Canadians are known as a welcoming bunch—but this latest controversy may make them wonder if they’re being a bit too welcoming.
A registered female sex offender from Florida, convicted of unlawful sexual activity with an underage boy, was granted asylum in Canada after successfully arguing that her sentence was ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’
In 2006, 38-year-old Denise Harvey was charged with five counts of unlawful sexual activity with a 16-year-old, a baseball teammate of her own son. Two years later, she was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison for the acts.
While awaiting an appeal to the Florida Supreme Court, Harvey fled to Canada on Nov. 29, 2009, where she lived unnoticed for a year and a half until she was arrested by the folks known for their distinctive ceremonial red coats: the Mounties, or the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Upon arrest, she made a refugee claim that’s taken until this year to sort out.
The Florida woman argued that her heavy, decades-long sentence made her eligible to be treated as a ‘protected person.’ While Florida’s age of consent is 18, the Canadian age of consent is 16, and Harvey’s acts would not have been illegal in Canada. In fact, at the time of the acts in this case, Canada’s age of consent was 14—it wouldn’t be raised until 2008.
The attempt to use the Canadian refugee system as a get-out-of-jail-free card is an incredibly rare one, and it's even more rare that's it's successful. While 69 Americans applied in 2013, only three were granted refugee status, according to records kept by a Canadian government agency. [Full disclosure: this author worked for Canada's Minister of Foreign Affairs for a brief stint in 2008, but had no hand in immigration issues.]
Harvey now lives in the central prairie province of Saskatchewan, Canadian news reports say, along with her husband and son. She has total freedom to move around the country and become a permanent resident—and, after three years of residing in Canada, apply for citizenship with all its benefits, including the country’s most loved and hated social program: Canadian public health care.
The Canadian government, controlled by the ruling Conservative Party, has fought Harvey's quest for asylum every step of the way, bringing this case to federal court in order to thwart her efforts.
“It is 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,” Canadian Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander told The Daily Beast in a statement.
Harvey’s claim for refugee status was granted by the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB), an independent, quasi-judicial body free of government influence. Canada’s government sued to block its decisions, but after some early success, a federal court decision in April not to take up the issue meant that Harvey’s ‘protected person status’ was cemented.
Because the Immigration and Refugee Board’s decisions are private, it took months before the decision was noticed and first reported on by Canadian and Florida news outlets.
There are still potential avenues to remove Harvey from the country. The government could, for example, claim that she is a danger to the general public, a Canadian government source said, but it would be laborious and drawn out.
"It would be difficult to remove her, even if the minister [responsible for immigration intervenes]," said the source. "Once protection is granted, it can't be undone on a whim. It's a lot of work."
Harvey’s lawyer declined to comment for this article.