U.S. racist redemption story turns sour as alleged abuse forces wife to flee to Canada | #childabductors


Bryon Widner was the face of one of the best-known redemptive stories in America — a transformation from leading light in a violent white supremacist group to reclaiming a peaceful place in the community, vividly symbolized by the agonizing removal of hateful tattoos across his face and hands.

The metamorphosis of Widner and his then-wife Julie has been featured in documentaries, films, TV talk shows and hundreds of profiles and articles.

What hasn’t made it into the redemptive retellings is that in 2016, his former wife fled with their two children to Canada, making a refugee claim based on fearing Widner, his family and his associates.

Her claim for refugee status was accepted — a rarity for American citizens — but the Canadian government intervened, and now the case that has previously remained out of public view is heading back to the Immigration and Refugee Board for a new hearing.

“It really was shattering for her,” Karim Escalona, her immigration lawyer, said in an interview about her status in Canada being upended.

“Especially given the roller-coaster ride of first losing, then winning and then the decision being revoked, it is very traumatic for her.”

Bryon Widner and Julie Miller came to wide public attention through a riveting, intimate documentary called Erasing Hate, released in 2011.

It really was shattering for her

It followed the couple and their children on a remarkable journey as he removed the public markers of their past lives in white nationalist groups.

He was described as the co-founder and enforcer of a white-power skinhead gang that, for a time, was “one of the largest and most notorious of the nation’s skinhead groups,” according to U.S. civil rights monitoring organization Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).

She was a member of the National Alliance, a group with overlapping beliefs. They met in 2005 at a white power music festival in Kentucky and married a year later.

As they started a family, however, they turned their back on their racist ties and despite death threats and harassment renounced past beliefs.

Widner found the violent and racist imagery in his tattoos precluded him from employment and a normal life.

The SPLC stepped in to help, and an anonymous donor paid for his tattoo removals. The painful process, which included dozens of surgeries over more than a year, was the basis for the documentary, as well as a 2018 feature film, called Skin.

Their story was an uplifting, redemptive tale.

It was just sheer hate, and they both stepped away from it

Court records in Canada, however, portray a disturbing evolution.

According to records entered in Federal Court, Widner was arrested a year after the release of the first documentary for allegedly assaulting Miller. Charges were dropped after four days in jail but, she told court, abuse continued.

Their relationship ended in 2014 and she obtained a court order for Widner not to contact her. She and her children moved often, including relocating states: Arizona, Tennessee, New Mexico and Michigan.

Widner, she told court, “was always able to track them down.”

A move out of Arizona was funded by the Victim Witness Arizona program; child protective services were also involved; she was part of the National Address Confidentiality Program, court heard.

In 2016, a school principal of one of their children told Widner her address and in response she fled to Canada.

After making a refugee claim, an arrest warrant was issued against Miller in the United States on an abduction charge, for taking their children out of the country, according to court records.

It is difficult for an American to successfully obtain refugee protection in Canada. Not only must they prove persecution, but also that the state can’t protect them.

That’s a tall order for Canada’s closest ally.

Last year, 339 claims by U.S. citizens for refugee protection were rejected and zero claims were accepted, according to IRB statistics.

After her first hearing, Miller was deemed ineligible for refugee protection as someone accused of parental child abduction. Otherwise, the government might have opposed her eligibility based on past membership in a white nationalist organization.

The IRB panel said she “was not forthcoming about whether she still held racist beliefs,” and failed to prove she was still pursued by followers of the movement.

Escalona said the beliefs Miller once espoused are behind her.

“She became disillusioned with it when she saw that it wasn’t so much about loving your own people and taking care of children and so on, it was just sheer hate, and they both stepped away from it.”

“When she came to Canada this was already a time when she was passed this in her life,” he said.

Miller appealed her failed claim, with Escalona and colleagues at Lewis & Associates as her new lawyers.

In 2020, an IRB appeal panel said the parental abduction accusation did not nullify her eligibility because she had a defence of fleeing imminent harm; nor was she ineligible for supporting a white nationalist group because there were no “serious reasons for considering that she was complicit in crime.”

Unusually, the IRB accepted that the U.S. government could not protect her from white supremacist groups that are present across the country, saying there was “clear and convincing proof of the inadequacy of state protection.”

The appeal panel considered new evidence, particularly the 2018 release of the film Skin.

While she was a willing participant in the first documentary, Escalona said his client never consented to the subsequent release of Skin and it “increased the risk she faces all over the United States.”

The appeal panel agreed: “While many mechanisms exist and were employed … they were not adequate to keep this family safe in the USA…. A distinction must be drawn between the significant efforts of the state to provide services, and the inadequate protection that resulted nevertheless.”

The Canadian government sought a judicial review of that decision. It is Ottawa’s motion to the Federal Court that led Justice Ann Marie McDonald to overturn Miller’s refugee status and order a new hearing.

“The facts underlying the refugee claims are compelling and disturbing,” McDonald said in her ruling, published Wednesday. However, the IRB’s decision “fell into error by equating ‘perfect state’ protection with ‘adequate’ state protection.”

Escalona said the case will be fought all over again. He and colleagues are working on it pro bono: “It is a very important topic. It concerns a lot of sensational elements but also human rights and ethics and moral issues,” he said.

Widner declined to comment on the allegations on Wednesday.

A spokesperson for the SPLC distanced the organization from Widner.


“Over a decade ago, SPLC documented this individual and his efforts to leave the white supremacist movement. The organization has not had contact with him for many years. SPLC condemns all acts of violence including physical assault, psychological abuse and coercive control, social abuse, financial abuse, or sexual assault,”

said

Marion Steinfels

.


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