The city as sanctuary

Has Trump emboldened a Canadian movement for migrant justice?
September 1, 2017

Detail from Monitor Trump cover September-October 2017

Illustration by Amy Thompson

At the end of June, members of the Ottawa Sanctuary City Network organized a small feast in an open-air boardroom off downtown’s Somerset Street. The mood was festive and relaxed. There were no big speeches or PowerPoint presentations about the group’s goals and aspirations. Just a buffet of delicious Caribbean and Middle Eastern food, moving spoken word performances from local artists, and good conversation. It felt like a celebration, which was a bit odd, given that only a few weeks earlier city hall had rejected the idea of declaring Ottawa a sanctuary city.

What’s that, you ask? At heart, sanctuary cities are places where all residents, regardless of their immigration status, can feel safe and secure accessing city services—from going for a swim to taking out a library book to calling the police to report a crime. There are about 400 sanctuary jurisdictions (cities, counties and states) in the U.S. and hundreds more in the U.K. Most of these places commit to not asking for a person’s status or sharing that information with federal border agents if they happen upon it in the course of providing a service. Sanctuary is therefore sometimes referred to as a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

The sanctuary movement predates Donald Trump by many decades, and it will outlive his presidency. But there is no doubting that the anti-immigrant rhetoric and legislation coming out of his administration has underlined the urgency of protecting some of the world’s most vulnerable people—undocumented migrants—from the excesses of state power. In Canada, politicians at all levels of government have gone out of their way to express how different they are—and their cities are—to Trump. Toronto, which declared itself a sanctuary city in 2013, very publicly reaffirmed this status earlier this year. Montreal and London (Ontario) followed suit. And many more Canadian cities are considering the designation.

But not Ottawa. Actually, Ottawa city council appeared to bury the idea for good, and in the rudest way possible, when the sanctuary policy was brought up for debate in March. Despite seven hours of supportive testimony, from two dozen organizations that work with members of the city’s undocumented population, a majority on the city committee concluded there was not enough evidence of a problem for which a sanctuary policy would be the solution.

Failure? On the contrary—migrant rights activists say it could be a helpful dose of reality for a country tipsy on Canadian exceptionalism. Ottawa’s non-status residents are, in fact, no worse off than in Toronto, where the city’s sanctuary policy may just put a progressive veneer overtop of continued police co-operation with federal border agents. “On a number of levels it (the Toronto sanctuary designation) communicates to the general public and to people who might be needing to access certain [city services] that they are safer than they really are,” says Karen Cocq, an Ottawa Sanctuary City Network organizer. “In effect, it’s a trap.”

And yet, despite the clear limitations of such symbolic gestures from Canadian municipalities, the sanctuary movement strives on. As several migrant justice activists would tell me while researching this story, the local debate about sanctuary policy is an ideal place to talk about the bigger failings and inequities of Canadian immigration policy. What’s more, it has the potential to bring too-often disconnected communities together in common cause—against the violence of modern-day borders, and in support of justice for today’s growing and increasingly precarious migrant populations.

Migration and displacement

“No one leaves their home unless / home is the mouth of a shark,” wrote the Kenyan-born Somali poet, writer and educator Warsan Shire in her 2015 poem, Home. “You only run for the border / when you see the whole city / running as well.” Shire’s words were aimed at her now native England, where the flames of anti-immigrant hatred, always strong in the U.K., had been fanned by the Brexit campaign. But they will resonate, too, with many Canadians who opened their homes to Syrian refugees. Shire’s poem emphasizes how difficult the migrant experience is, and that the preference for home is universal. “You have to understand / that no one puts their children in a boat / unless the water is safer than the land.”

Almost every day we read another story of forced displacement around the globe. In July, African teenagers seeking a better life were thrown overboard off the coast of Yemen. The youth move to the Middle Eastern country to find jobs and escape an unbearable situation at home, many not realizing a civil war is raging at the destination. Since 2014, that war has displaced nearly three million people; almost 15 million have lost access to clean water and sanitation, leading to a massive outbreak of cholera affecting 300,000 people. Some of these migrants will join others fleeing war and impoverishment in Syria, Libya, Afghanistan and Central Africa. They will make the hard choice of putting their children on a boat for Europe.

