Media Duped by Politicians into Focusing on Titillating Immigration Case

Over my dozen plus years as an immigration consultant and government official I have learned not to expect much from the media in terms of covering the issue of immigration. For some reason, immigration is an issue virtually all forms of media in our country have never, in my experience at least, covered well or accurately. One of my goals with this column has been to attempt to shed some light on the topic from an insider’s perspective as well as to comment on the real issues when they arise and describe the difficult choices that governments are required to make.

But it is harder to blame the media for its bad reporting on immigration when they are led to it by senior political leaders who should know better. I am speaking specifically of a case that has recently received national attention in which a U.S. citizen and Canadian permanent resident, Malcolm Watson, was convicted of endangering the welfare of a child and third degree sexual abuse. His conviction and sentence were delivered by a U.S. court since the criminal acts occurred in Buffalo, New York where he worked as a teacher in a private school. His victim was a 15-year-old student at the school who did not want to testify against him at a public trial because, according the prosecutor in the case, “[s]he was in love with him” and “didn’t want to be the means of his public disgrace and downfall.”

As a result of these circumstances, the prosecutor reached a plea bargain that allowed Mr. Watson to serve three years probation while continuing to reside in Southern Ontario, where he has lived – as a legal permanent resident — for years with his wife and three children. Mr. Watson must report to his probation officer in New York State on a regular basis and is therefore required to cross the border to do so (he now works in Ontario as a salesman after having lost his job as a teacher).

It didn’t take long for Canadian politicians at the highest levels to begin expressing their outrage at this arrangement. Ontario’s Premier, Dalton McGuinty, said the U.S. was using Canada as a “dumping ground” for their sex offenders. The federal government, not to be undone, immediately committed to attempting to remove Mr. Watson from Canada and strip him of his permanent resident status. This, despite the fact that his actions may not even be illegal in Canada where the age of consent is 14 (there are exceptions to this rule for people, like teachers, who are in relationships of trust with minors so the feds do at least have an arguable case).

In the meantime, the federal government attempted to detain Mr. Watson while his immigration case was being decided. This didn’t last long after an independent adjudicator rightly found him to be of little threat to society and therefore freed him on bail. After all, if he was a true threat to society it is unlikely the U.S. criminal proceeding would have resulted in his sentence of probation.

Here we have a prime example of opportunistic Canadian politicians seemingly unable to pass up a golden opportunity to put the blame on a supposedly lax American justice system for not locking up someone for having sexual relations with a minor. These same politicians know full well that, had this offense occurred in Canada, the sentence, if he had been convicted at all, would likely be about the same if not even more lenient. (The maximum sentence Mr. Watson faced in the U.S. for the charges against him was one year in prison.) Moreover, it is worth noting that the concept of serving a sentence in one’s country of residence is enshrined in Canadian and American law by a treaty that allows citizens of each country to request to serve their sentences in their country of citizenship despite being tried and sentenced in the other country (this of course does not apply to Mr. Watson because he is only a permanent resident of Canada).

But the real outrage here is that the case continues to command national media coverage and even attracted the attention of senior politicians from Prime Minister Stephen Harper on down – who, if they understood their role, would refrain from commenting on the specifics of this case while it was being adjudicated according to the due process of the tribunal system – while hundreds of serious, dangerous criminals with permanent residence status remain free in Canada. Many of these individuals will commit further crimes before they are ever detained or deported, if indeed they are. The difference between these cases and Mr. Watson’s is that they committed their crimes in Canada. They were freed — on bail or parole or probation — by the Canadian criminal justice system. And the immigration enforcement agency of the federal government is not properly staffed to be able to keep track of them all, let alone round them up and remove them from the country (this situation was most recently revealed by immigration lawyer Richard Kurland last year and, commendably, reported on by many media outlets).

So instead we are entertained with the story of a teacher who couldn’t keep his hands off a student. A story in which the American justice system can be portrayed as defective and lenient by demagogic Canadian politicians. Perhaps it was too much to ask to expect the media to turn its attention to more serious and pressing matters. But we certainly have a right to expect more of our political leaders.