Toronto has moved a step closer to becoming a "Sanctuary City" for undocumented immigrants.
On Thursday, councillors approved a review of city policy to ensure that people living here illegally can access services without fear of being reported to immigration authorities.
"I think this is a historic moment," said Councillor Joe Mihevc after the vote. "We're saying we are a ‘Sanctuary City,' and that anyone who is in the City of Toronto will be able to access all the services that the City of Toronto offers.
"That's the kind of city that we want. We want to open our arms to anyone who comes here. While they're here, mi casa es su casa."
The lopsided 37-3 vote elicited cheers from yellow-shirted immigrant rights activists in the gallery, dozens of whom crowded into the chamber earlier in the day.
Syed Hussan of the Solidarity City Network said that council had sent a message to undocumented residents that they shouldn't be afraid to seek out services that are essential to their wellbeing.
He said that the council vote had united undocumented people, who are often forced to struggle on the margins of society.
"We're going to tell ourselves that when we fight, we win, and we'll keep fighting," Syed said.
It is already city policy to provide most services to any Toronto resident, regardless of their immigration status. Staff are prohibited from asking for immigration papers when providing access to things like childcare, libraries, food banks, homeless outreach, public health programs, after-school recreation, and housing assistance.
But supporters of the new initiative say that the current policy is not as effective as it could be because it's not always followed by staff and undocumented residents aren't aware of it.
Thursday's vote sets in motion an internal review of city divisions to find "opportunities to improve access without fear."
Staff is expected to report back to the community development and recreation committee in the fall with a plan that would include training for managers and front-line workers, a complaints protocol, and a public education strategy. Supporters say it will result in a more robust version of current policy.
However, the new policy would not change access to services that by law require proof of immigration status, such as welfare and rent-geared-to-income housing.
As part of the package approved Thursday, council also asked the federal government to create a "regularization program," and for Queen's Park to ensure adequate access to provincial services.
While the proposal passed easily, it provoked strong resistance from a handful of council members . In a inciendiary speech (full text below) that elicited shouts of "shame" from some of his colleagues, Denzil Minnan-Wong accused many undocumented migrants of being welfare cheats who "flout our laws and laugh at us."
"Their first stop is the welfare office... They want to go to the office where they say they can get ‘the free money,'" said Minnan-Wong, who worked as an immigration lawyer before being elected to council.
"Madam chair, undocumented workers - illegal immigrants - are subject to removal orders and deportation orders," he continued. "They should be removed, we should not encourage them, we should not help them, we should not facilitate them."
Minnan-Wong tabled a motion to support federal policy, including "the removal of illegal immigrants." It failed 8-32.
Afterwards, Councillor Paula Fletcher said that some of the language used during the debate had "a racist edge."
"This notion that people are just cheating is a terrible notion. And when you permeate society with that, you can really have some terrible backlash. Look at Europe," she said.
There are anywhere between 20,000 and 500,000 undocumented immigrants in Canada, with up to 50 per cent of them living Toronto, according to one study. Most find jobs in the agricultural, hospitality, and domestic sectors, or in Toronto's booming construction industry. City staff say they contribute to the economy and pay taxes, through HST and property taxes collected on rent.
Many arrive with valid visas as temporary workers or students, but remain in the country after they lose their jobs or their visas expire.
It's common for residents without legal status to avoid any contact with government officials, for fear that they will be turned in to border services and be deported.
Advocates say that this means they don't seek out medical help or employment protection, and refuse to speak to the police, meaning they are at increased risk for health problems, exploitation, and crime.