In Latin America, men, women and children have for decades looked to the United States as a stable refuge—from civil wars frequently stoked by the U.S., or the violent fallout from the war on drugs, or perhaps most frequently to escape a life of poverty due to a lack of economic opportunities. For decades, U.S. border guards and immigration officials have sought to capture and remove as many of these newcomers as possible. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) records well over 2.7 million deportations over the course of former president Obama’s eight-year term. The Democrat outdid his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, in this respect, earning Obama the moniker “deporter in chief.”

President Trump, now gunning for the title himself, has said he wants to deport all undocumented people in the United States with a criminal record. He calls these estimated millions of people “bad dudes” in media soundbites, and referred to Mexicans in particular as “rapists” during the election campaign. But according to a 2014 New York Times report, two-thirds of Obama’s deportees (the former president called them “criminals “and “gang-bangers”) were actually “people who had committed minor infractions, including traffic violations, or had no criminal record at all.” Only 20% had committed serious crimes, and statistics consistently show that first-generation migrants are much less likely to commit a crime than their naturalized, full-status neighbours.

In Trump’s first 100 days he passed executive orders targeting migrants from Muslim-majority countries, promising to build a wall along the entire U.S.-Mexico border, expanding immigration detention facilities, expediting the removal of undocumented people, and defunding police work in sanctuary cities.

“If you’re in this country illegally and you committed a crime by being in this country, you should be uncomfortable, you should look over your shoulder. You need to be worried. No population is off the table,” said Thomas Homan, acting ICE director, during a congressional hearing in June. He was referring to people who have been in the country in some cases for years, who have children and jobs, friends and family who depend on them, and new lives. (Note how, according to the ICE director, simply being in the country without papers constitutes a deportable offence.)

 Protesters in U.S. against migrant deportations.

Protesters outside an ICE office in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in May 2014 (Photo by Joe Brusky).

Since the post-9/11 Bush years, ICE has illegally raided people’s homes and workplaces, sometimes without a warrant or by pretending to be local police, “with little regard for constitutional principles or violations,” according to the Immigrant Defence Project. “ICE relies on widespread surveillance and deception to arrest people outside of their homes, on the street, in the courts and in government-run spaces like homeless shelters…. ICE’s unchecked zeal to target, arrest, and deport immigrants with convictions not only destroys families and communities, but also reinforces the inequalities of the criminal legal system upon which many of its policies rest.”

Though they are not perfect, U.S. sanctuary jurisdictions have, until now, offered some protection from the zealots at ICE and in the White House.

Given Trump’s warning that he is no longer prepared to tolerate sanctuary, it’s not surprising how many more undocumented people in the United States are looking to Canada for refuge. Hundreds of people risked life and limb to cross into Manitoba and Quebec by foot this winter, some of them possibly encouraged by Trudeau’s tweet on January 28: “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada.” In July, hundreds of Haitian residents in the U.S. also chose to flee to Canada when Trump announced their temporary residency permits (issued following Haiti’s 2010 earthquake) were about to expire.

All of these migrants likely believed their chances were better in Canada. Surely a country whose prime minister greets Syrian refugees at the airport and tweets about diversity as a strength would welcome them when Trump’s America was chasing them away. Unfortunately, real sanctuary is a long way off in Canada. There are classes of people here, too, with different rights, different levels of access to services, and just as few legal options when immigration officials come at them with deportation orders.

There are people here, in other words, who could also use some sanctuary from the state.

The evolution of sanctuary

The idea of sanctuary has ancient and medieval roots in pagan and Christian tradition. But as a practice, offering a safe harbor for people fleeing capital punishment, runaway slaves, and others facing persecution by the state, sanctuary transcends religious boundaries. According to the faith-based Canadian Sanctuary Network, which provides support to places of worship wanting to offer sanctuary to house failed refugee claimants, the concept is grounded in two items of faith: that human life is sacred and worthy of protection; and that there are places and spaces beyond the reach of the state.

Today, the sanctuary movement in Canada is broader-based, but the premise is the same: if churches can organize to provide sanctuary to people they believe the state has no right to expel, why not entire cities? In many ways, the Canadian sanctuary movement follows the U.S. example. But there are important differences between the Canadian and American campaigns related to unique local contexts, social movement organizing, political opportunities and economic realities.

