as I was writing this column, CTV’s W5 program aired a story about immigration, in which they used Newfoundland cases to demonstrate the heavy hand of immigration officials. (You can read the transcript at

Another under-reported story is the fact that Halifax has two Directors General of Immigration while this province has none. (Talk about a declining federal presence!) What do officials in Halifax know about the life or death circumstances faced by our immigrant and refugee claimants? What do they care about how their expulsion affects our local economy? This situation is untenable and has to be addressed.

Why do the Portnoys receive so much media attention, when their case is nowhere near as urgent as the others? Three reasons. First, the Portnoy story has dramatic elements, including small children and a pregnant mother, that are irresistible to media. Second, a well-organized volunteer group in Marystown is pushing Portnoy’s case. Third, Alexi Portnoy knows how to manipulate media (one reporter who covered this story told me that he initially liked Alexi, but eventually realized that he was being exploited and came to resent it).

I have no problem if media want to follow the Portnoy case. But I will be concerned if they fail to give equal time to other, far more important cases.

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