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City to Explore “Access Without Fear” Policy for Undocumented Residents

Toronto will consider becoming a sanctuary city.

130221 Solidarity City 01

Members of the Solidarity City Network show support for undocumented workers at city council. Photo courtesy of Solidarity City Network.

Toronto City Council has decided, after a fraught debate yesterday, to learn how it can remove barriers undocumented workers face when trying to access municipal services, and become what’s sometimes called a “sanctuary city.”

By a vote of 37-3, they’ve asked staff to compile a set of recommendations that would “ensur[e] access to services without fear to immigrants without full status or without full status documents.” If councillors endorse that report when they get it later this year, they will be formally deciding that residents should have access to municipal services regardless of their immigration status. Council also voted to ask the federal government to create a regularization program for people without status.

In practice, most municipal programs and services already guarantee undocumented residents access without having to disclose their immigration status. You can, for instance, obtain a library card by showing proof of name and address—a utility bill counts—and access many other services without being asked for documentation. However, the City has no formal policy to protect undocumented residents, which means that right now many Torontonians without status refrain from using services available to them—food banks, police services, schools, shelters, recreation services—because they fear that when they hit those formal points of contact with the government they’ll risk detention or deportation by federal border officials.

In their background report on the issue [PDF] City staff cited research showing that undocumented residents “suffer from high levels of anxiety, depression, chronic stress, and stress related physical illnesses.” Parents fear sending their children to school, and those who need medical or public health services endanger themselves to remain underground.

Dozens of members of the Solidarity City Network, a collective of residents advocating for regularization of undocumented people, celebrated the decision inside the council chambers. “I think it’s a great show of what community organizing can do,” said Tzazna Miranda, a spokesperson from the network. “The only way we’re going to get changes is if our communities are standing strong and keep councillors to what they promised today.”

Councillor Joe Mihevc (Ward 21, St. Paul’s) called the sanctuary city decision “a historic moment.” During the debate, many councillors from across the political spectrum gave emotional speeches, citing their own families’ immigration stories and arguing that Toronto is a city shaped by the strength of its immigrant communities—and that, importantly, except for First Nations residents we all were immigrants at one point.

Mihevc suggested the vote makes protections for undocumented residents official City policy, though things aren’t quite that far along—council will still need to vote to accept the recommendations once they’ve been presented. Those recommendations will include more specific guidelines for increasing access, and a plan for training front-line City workers to ensure access policies are publicized and followed.

Poor staff training can blunt efforts to make services accessible to all residents. A 2010 study conducted by Social Planning Toronto revealed that even though provincial rules guarantee access to education regardless of status, Toronto Catholic District School Board staff regularly asked for documentation or denied admission to residents they thought were undocumented.

Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong (Ward 34, Don Valley East) is one of the most vocal opponents of the sanctuary city policy. Yesterday he condemned “illegal immigrants” for failing to maintain legal status and proposed that council assist the federal government in removing undocumented people from the city. “They should be removed, we should not encourage them, we should not help them, we should not facilitate them,” Minnan-Wong said during debate. “They are an insult to every immigrant who played by the rules to get into this country.”

Any municipal access without fear policies will still have to respect existing provincial and federal laws. For example, people without status are restricted from accessing provincial welfare and disability support programs, as well as federal employment insurance benefits (even when these are administered by the City).

undocumented worker rates

Data from Citizenship and Immigration Canada, 2012, as presented in a report by the City of Toronto.

People in Toronto usually become undocumented after entering the country legally, then staying when their temporary work permits or student visas expire. The federal government has steadily increased the nation’s supply of temporary migrants in recent years, and they now arrive to Toronto in greater numbers than permanent residents do. Other residents become undocumented by remaining in Canada after they fail to achieve refugee status. Governments cannot keep reliable statistics on individuals living without documentation: City staff say the number of undocumented Torontonians could be as low as 20,000 and as high as 500,000.

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