Liew: Here’s why arguments against sanctuary cities are wrong

C8LSdcVUQAQeNBECoun. Catherine McKenney released a report on what it would mean to make Ottawa a “Sanctuary City,” a designation meant to ensure undocumented migrants can access services regardless of their immigration status and without being reported to Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), the federal body that enforces immigration laws.

It means that people can use services without fear of being detained or deported.

The report was debated at the Community and Protective Services Meeting at City Hall last week. The discussion revealed three concerns that hold no water.

The first concern is that the city does not have the legal power to direct police to change how they interact with undocumented migrants. But sanctuary city policies do not call for the city to impose policies or direct the police. As well, the Police Services Act establishes that every police force be governed by a civilian board which has the power to “establish policies for the effective management of the police board.” City councilors sit on these boards.

It is entirely permissible for council to request a police services board review policies to ensure they are in line with the principles of the sanctuary city designation or direct councillors on the board to raise the issue of compliance.

Second, skeptics question whether there is a need for this designation in Ottawa. Measuring the need ignores the fact that undocumented migrants live in the shadows and do not want to become known to any authority. No person without status will risk detention or deportation by calling 911, or reporting complaints to civilian complaint mechanisms. This fear results in persons avoiding interactions with municipal services even if there is little risk.

As an immigration and refugee lawyer, I am constantly asked by clients about the possibility of being questioned about their status, detained and removed from Canada whenever they need to obtain a vital document for their immigration applications – such as a criminal record check. I can never assure them they will avoid the consequences, and yet every time, I implore them to obtain the documents vital to their applications. They are in a Catch-22.

Overwhelmingly, 27 women’s organizations, including shelters for women fleeing violence, have called for Ottawa to institute sanctuary city policies. Those who work on the front lines and are knowledgeable about the lived experiences of undocumented migrants – community health groups, immigrant service providers – support this effort.

Third, some are concerned that sanctuary city policies allow people to evade the law. It does not give immunity to those who commit crimes and immigration law still applies. Sanctuary city policies place a preference on federal officers and agencies to enforce this law, not municipal workers or local police.

There are a variety of complicated reasons why a person may not have status at any particular time. In most cases, the lack of status is temporary, and a person is in transition or preparing a viable application to obtain status. Just as people fall into and out of work, most people do not want precariousness but stability in their lives.

Police and other city staff may not be familiar with the various applications of immigration law on a particular person and therefore may inappropriately rely on other tools, such as racial profiling, to help them make decisions regarding the enforcement of immigration law.

Finally, the cost of implementing a “Sanctuary City” designation is marginal given the humanitarian, compassionate and practical need for this policy. Yes, taxpayers will have to pay for the city to review and put together a policy, but the city is already engaged in policy review and creation on a daily basis.

As well, safety in our community for everyone means that we provide safe avenues for persons to report a crime or ask for emergency health services – this includes scenarios where a migrant may be doing so to protect you and me.

Jamie Liew is an immigration and refugee lawyer and a professor of law at the University of Ottawa.

Ottawa Citizen editorial available here.