The family of an Ontario man who died from COVID-19 while in U.S. custody awaiting deportation to Canada is blaming the Canadian Embassy for not doing enough to bring him home.
“They did not do their job. They did not protect my uncle, who was a free Canadian citizen,” said Jessica Marostega, the man’s niece.
Her uncle, James Hill, died this week after contracting COVID-19 while at a detention facility run by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). He was scheduled to fly to Toronto on July 9 after being held at the facility in Farmville, Va., since April. A judge ordered his deportation in May.
But his departure for Canada was delayed due to “medical reasons.”
“My cousin got an email from the Canadian Embassy saying that his travel had been postponed due to medical reasons, and that’s all they would tell us at that time,” Marostega said. It was later confirmed that he tested positive for COVID-19.
Formerly a practising doctor in Louisiana, Hill had been serving more than 14 years in prison for health-care fraud and distributing a controlled substance before being transferred to the detention centre.
He was 72 and considered at high risk when he was transferred to Farmville. After contracting the coronavirus, Hill was taken to a local hospital, where he died about a month later. Almost every single detainee at the detention facility has contracted COVID-19.
“It was devastating,” Marostega said. “Fourteen years waiting, we find out he is finally going to be released.”
She said the family was told in April it would take only a few weeks before Hill could come home. But his return was pushed back to the beginning of July.
“It shouldn’t have taken this long,” she said. “We blame the Canadian [Embassy] for that when they could have asked, ‘Why is he not coming home earlier?’ I think [they] should have advocated for that a little more for him. To me, that’s their job.”
In a statement, Global Affairs Canada offered “sincere condolences to the family,” but it did not respond to the family’s criticism.
“To be honest, all the emails that my family sent that got responses back, they were all very blanket responses — somebody else was looking into it…. And in terms of the embassy, I felt like they just passed a message back and forth but there was no saying to ICE this wasn’t OK,” Marostega said.
“Our family offered to pay for transportation, medical check, everything — and it was all brushed under the table.”
WATCH | Family speaks out after Canadian man dies of COVID-19 is ICE custody:
Marostega also reached out to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and to her local MP but said the responses were inadequate.
Now, she and her family are left to clean up the room they had set up for her uncle’s arrival and return items that were donated from relatives.
While she knows Hill won’t be coming home, she said she hopes a situation like this won’t happen to someone else.
“I can’t bring my uncle home, but if I can bring somebody else’s home, right?”