A Toronto woman and her son who were facing deportation after living in Canada for 19 years are now being allowed to stay for three more months as their lawyer takes their fight to federal court.
On Friday, just hours after CBC News reported that Nike Okafor's family faced being torn apart as she and her eldest son were ordered to return to Nigeria, the family's lawyer received a letter from the Canada Border Services Agency granting their request for a deferral.
Okafor, 39, and her 21-year-old son Sydney, who was born in Nigeria, had been bracing to say goodbye to her Canadian husband and two children who were born in this country. They were to report to Toronto's Pearson Airport on July 26.
"Having considered your request, I am of the opinion that a deferral of the removal order is appropriate under the circumstances," the CBSA's letter says. However, it adds that the agency has an obligation to carry out deportations "as soon as reasonably possible."
Okafor and her son had been in Canada for nearly two decades before she received a deportation order this past May.
'My whole life is here'
All this time later, she never imagined that she would be ripped from her husband and two of her children — all Canadian citizens — and forced to return to the country she fled.
Instead, the mother of three once again found herself fighting for her future, as well as that of her son, who arrived with her at the age of two all those years ago. She was pregnant with her second child at the time.
"If I have to go back, it will end my life," Okafor said through tears. "I'll be separated from my husband, I'll be separated from my Canadian children, I don't know how I can live."
"My whole life is here."
WATCH | 'It will end my life,' says mother facing deportation after 19 years in Canada:
Okafor came to Canada as an asylum seeker in 2003. A Muslim, she'd had a son with a Christian man and says she feared the boy would be taken from her amid religious tensions in Nigeria's north. She fled to secure a future for them both, she told CBC News.
Her refugee claim was denied but as Okafor appealed and tried to find a way to stay, life went on. She said she was told to stay in close touch with the CBSA over the years and did so.
In the meantime, she put herself through school, found employment as a personal support worker, had two Canadian-born children, met the man she would marry and built a future she never thought possible back home.
But that future was nearly cut short.
'Very, very unjust'
This past April, Okafor and her son, who are currently in Canada without status, suddenly received a deportation order from the CBSA. That's despite her husband filing a spousal sponsorship application to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) more than two years ago.
WATCH | This Canadian may have to say goodbye to his wife as she faces deportation:
According to the federal government's website, the average processing time for spousal sponsorships is 15 months. Okafor has been waiting 28 months already and says she would have long been a permanent resident if not for the delays.
It's a situation that Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, calls "very, very unjust."
"I think that most Canadians, when they look at these situations, they think that this doesn't make any sense, and of course, how is it that one part of the government is kind of undermining the efforts of the other? Don't they talk to each other?" Dench said.
"And basically the answer is that, no … at least, not on individual cases."
Dench said while a case like Okafor's involves both the CBSA and IRCC, the two departments work according to their specific mandates, the former focused on law enforcement and the latter selecting and facilitating new residents.
The IRCC's website says one of the ministry's goals is "family reunification." Still, there appears to be no mechanism to prevent the CBSA from removing someone even if they have a family-class-related permanent residency application underway, as is the case for Okafor and her son.
Dench said she's hopeful that will soon change, noting the federal immigration minister's mandate letter calls on him to look into broadening options for undocumented workers.
"We're hoping that the government will see the opportunity to really regularize a very large number of people and to put an end to this kind of contradiction," she said.
Family reunification a 'pillar' of immigration system
In a statement to CBC News, IRCC said Okafor and her son's application for permanent residence is "in queue for review" and will be met with an "objective review."
The department would not say how long the wait will be and said time frames for processing some applications may vary due to the "unique nature" of each case. It also did not explain how someone with an application under review could be given a deportation order or whether the IRCC communicates with the CBSA to prevent such situations.
"Family reunification is a fundamental pillar of our immigration system, and IRCC works to process applications for permanent residence expeditiously while conducting all verifications required under the law," the statement said.
The CBSA told CBC News "the decision to remove someone from Canada is not taken lightly."
There are "a variety of reasons" that might prevent a removal order from being enforced expeditiously, it said. Having a Canadian-born child does not prevent a person from being deported, however it added "the CBSA always considers the best interest of the child before removing someone."
With time running out for Okafor and her family, Toronto-based immigration lawyer Vakkas Bilsin has brought the case before the federal court and hopes the spousal sponsorship will be approved in the three months that the family has been granted.
"Knowingly sending Ms. and Mr. Okafor into the inevitable, serious and irreparable harm that awaits them in Nigeria is merciless and goes against every fibre that Canada's immigration and refugee system and Canadian society was built on," Bilsin wrote in a recent application calling on the CBSA to defer their deportation.
Speaking to CBC News, Bilsin said he's seen no explanation for why the CBSA is opting to remove the two all these years later.
"I think she deserves to be in Canada. She might not have permanent residency but she's Canadian in heart."
'We would have to restart our lives'
As their deportation date approached, Okafor's eldest son tried to make sense of what it would mean to leave behind the only country he's called home.
Enrolled in a sports management program at Humber College, he had no idea if he'd be in Canada to see it through. He worried too about his younger siblings who look up to him.
"If we had to leave, we would have to restart our lives," he said. "It wouldn't be right."
Okafor's husband, Rotimi Odunaiya, a Canadian citizen who she's been with for 10 years and married for about five, said the family has been living one day at a time, hoping the government will step in to keep them together.
"Somebody who has already lived a life here, up to two decades… contributing to society, working as a PSW — it's not a joke," he said. "If somebody says this cannot happen in Canada — yes, it does happen."
"We're a family," he said. "Don't split us."
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.