Guest post by Jeff Shantz, Department of Criminology, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Canada. Jeff currently teaches community advocacy, human rights, elite deviance, contemporary sociological approaches, and critical theory. He's the editor of Racism and Borders: Representation, Repression, Resistance (Algora, 2010), Racial Profiling and Borders: International, Interdisciplinary Perspectives (Vandeplas, 2010), and Protest and Punishment: The Repression of Resistance in the Era of Neoliberal Globalization (Carolina Academic Press, 2012). Jeff is the founder of the Critical Criminology Working Group and the founding editor of the journal Radical Criminology. Samples of his writing may be found at He's on Twitter @critcrim.

Claims to openness, transparency, and visibility are among the central principles of justice in liberal democracies. System practices and procedures, we're told, must be carried out “in the light of day,” not in the shadows of secrecy. These notions of transparency are evident in open, public trials, disclosure of evidence, limits on pre-trial detention (the time the body can be hidden from view), and of course, habeas corpus, among others. They are further bolstered by the assurance of open legislative processes and transparency in lawmaking and the development of policy. Liberal democracies champion oversight in administrative and legislative spheres, crafting an ideal in which lawmakers and those involved in the administration of justice at all levels are visible to the public at all times―or at least subject to review whenever the public deems necessary.

Such openness is trumpeted as one of―and perhaps the―great advance over the arbitrary, brutal, closed systems of the early modern period. There, gods and demons ruled notions of justice and injustice. Trial by ordeal served to represent obscure systems of elite rule.

Yet border security practices in the current period suggest that some of our faith in the justice of liberal democracies may be misplaced. As readers of this website will have noted, all too often examples of arbitrary state power can be found in the treatment of those without citizenship. In this post, I document yet another example of such unfettered power, this time in Canada.

Many readers may be surprised to learn that behind the shiny commercial space of YVR, Vancouver’s international airport, the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) operates its own postmodern incarnation of a dungeon. This is a hybrid space, neither public nor private (but out of public view), instituted by the Canadian state but operated and managed by a private, for-profit company. It's a space of exception in which due process is suspended and those held lack rights to appeal, to meetings with legal representatives, or to public petition. Immigration lawyers are denied access to the space. Even protections of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms are not in effect. This is a hidden space, one into which people are taken beyond public view and from which most are never seen again in the Canadian context. Some, we have tragically discovered in recent weeks, do not leave alive.

The holding centre’s existence and its inadequate conditions have only come to light in the wake of the recent suicide of Lucia Vega Jimenez. Jimenez reportedly hanged herself in a shower stall in a CBSA holding cell at YVR, one day before facing deportation to Mexico. Incredibly, news of her death did not become public until a month later, after journalists sought information on the situation at YVR. Jimenez came to the attention of Citizenship and Immigration Canada after she failed to pay a Skytrain (subway) fare. Her refugee claim had been denied and she was considered “illegal” by the state.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is supposed to protect the rights to life, liberty, and security of all people “physically present in Canada.” This includes freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention. Lucia Vega Jimenez was still “physically present” in Canada when she was taken into CBSA custody.

People detained by the CBSA at the YVR holding centre are rendered invisible, “unpresent;” they disappear from public view. Detained indefinitely, they are held in isolation without contact with family, friends, or lawyers. The YVR cells are free from public scrutiny and accountability. Even management of the space is privatized, as operations are run by the corporate firm Genesis Security Group. It's an invisible space (arbitrary and brutal too). So too are the practices of the CBSA, which is responsible for this holding facility, yet is largely blanketed in secrecy.

Among the supposed keystones of liberal democratic practice is the stated commitment to public oversight of government institutions. Despite wide-ranging policing powers―including some that go beyond the police―the CBSA is not subject to any independent, let alone civilian, oversight. There is no independent complaint procedure in place. Seven years after the high-profile public inquiry into the deportation to torture of Maher Arar recommended external oversight of the CBSA, nothing has been done to implement these recommendations. At present, there is no outside body that reviews the Agency’s national security duties.

The hidden, and inaccessible, character of CBSA operations is emblematic of broader practices of border control in contemporary Canada, as well as other liberal democracies. One might additionally note the use of “security certificates” in Canada which allow the federal government to arrest and detain non-citizens for indefinite periods without charge, disclosure of evidence, or the right to a public hearing if the government claims some connection of the individual with “terrorism.” Often the government basis for this perceived association is quite vague.

These border control institutions, and their invisible practices and spaces, reveal important transformations in liberal democratic governance. They are in keeping with the punitive policies and practices of neoliberalism (austerity and criminalization) and suggest we have entered a context of illiberal democracy, one in which the claims of liberalism to visibility and openness are emptied of meaning. These shifts pose important questions about the rule of law and the fundamental procedures of due process.

Notably, in Canada, it appears that policies and practices that restrict rights and freedoms in areas of immigration and border controls, developed in those contexts, signal shifts in legal practice more broadly. One might point to the recent move of security certificates beyond the realm of immigration policy or the use of arbitrary arrest and detention (often in public-private policing arrangements) during protest events. All of this bears watching but can only be done where institutional practices are visible and accessible to oversight.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style): Shantz J (2014) Border Security and the Neoliberal 'Dungeon': A Canadian Case. Available at: [date]).