Toronto police sell out sanctuary city

Access to Information request reveals cops conducting thousands of “status checks” on undocumented immigrants, despite “don’t ask” policy


Toronto police are being accused of doing the Canada Border Services Agency’s (CBSA) immigration dirty work – and violating not only council’s “sanctuary city” policy but the force’s own “don’t ask” policy as well. 

According to documents released under the Access To Information Act to migrant justice group No One Is Illegal (NOII) in December, Toronto police called CBSA 4,254 times between November 2014 and October 2015 asking for immigration “status checks” on individuals. 

Toronto police placed another 214 calls dealing with immigration warrants, and 103 about previously deported persons. The Access To Information documents also reveal Toronto police made 152 general database information requests and 47 requests for photos of people with immigration warrants out for them or who may have been previously deported. 

“They’re reporting 100 people a week, which is about 14 people a day,” says NOII member Karl Gardner, who co-authored a report on the data, Often Asking, Always Telling: The Toronto Police Service And The Sanctuary City Policy, which the org submitted to the Police Services Board in January. It’s expected to be tabled at the board’s regularly scheduled meeting later this month, although the matter has already been put off once.

Most worrying for NOII: only 7 per cent of the calls Toronto police made to CBSA turned out to be about persons with outstanding immigrations warrants, “suggesting that TPS officers racially profiled the individuals, and chose to contact CBSA without cause,” says NOII’s report. 

Gardner says that data is backed by testimony the group hears “on a regular basis” about immigrants being harassed by police.

Jared, the victim of a TPS status check who’s referred to by first name only in NOII’s report, recounted one such tale. He went to police as a witness to a crime, and while he was giving TPS his account, they ran his name by the CBSA and discovered an irregularity in his family sponsorship paperwork. Police handed him over to CBSA, and he spent three months at the Immigration Holding Centre before being released, says Gardner. 

Jared was comparatively lucky. He managed to obtain legal counsel. Others, because of overcrowding at the Holding Centre, are often moved to maximum-security provincial institutions or swiftly deported.

NOII says Jared’s case isn’t unusual. Tings Chak, a member of the Migrant Sex Workers Project, says police routinely enter massage parlours and people’s homes on the pretext of enforcing human trafficking laws or city bylaws, but what they’re really looking for are migrant sex workers.

Chak was among about 50 people who rallied outside police headquarters in mid–December calling for the elimination of police status checks. 

Nigel Barriffe, president of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations, likens the practice to carding – the police policy of random spot checks.

He says, “Reporting residents to immigration enforcement based on arbitrary checks and racial profiling is an expression of systemic discrimination and racism, targeting people of colour and immigrants.”

But CBSA spokesperson Antonella DiGirolamo says Toronto police are doing nothing wrong. 

Border officials work closely with police across the country seeking people in violation of the Immigration And Refugee Protection Act, she says. If TPS finds someone with an outstanding immigration warrant, “they are authorized as peace officers to arrest the individual without a warrant.” 

But Toronto police under former chief Bill Blair implemented a “don’t ask” policy in 2007. It stipulates that “victims and witnesses of crime will not be asked their immigration status unless there are bona fide law enforcement reasons to do so.”

Gardner says bona fide reasons extend to situations that involve officer safety or public safety, but that it’s often undocumented immigrants whose refugee claims have been denied and who are waiting for their temporary status to be renewed who get swept up by police.

Is a don’t ask, don’t tell policy feasible? New York City and San Francisco adopted similar policies in the 1980s. But TPS spokesperson Mark Pugash doesn’t think it can work here.

“The law in Canada is clear and does not allow police officers to look the other way, which is essentially what they want police to do.”

As for NOII’s report, Pugash says Chief Mark Saunders “is looking into it. He has concerns about its accuracy and quality. The evidence appears to be non-existent.”

Gardner didn’t expect the report to have much impact on TPS top dogs. That’s why he wrote to the Police Services Board and its chair, Andrew Pringle, in December to demand that cops stop doing federal Immigration’s work. A second letter signed by 30 members of -Toronto’s Latin American community called on the TPS to end racially motivated status checks. 

“We refuse to live in a city where we are constantly being racially profiled because our accent and the colour of our skin gives the TPS suspicion [that] a subject may not have legal status in Canada, resulting in arbitrary status checks,” the letter states. “We are urging you to not do the work of CBSA. Your duty and service is to the people of Toronto.”

More than a month later, Gardner suspects he’s being given the runaround.

Letters delivered to the TPSB are typically included on the agenda of the next meeting. But at the board’s first meeting of the year on January 20, there was no mention of No One Is Illegal’s report. The board did not have time to deal with it -because discussions around Uber and the taxi industry took up most of the time.

Board member Shelley Carroll, city councillor for Don Valley East, denies that the board doesn’t want to take action on the issue. She says Chris Brillinger, executive director of the city’s Social Development, Finance and Administration Division, and Deputy Chief Michael Federico have been assigned to fact-check NOII’s 48-page report.

“There are accusations that are difficult to track, but there are meetings working to get to the -bottom of it,” Carroll offers.

“I’ve asked the chief for more clarification,” Pringle tells NOW. “We have a don’t ask policy, but if we find out something during the course of an investigation, we are required by law to pass it on. So that’s the conundrum. The real question is, are we asking? And as I understand it, the answer is no.” 

Gardner insists that as long as Toronto police behave this way, undocumented residents “will continue to be afraid to walk down the street, take the subway or even contact the police in times of need because they fear being profiled.”

michelled@nowtoronto.com | @michdas

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