SALT LAKE CITY — Ten years ago, Edith Barlow migrated north from Utah to Bountiful, British Columbia, to marry Winston Blackmore, the leader of a Canadian polygamous sect. She gave birth to five kids and put down roots, weaving a tight emotional bond with her family of sister-wives and their numerous children.
Today that settled life is in jeopardy. Barlow’s application to extend her visitor’s visa and for permanent residency in Canada — under a humanitarian and compassionate status exemption — has been denied and she’s been ordered out of the country.
A letter to Barlow dated Nov. 3 states that in reaching its decision, Citizenship and Immigration Canada, considered Barlow’s ties to the country, including employment, family and financial means.
“You are a person in Canada without legal status and as such are required to leave Canada immediately,” the letter says.
Barlow, 28, has no plans to obey.
“I have two options. Leave the country and leave my kids, or I could take my kids, take them away from their home, their family and their country,” she said in a telephone interview from Canada. “What is the humane and compassionate option here?”
Barlow says she’s been told her case has been referred to enforcement officers.
“I’m pretty much very illegal,” she said. “I don’t know how else to see it. And yes, I do have the fear that they will come and enforce this, but what can I do?”
Amandeep Sangha, a senior communications officer for Citizenship and Immigration Canada, said she was aware of Barlow’s case but couldn’t discuss it specifically without a signed release from Barlow.
The conditions under which humanitarian and compassionate status would be granted are different for every applicant, she said.
“There is no specific set of criteria,” Sangha said. “It’s all done on a case-by-case situation.”
The CIC does recognize marital relationships — both legal and common law — in making residency decisions, Sangha said, because a resident spouse could sponsor a nonresident partner. But a resident cannot legally sponsor more than one spouse, Sangha said.
Barlow and Blackmore, who reportedly has 28 wives and as many as 100 children, are not legally married, but were “spiritually married” in a religious ceremony in 1995, Barlow said.
Blackmore, often referred to as the “bishop of Bountiful,” is the patriarch of a religious sect that split from the Hildale, Utah-based Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The faith believes polygamy is necessary for the glorification of its members in heaven.
Blackmore was officially excommunicated from the Utah arm of the faith but presides over an estimated 500 congregants in the Creston Valley, about 40 miles north of the Idaho-British Columbia border, where the group has lived since the late 1940s.
Polygamy is illegal in Canada.
Barlow first applied for residency status in 2003. Prior to that, she abided by Canada’s immigration laws for visitors, carefully crossing the border to the U.S. every six months for several weeks and then returning.
She says she’s been honest with immigration officials about her marital relationship and fears that’s why her residency application has been denied.
“I’ve been very honest,” she said. “The thing is that customs has known about us for who knows how long. If I was just a single mother with five children, I honestly think they would have welcomed me with open arms.”
Sangha said there is no specific policy for the polygamous community.
Depending on the conditions of the denial, some applicants have the option of appealing the decision to a federal judge. The appeal must be filed within 15 days, Sangha said.
In the absence of an appeal, applicants are then referred to the Canada Border Services Agency for enforcement, Sangha said.
“In certain circumstances, we can issue a warrant for arrest,” said Border Services spokeswoman Janis Fergusson. “It depends on the type of inadmissibility they have against them and if they are a danger to the public or unlikely to leave on their own.”
Barlow said she discussed the option of leaving Canada with her family, but decided against it. If she is forcefully deported, she could be banned from ever returning, she said.
“I started packing my things. But then after talking to my family we decided that if I go, if we let it happen, then they are going to do it to all of us and then we’ll have not family structure left. What kind of life is that?” she said.
Another of Blackmore’s wives also is facing immigration problems. Ruth Lane, 31, has been married to Blackmore for 11 years and has six children. Originally of Colorado City, Ariz., the sister city of Hildale, Lane spent part of her time in Canada on a student visa, which expired when she graduated from college.
She’s applied for an extension that will allow her to work through the completion of a graduate degree. The status of her application is in limbo, however, and she said she suspects that it has been tied to the outcome of Barlow’s case.