Canada experiments with U.S. ‘sanctuary city’ model

People protested the immigration policies of U.S. President Donald Trump outside the U.S. Consulate in Toronto in January. (arindambanerjee/

The idea of a city serving as a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants goes back nearly 40 years in the United States, where it’s become a symbol of resistance against President Trump’s hardline immigration policies. But does the “sanctuary city” concept translate outside the U. S.?

Montréal is going to find out. Last week, Canada’s second largest city became its third to formally adopt the “sanctuary city” designation. The decision means that municipal services will be available to all residents, regardless of their immigration status. It does not specify whether local police will be directed not to cooperate with national immigration authorities.

The point about police cooperation has been a sticking point for Canadian cities as they follow the lead of more than 200 jurisdictions in the U. S., including New York City and the state of California.

In the U. S. context, sanctuary policies generally mean that local police will not ask a person his or her immigration status, or report a person’s undocumented status to federal law enforcement officials. The Trump Administration has vowed to cut off federal funding to jurisdictions that continue such practices.

But in Canada, a country where multiculturalism is becoming a key part of the national identity, immigration policies are much more welcoming to begin with. That causes some to question whether moves like Montréal’s are even necessary.

After the city council approved the declaration on 20 February, Montréal Mayor Denis Coderre said the city’s public security committee will study how police should respond to the new policy.  Migrants’ rights advocates are encouraging Coderre to direct police explicitly not to cooperate with the Canada Border Services Agency on any actions that could lead to deportation for persons without legal status.

By contrast, a pro-immigration columnist for The Globe and Mail called Coderre’s move “a needless test of Canadian tolerance.” Konrad Yakabuski argued that Canada’s immigration laws — unlike those of the U. S.— function well. Declaring Montréal a sanctuary city, Yakabuski argued, would only “encourage the creation of a permanent underclass of undocumented illegal immigrants” and meddle with the public’s trust in its laws and institutions.

The response suggests that the idea of sanctuary cities may cross the U. S.-Canada border more easily than its practice.

Southern borders

The sanctuary-city idea has roots in Los Angeles. In 1979, the city began prohibiting police officers from holding suspects in order to find out whether or not they have legal status. During the 1980s “Sanctuary Movement”, U. S. religious institutions offered safe haven to Central American refugees fleeing civil war even as the U. S. national government tightened asylum policy.

The term “sanctuary city” later became a slur used by critics who accused certain mayors of being “soft” on illegal immigration. But some mayors came to embrace the term as a symbol of their cities’ welcoming attitudes. Proponents argue that such policies encourage immigrants to cooperate with police in investigations, send their children to public schools, utilize vital public services like healthcare and contribute to society by paying taxes.

[See: Canada has emerged as one of Habitat III’s strongest advocates for vulnerable groups]

U. S. cities have taken this approach in part as a reaction against aggressive deportation efforts by the national government. In the 2012 fiscal year, the federal government deported almost 410,000 people — a statistic that led critics to give President Barack Obama the derisive nickname “deporter-in-chief.” In the 2016 fiscal year, deportations dropped to 240,000.

By comparison, Canada deported just shy of 19,000 people in 2012. That number has since dropped by more than half.

The stark contrast in figures between the neighbouring nations reflects two vastly different scenarios. The U. S. southern border has historically seen large numbers of undocumented migrants from Mexico — although since the 2007-09 recession, net migration of Mexicans into the U. S. has reduced to zero. Large numbers of migrants fleeing violence and poverty in Central America have continued to cross in the U. S. via Mexico, including a wave of unaccompanied minors.

Canada, meanwhile, has its own southern border — with the prosperous U. S., which is rarely the jumping off point for those seeking a better life. Yet in recent weeks, President Trump’s executive order on immigration and follow-up directives to enhance deportation seem to have changed that. Hundreds if not thousands — exact numbers are unclear — of foreign-born individuals residing in the U. S. have crossed the Canadian border illegally. They have trudged through deep winter snow at unfenced borders between Minnesota and Manitoba or Vermont and Québec where they have been greeted by Canadian border patrol.

In the U. S., getting caught at the border means ending up in a prison-like detention center to await a deportation hearing, where the individual would have the right to a lawyer but not to a publicly provided one. In Canada, by contrast, the recent wave of arrivals are processed as “asylum seekers”, a type of legal status that allows them to receive public health care and send their children to school while awaiting a decision on their asylum application.

While the constitutional rights of undocumented migrants is debated in the U. S., there is more certitude in Canada. “The moment a person puts a foot down on Canadian soil, regardless of their status, that person is fully entitled to the protection of our laws under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” says Kim Turner of Cities of Migration, a pro-migration think tank at Ryerson University in Toronto.

‘Work in progress’

Canada’s more welcoming stance toward migrants raises the question of what purpose “sanctuary status” serves there. Coderre specifically cited Trump’s policies as a reason for Montréal’s decision, but U. S. law doesn’t hold sway in Canada. And two other Canadian jurisdictions declared themselves sanctuary cities long before Trump came around. Toronto did it in 2013, as well as Hamilton in 2014. Ottawa, Regina, Saskatoon, Vancouver and Winnipeg are reportedly considering similar moves.

