By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Airman Dale Landry says he began to question the Iraq War while stationed at Dyess Air Force Base near Abilene, Texas, in 2005. "I had friends who deployed and came back and said, 'I don't understand what the year I spent in the desert was for—all we did was patrol for IEDs, raid houses and guard detainees,'" he says. At the same time, soldiers were being prosecuted for the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib, and Landry says he began to read as much as he could about the case for war in Iraq, including reports revealing that much of the intelligence on Iraqi weapons capabilities that the Bush administration used as the basis for war turned out to be shaky. He also read the United Nations resolutions opposing the U.S. invasion and the 9/11 Commission report. "I decided that our occupation of that country is illegal, so I made a vow to myself," Landry says. "I'm still an airman, I still have a responsibility, but I'll never take part in the occupation of that country." The Air Force, however, has a different take on Landry's desertion. While Landry says he deserted after receiving orders to Iraq, Robert Krause, a Dyess spokesman, says Landry was never ordered to deploy to Iraq and in fact left to avoid disciplinary charges related to behavior problems.
Questions about the legality of the Iraq War were an integral part of the initial case for deserters pursuing asylum in Canada. When they began arriving in 2004 and 2005, their lawyers filed claims for refugee status based on the Geneva Conventions and the fact that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees handbook says a deserter is entitled to asylum if he has refused to participate in a war judged to be unlawful by the international community. But Alyssa Manning, the attorney representing at least a dozen of the deserters, including Rivera, Key and Landry, explains that the Canadian courts have declined to consider the legality of the Iraq War in their rulings, finding that unless the asylum seeker is a high-ranking officer with decision-making ability, whether or not the war is condemned by international law is irrelevant.
"When they were first coming, the idea was that the war itself was illegal so they shouldn't have to fight in it," Manning says. "Jeremy Hinzman's 2004 refugee claim was based on that, but the refugee board, the federal court and the federal court of appeal refused to consider that." Key is the only one still waiting on a pending refugee claim, since he and Manning are arguing that he merits asylum not because the war itself is illegal but because he was ordered to commit acts—such as the house raids—that have been condemned by the international human rights community.
In most of the cases, instead of pursuing refugee claims, Manning is applying for permanent residence based on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. That requires showing that the deserters would face hardship if they returned to the United States to apply from afar. So far, the immigration ministry has denied all of the requests and Manning has requested judicial review. Three of her petitions for judicial review have been granted, and more are pending. If the federal court reviews a case and finds fault with the decision, rather than reversing it, the court's ruling signals a chance to start the process anew and maybe get a different outcome.
"This is a really hard fight," Manning says, "because every time you get a victory it's only a partial victory." In addition to buying time in the courts, deserters and their supporters are hoping the House of Commons might provide a political solution, which would require either the fall of the conservative government or a successful bid by the liberal parties to pass legislation allowing the Americans to stay. Last summer, the House of Commons passed a non-binding resolution arguing that the deserters should be given residency, and polls show that 60 percent of Canadians agree.
As they wait in legal limbo, most of the deserters are able to work, pending the resolution of their cases. Landry is a computer technician. Key does welding. Johnson picks up carpentry projects, and before she had her third child, Rivera worked nights at a bakery. While they've developed friendships and see one another frequently, their uncertain future in Canada and inability to return to the United States present a range of challenges. Key and his wife have separated, and she has returned home with their four children. "It sucks," he says, "but it's kind of hard to tell your kids they can't see their grandparents for four years." Landry complains that he can't keep a girlfriend because of the constant specter of deportation.
Many of the deserters are estranged from their families, who disapprove of their decision. Rivera says she hasn't spoken to her mother since she left Texas. She and Mario checked their phone messages when they arrived in Ontario to hear her mother saying that if Rivera didn't turn herself in, she'd call the police and report Mario for kidnapping Kim and the kids. According to Mario's mother, Reyna, that's just what she did. Rivera's mother, Cathy Miller, didn't return phone calls for this story, but Reyna says that for months she received calls from Mesquite investigators asking about Mario and a kidnapping allegation.