Sanctuary sold short?

City eyes municipal I.D. so immigrants and marginalized groups can access services "without fear," but mayor may not be so keen.


The hottest ticket in New York City these days is not for admission to a Broadway show or a new exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art.

Instead, for much of the past three weeks, thousands of New Yorkers have been lining up for hours to get their hands on a new city I.D. card. 

A signature initiative of progressive mayor Bill de Blasio, the cards are designed to make it easier for undocumented immigrants to rent an apartment, open a bank account, interact with police or anything else that can be difficult without proper identification. The program should also benefit other marginalized groups like the homeless. 

In Toronto, where half of residents were born outside the country, a municipal ID is also on the radar after council voted in 2013 to declare Toronto a “Sanctuary City” and guarantee undocumented immigrants “access without fear” to municipal services. A report is expected this spring or summer. But the mayor seems lukewarm. 

Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam believes Toronto needs to seriously consider a municipal I.D. program if it’s to live up to its Sanctuary City title.

“We have a large number of people who are trying to register their children for childcare, want to be able to use health clinics, stay in emergency shelters or somehow need to prove their identity to the police,” she says. “It is extremely helpful when someone can pull out their I.D. card and say, ‘This is who I am.'”

It’s not known how many undocumented immigrants live in Toronto, although the number could be as high as 250,000. Most entered Canada legally but have since outstayed their visas, or have chosen to stay after being denied refugee status.

Prior to the Sanctuary City vote, it was already city policy to provide services to all residents regardless of their immigration status. But advocates for undocumented migrants say the policy isn’t always followed.

A 2013 audit by the Solidarity City Network of 185 city-funded service providers – including childcare centres, homeless shelters and food banks – found that 25 per cent of staff thought that people without immigration status were ineligible for help.

“The problem is inconsistent access. People are being turned away,” says Syed Hussan, a spokesperson for the Solidarity City Network. 

A municipal I.D. program was one of a raft of initiatives the network recommended council adopt or study. Hussan says he hopes New York’s program “serves as a signpost” for Toronto to follow, but he cautions that it’s “not a panacea.”

He says better training for city workers, a complaints process for immigrants who are denied service, and a public education campaign to inform undocumented residents of their rights should also be priorities.

According to a 2014 city report, implementing an ID program here could be difficult. Unlike in New York City, where the municipal government has jurisdiction over everything from education to the correctional system, here the province provides many important services. Unless Queen’s Park also signed on, the I.D. program would have “limited validity,” the report warned.

More importantly, by law the city must retain any personal information it collects from residents for one year and would be legally obligated to share it with other levels of government. That would make undocumented immigrants who applied for the card vulnerable to deportation by federal authorities.

Even if those issues could be addressed, an I.D. card may lack sufficient support at City Hall. During the 2014 election, Mayor John Tory opposed giving undocumented residents the right to vote, a position that suggests he would have little appetite for the I.D. project. Tory declined to comment on the issue, telling NOW through a spokesperson that staff are studying it and he doesn’t want to “pre-empt that process.” 

The proposal could also face a wider backlash. Despite our status as “the most multicultural city in the world,” a series of racist incidents during last year’s council race showed that anti-immigrant sentiment is more prevalent here than we’d like to think.

But Ratna Omidvar, executive director of Maytree Global Diversity Exchange at Ryerson University, says the that a city I.D. wouldn’t make it any easier for undocumented immigrants to stay here illegally.

Instead, she says, guaranteeing undocumented immigrants access to city services “confers on them a basic level of security.”   

bens@nowtoronto.com | @BenSpurr

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