Citizenship Lawyers and Officials Butt Heads over Fate of Sons Presumed Innocent in Spy Bust
The phrase “Russian spies” is not something you hear in everyday conversation—unless you’re studying Cold War-era history or reading a John le Carré novel. But for brothers Alexander and Timothy Vavilov, who are 21 and 25 years old respectively, this phrase has become central to their predicament, ever since they were stripped of their Canadian citizenship. Now, Canada immigration officials won’t grant them the citizenship that they believe is their right by birth. So what did the Vavilov brothers do to be stripped of their citizenship?
Officially, nothing, except for being born to the wrong parents. In a case that is complex and multi-faceted—the kind that citizenship lawyers and legislators may scratch their heads over for a while yet—the two boys, who were born on Canadian soil, have been denied citizenship under their amended surnames since their parents were discovered to be Russian spies in 2010.
The Sins of the Parents
At some point prior to 1990, when their son Timothy was born on Canadian soil, Andrey Berzukov and Elena Vavilova stole the identities of Donald Heathfield and Tracey Ann Foley, Canadians who had died as infants. In 1995, the family moved to France, and then to Boston in 1999, but maintained Canadian citizenship and frequently returned to the country. In 2010, the FBI arrested 10 Russian agents, including Vavilova and Berzukov, and deported them to Russia in a spy swap. There is no evidence that the couple were spying on Canada—but the stolen identities alone are a serious offence.
The Fates of the Sons
Technically, under Canada’s immigration and citizenship laws, any person born in Canada is automatically granted in citizenship, regardless of the status of their parents. There is a caveat, however. This does not extend to the children of diplomatic or consular officers, employees of foreign governments, or any other persons with specialized diplomatic privileges. Technically, by law, the Vavilov brothers would not have a legal right to citizenship.
The Citizenship Lawyer’s Dilemma
The complicated ethical dilemma to this case is that, by all accounts, the children of the two spies did not know that their parents were living under assumed identities. Despite unproven allegations that Timothy, the elder son, was recruited into the espionage mission his parents shared, they have claimed plausible deniability, and the citizenship lawyer representing the boys has insisted that they are innocent victims in this entire ordeal. And so this question is raised: is it more important to uphold the law, which clearly denies the boys any citizenship rights in the country that they have come to call home, even if they have not personally committed any offenses, or to make a carefully considered exception for the victims of a crime their parents committed against their knowledge?
This is not a question that those invested in Canada’s immigration issues will likely answer soon.