n paper seven municipalities across Canada have adopted sanctuary city policies, but a recent report describes a "fraught reality on the ground" as local governments struggle to fulfill these commitments.
Starting with Toronto in 2013, local governments in seven municipalities across Canada have committed to offering universal access to city services despite a person's immigration status. Hamilton followed in 2014, then Vancouver in 2016, Ajax in 2017 and Edmonton, London and Montreal in 2018.
Yet, according to “Canadian Sanctuary Policies in Context” in the Journal of Canadian Public Administration, in Vancouver, "most municipal services still requested identification that ran counter to the city sanctuary policy."
In Toronto, requiring an applicant's immigration status for the child care subsidy was only removed this past February, following media inquiries about it. Currently, the city's website shows that immigration status is a requirement to qualify for some services including a basic needs allowance for shelter residents and financial assistance from Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program.
With the exception of Hamilton, the report finds municipalities don't explicitly commit to "limiting collaboration with immigration enforcement and generally do not include efforts to petition the national government for extended rights for precarious immigrants."
Published in August, the report is the first to compare policies across all municipalities. It states that one of the issues preventing cities from enacting meaningful sanctuary policies is that municipal governments "lack constitutional jurisdiction over immigration and criminal law, while also suffering from chronic underfunding" from their provincial and federal counterparts.
That has led to "spotty" implementation of these policies which, at the best of times, have yielded "limited results."
There are approximately 500,000 undocumented people across Canada, and at least 1.2 million people on temporary work, study or refugee claimant permits issued each year, according to the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change. About half of those undocumented people reside in Toronto. But even with nine new faces, Toronto's council will still lack jurisdictional power to effectively help them.
The report goes on to state that "Canadian local governments' policies do not provide protection from immigration enforcement and do not limit local police forces' collaboration with immigration agencies, nor do they allude to open contestations of national immigration policies."
So, why do it?
Response to federal shortcomings
The sanctuary policies report notes two main drivers behind these policies.
The authors argue that as cities are considered the "economic engines" of states, they are constantly under pressure to bring in talent from abroad. This has led cities to try to increase urban competitiveness by appearing more "inclusive" and "progressive."
On the other hand, years of federal devolution "in a host of policy areas such as affordable housing, transportation, and health care" — partly to cut costs — have pressured municipalities to fill in the gaps "through more sophisticated forms of policymaking and design."
Dr. Harald Bauder is a Toronto Metropolitan University professor and the project director of the Urban Sanctuary, Migrant Solidarity and Hospitality in Global Perspective partnership. While he agrees there's some performative symbolism to municipalities adopting these policies, there are certain services — like access to health, education and public spaces — that local governments are generally better equipped to deal with than their federal and provincial counterparts.
Bauder adds, "It does seem that municipalities, through their sanctuary city declarations and policies, are responding to the shortcomings of federal immigration policies."
'No choice at all'
These shortcomings in immigration policies create a multitude of risks to people’s status. A study from the Toronto Metropolitan University looking at "The State of Knowledge Concerning Canada’s Irregular Population" describes five ways that current immigration policies can cause people to lose their status. Of these, insufficient pathways to permanent residence is a salient example, as it most significantly impacts temporary foreign workers (TFWs).
The study finds that despite being "essential for the wellbeing of Canada’s economy," TFWs face a "heightened chance of status loss." Additionally, it states that a "lack of clear rules and information continue to be a reason why TFWs fall into irregular status, or remain in precarious status, even when eligibility for PR is broadened.”
For instance, of the 2,750 available spaces for the Agri-Food Pilot launched in 2020, only 343 applications were received as of August 2021. The TMU study attributes that to "application fees, cost of legal assistance, and various eligibility criteria [that] often make these programs de facto inaccessible even for eligible applicants." Though policies like these are ostensibly designed to provide opportunities to TFWs, the implementation lacks awareness of what the population needs to access them.
Syed Hussan, the executive director of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, says low-wage and racialized workers are most directly affected because while "most temporary permits — whether a work permit, study permit, or refugee claimant permit — are their only gateways to Canada," they "expire and cannot be replaced."
"The only choice — which is no choice at all — is living in Canada without any status or returning to a country that you may not be able to live in," Hussan said during a recent press conference.
In this context, the authors argue, municipalities may adopt sanctuary city policies to both address "stopgaps (in immigration policy) with emergency measures" while also situating themselves as important players to "receive more policy support and funding."
False sense of security
The danger of implementing these policies despite their jurisdictional limitations, warns Bauder, is that municipalities can inadvertently give those who are undocumented or have precarious status a "false sense of security," especially with the level of autonomy police have to collaborate with immigration authorities.
In Toronto, for instance, studies in 2015 and 2017 showed that the Toronto Police Service has not only failed to comply with sanctuary city policies but actively collaborated with the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) via immigration status checks.
The sanctuary policies report says that's because local governments cannot "command but only suggest" what local police forces can do.
Bauder says while "it's better than not having a declaration or policies," critical improvements need to be made, including adding more staff to newcomer centres and more resources to train them to go "beyond collaboration with the police."
Full status for all
Ultimately, despite its limitations, Bauder says the sanctuary city movement goes beyond the "top-down approach" local governments and politicians tend to take.
At the grassroots level, "where people are really familiar with the problems of non-status people and vulnerable newcomers," activists' demands are simple yet unwavering: full status for all.
"That actually comes to the core of what a sanctuary city is: not making distinctions between who has what kind of immigration status and who is a citizen," he says. "The [sanctuary] city says, 'if you live here, you're one of us.'"
In September, Hussan and thousands of demonstrators took to the streets across the country to demand a comprehensive regularization program that includes full status for the estimated 500,000 undocumented people and over 1.2 million migrant workers, students, refugees and families in the country with precarious status.
Hussan noted that 23 of the 26 member nations of the European Union have implemented such regularization programs. Additionally, over 480 civil society organizations representing over 1 million members have endorsed the demand for full and permanent immigrant status in Canada.
"We don't need small and temporary pathways. We need comprehensive and inclusive regularization," says Hussan. "Only then can we even begin to address the problem."