Turner says the current sanctuary-city movement in Canada grew out of informal “don’t ask don’t tell” policies, which meant that city employees would not ask someone their immigration status before offering them services.

But when it comes to policing, specific incidents can prompt a formal stance. Vancouver’s transit police once boasted that they referred more undocumented migrants to the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) than any other local police department in the country — some 300 per year. In 2013, an undocumented Mexican woman detained for not paying a transit fare committed suicide in CBSA’s custody. An outcry ensued, and in a reversal, Vancouver’s transit agency adopted an official “don’t ask don’t tell” policy in 2015.

Toronto’s Access T. O. ordinance codified a longstanding practice that city staff do not ask people their immigration status when engaging with the public. But not all elected officials agree with the stance. Last month, Toronto Mayor John Tory and the city council reaffirmed the city’s sanctuary status in light of Trump’s moves. Tory’s deputy mayor, Denzil Minnan-Wong, declined to join the vote and issued a terse Tweet reflecting the Canadian predicament on the topic: “I support legal immigration. I do not support illegal immigration. We have laws. They should be followed.”

[See: More than half the world’s refugees live in urban areas. Here’s what that means for cities.]

Just days later, criminologists at Ryerson University published a report claiming that the Access T. O. policy has been unevenly applied. The authors called its implementation “diffuse, amorphous and informal, lacking systematic integration,” citing, for example, city-run shelters that ask its users questions about their immigration status. The report also accused the Toronto police department of “flagrantly ignoring” its own “don’t ask don’t tell” policy, which dates from 2007.

By contrast, U. S. police chiefs have largely embraced sanctuary-city policies when adopted in their jurisdictions and have bristled at Trump’s efforts to conscript them into his fight against undocumented migrants.

Turner calls the police adoption of Canadian sanctuary-city policies a “work in progress.” She cautions that implementation is largely unmonitored — hence the outside investigative work by Ryerson — and says “it’s very difficult to know how these policies, which are more aspirational than anything else, are rolled out.”

Inclusive policies

While the sanctuary debate in the U. S. has focused largely on policing, Turner believes the policing issue is ultimately not the point. “Having a sanctuary-city policy isn’t going to change anything,” she says. “What’s really important is the attitudes that those policies are reflective of in the broader population and the kind of programming and services — the kind of implementation — that will make them more than a promise.”

To that end, Turner highlights a wealth of examples from around the world where cities are serving migrant populations well regardless of how immigration laws are enforced nationally. For example, more than a dozen cities in the UK and Ireland have adopted the City of Sanctuary principles developed by grassroots groups in Sheffield to build “a culture of hospitality” for refugees and asylum seekers who have landed in their midst.

Similarly, more than 100 local governments in Australia have pledged to foster “Refugee Welcome Zones” where newcomers are encouraged to share their culture. The U. S. city of New Haven launched an innovative municipal identification programme in 2007 to provide every city resident, even undocumented migrants, with a legal ID in order to make it easier to open a bank account or check out a book from the library. New York City later adopted that programme on a mass scale to serve almost one million people.

Europe, which has dealt with a severe migrant crisis over the past several years, has seen encouraging responses from cities even as European Union nations bicker over how to handle migrants. Mayor Ada Colau of Barcelona and Mayor Manuela Carmena of Madrid opened their arms to migrants and called on volunteers to welcome the newcomers, who responded with offers of housing and language lessons. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo offered migrants facilities vastly improved over France’s squalid refugee camps. The city leaders’ charitable efforts recently earned them a summit on cities’ role in the migration crisis at the Vatican.

[See: Why Pope Francis keeps reaching out to mayors]

Earlier this month, the 2016 World Mayor Prize was given to ten European mayors who have responded proactively and humanely to the flood of migrants. From migrant transit points such as Lesbos, Greece, and Lampedusa, Italy, to final “receiving cities” such as Mechelen, Belgium, and Cologne, Germany, mayors were honoured for having “developed and invested in long-term strategies as well as day-to-day measures to successfully integrate newcomers from different countries and cultures.”

However, there are still examples of current and former mayors who are more hostile to migration. Argentine President Mauricio Macrí, the former mayor of Buenos Aires, has called for a Trump-style ban and border wall. In December, Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba denounced undocumented migrants as “criminals”, a stance credited with fueling recent anti-immigrant violence in South African cities.

But such cases are outliers in Turner’s estimation. Globally, she says, “cities are a bright spot” that offer a counter-narrative to the tragic stories of ships full of refugees sinking and bodies washing up on Mediterranean beaches.

”It’s because they understand what immigrants bring to their communities and how important they are to the local economy,” Turner says. “Cities have had so much success with immigration. We need to see a greater voice for them up the policy ladder at the national level.”

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Gregory Scruggs is a senior correspondent for Citiscope. Full bio

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