As the feds hint at a clampdown on churches providing sanctuary to refugees under deportation threat, a network of local orgs is pushing in exactly the opposite direction. A campaign called Don't Ask, Don't Tell asks the city to buck the policies of senior governments and strengthen its commitment to helping illegal immigrants. In particular, activists want the city to prohibit municipal workers, including police, from inquiring about the status of those seeking services and from sharing the info with federal or provincial agencies.
Mayor David Miller himself says he supports the principle that all residents should have access to services. "The general policy in our administration is that, unless legally obliged, city workers do not ask about immigration status,' he tells NOW.
The catch, of course, is the phrase "legally obliged.' And that's exactly where the network of women's shelters, legal clinics and immigrant and refugee rights advocates thinks it's time the city got more combative.
That's certainly what many American cities have done. According to Joan Friedland, a staff attorney at the National Immigration Law Center in Washington, DC, over two dozen U.S. cities have implemented some form of don't ask, don't tell policy.
Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia ensure equal access to all city services. San Diego, Houston and Seattle oppose singling out a person for law enforcement based on his or her immigration status. Some places have enacted the policy as a budgetary rule forbidding the use of municipal resources to enforce federal immigration laws. And Cambridge, Massachusetts, has declared itself a "sanctuary" for undocumented immigrants. Many of these municipalities have brought in the policies in defiance of federal laws.
Says Amy Casipullai, policy coordinator at the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants, it's not surprising that local governments see the social costs of not providing services so clearly. If people are afraid to send their kids to school, to get vaccinated or to call the police when they are victims of crime, then the entire community suffers, she says.
In Canada, the main legal obstacle to a don't ask, don't tell policy is that cities are, constitutionally, creatures of the province. Still, this subordination is increasingly being challenged, and Canadian courts are moving in the direction of recognizing the right of cities to enact bylaws, like our anti-pesticide bylaw, to protect the safety of their communities.
Caring for those in legal limbo has become an expensive problem for T.O., though the actual numbers are mostly unattainable. According to York University sociologist Luin Goldring, estimates across the country range from 20,000 to 200,000. In general, it must be said that Toronto tends to rank high on the compassion scale. The city provides many services to non-status residents, including public health.
According to Dr. Rita Shahin, acting director of communicable disease control, "We provide services to everyone. If someone needs medical care (not provided by public health), we can help them find it."
The province provides community health clinics, though the waiting lists are long and the services not comprehensive. Non-status immigrants can also use the city's homeless shelters. But here's where the shadow of the feds' Citizenship and Immigration department looms - it's really hard for a person to leave the shelter system if he or she is here illegally.
As Anne Longair, the city's director of hostel services, points out, "Most people require income assistance, which they cannot access without having legal status or having started the process to apply for legal status."
The province, according to Anne Machowski-Smith of the Ministry of Community and Social Services, is bound by an information-sharing agreement with Immigration to verify the status of welfare applicants. And under provincial law, most non-status immigrants are not eligible.
Says Avvy Go, director of the Metro Toronto Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic, "The fact that information is being passed on to Immigration means that it precludes some people from applying for social assistance for fear of being reported.'
And under the province's Social Housing Reform Act, the city has to ask about the status of everyone in the household. If one person in the family isn't legal, the entire family is shut out, a policy disdained by many frontline workers. Kathleen Blinkhorn, the city's director of social housing, says Toronto has communicated to the province "concerns regarding (its) inability to allow certain people (into social housing).'
Education involves a whole other set of challenges for those aiming to protect the rights of illegals. Under section 49.1 of the Education Act, Ontario schools are required to admit all children whose parents are "unlawfully in Canada." Section 30 of the federal Immigration And Refugee Protection Act says the same thing, according to Maria Iardinardi of Immigration Canada. And so does the policy of the Toronto district school board. You might think this would be the end of the matter.
But according to Martha Mackinnon of the Justice for Children and Youth Legal Clinic, "about 100" children were denied access to Toronto schools in September 2003. "We took action. To our knowledge, every one was admitted," she says.
At the board of ed, trustee Bruce Davis acknowledges that not all schools have gotten the message. "Unfortunately, I think we need more work on implementation, especially at a local school level."
Immigration's heavy hand also shows up in policing. While the Immigration And Refugee Protection Act does not compel officers to ask about a person's citizenship, they are nevertheless required to report to the federal department if they learn anything of concern.
"There is nothing that compels them to ask about the immigration status of individuals involved in any criminal matter. But if any information comes to their attention, they are then bound to tell us," says Huguette Shouldice of the Canada border services agency.
The effect, say women's rights advocates, is that non-status immigrant women are afraid to turn to law enforcers when they are victims of domestic violence. "Women without status are the most vulnerable to abuse," says Cindy Cowan, executive director of Nellie's. Abusers, she says, exert control over their victims by threatening to have them deported. A city policy barring the police from asking about legal status, she says, "would take the fear away and enable women to get the support they need."
But the province, it seems, has washed its hands of any control over this matter. Bruce O'Neill, a spokesperson for Monte Kwinter, solicitor general of Ontario, says a decision by the police to inquire about immigration status is "entirely an operational matter" and does not fall within the jurisdiction of his ministry.
This despite the fact that Amnesty International's Alex Neve calls on the solicitor general to ensure that all women, "regardless of their immigration status," feel safe turning to the police.
It's easy to see how the city's hands are tied. But one way out may lie in existing privacy legislation, as New York has discovered. Some legal experts look to developing challenges in this area to save the city from having to snitch. According to lawyer Brian Iler, an expert in privacy law, "Immigration status is personal information and should only be requested where it is necessary to provide the service."