Jennifer Ridgley, a Carleton University political geographer who is active in the Ottawa Sanctuary City Network, has researched the U.S. sanctuary movement extensively, and more broadly state practices of border security and migration management. Over coffee in Ottawa, she explains how the first sanctuary policy in the U.S. came out of the Vietnam War. It was passed in 1971 by the city of Berkeley, California, in solidarity with U.S. soldiers aboard the USS Coral Reef who were refusing to fight what they believed to be an unjust war. Berkeley’s support for the brave actions of a few hundred soldiers became a model for all subsequent U.S. sanctuary city policies.

In the 1980s, the U.S. experienced large inward migration of Latin Americans fleeing civil conflicts that were in many cases supported or even sparked by U.S. Cold War interventions. In Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua, the U.S. either provided covert or overt support to topple left-wing governments or suppress opposition to U.S.-backed right-wing regimes. Hundreds of thousands were killed; in some ways the region has never fully recovered.

The U.S. government responded by deporting large numbers of these refugees; in their cynical logic, accepting the claims as legitimate would have delegitimized the government’s foreign policy in the region. A movement of church groups, led by priests and pastors who had embraced the ideas of liberation theology on visits to Latin America, stepped up to offer the refugees sanctuary. As a result, they were targeted by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (now Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE for short), spied on, and in some cases prosecuted and jailed for their actions.

By the mid-1980s, many cities and a few states had declared themselves sanctuaries. One of the best (and oldest) sanctuary city policies, according to Ridgley, was passed by San Francisco. In 1985, city council first passed a largely symbolic policy that affirmed the rights of refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala after experiencing “an intense period of immigration law enforcement in the city, particularly targeting Latino communities,” she says. They didn’t want to be implicated in the deportation of people who had become an important part of the city’s culture and economy. As the crackdowns continued and intensified, in 1989 San Francisco entrenched sanctuary into the city’s administrative code, giving it “a little bit more substance,” says Ridgley.

Throughout the 1990s things only got more complicated for sanctuary cities as immigration law enforcement was localized under the first and second Bush administrations, and by former president Clinton in between. Especially after the September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, police and other local service providers were being implicated in border enforcement. Canadian co-operation with the U.S. government on security matters also intensified post-9/11, which produced things like the Safe Third Country Agreement (see article on page 24), the creation of cross-border threat assessment and immigration enforcement teams, and increased information sharing related to policing and immigration. In general we can say that Canadian and U.S. border enforcement policy is more alike than it is different.

“That has made sanctuary cities policies more contentious, but also potentially more important,” says Ridgley. For example, in Canada, “social service providers, local police and other actors have become more involved in checking people’s immigration status, sometimes through ways that aren’t necessarily obvious.” That can include checking a person’s status to determine eligibility for a particular program—even though there is no legal requirement to do so.

“That has huge implications for people living in a city like Ottawa, because if people believe that local police are acting as de facto immigration agents, for example, victims or witnesses of crime are less likely to contact the police,” Ridgley explains. “Those fears are real. And when you start looking into these incidents, these moments that create fear and anxiety for migrant communities, it reveals something about the unfairness of the way services are offered.”

Syed Hussan, a migrant justice activist and a veteran of the campaign to make Toronto a sanctuary city, says those fears are backed up by experience. In Canada, local police forces regularly help the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) in ways that blur legal boundaries.

In August 2014, the Ontario Provincial Police, along with officials from the Ministry of Transportation and CBSA, used the cover of a routine traffic safety stop to arrest 21 people they claimed to be in violation of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. These other levels of government “provide cover for the CBSA to carry out its activities that would otherwise be illegal,” says Hussan.

Racially based “carding” policies, where police stop and ask people (usually people of colour) for their ID, is also conflating immigration enforcement and municipal policing duties. “We know Toronto police calls immigration enforcement 100 times a week because the officer is suspicious the person they’re talking to is a non-citizen,” Hussan says.

In the United States, sanctuary policies are accepted by many police forces as the price of doing their jobs. With so many undocumented people living in the U.S. and, importantly, contributing to the economy, “there is a clear notion that we can’t deport everyone,” according to Hussan. Also, police need to reach out to undocumented people in criminal cases (as witnesses, for example), which is less likely to happen if those people fear they will be deported as a result of co-operating. Police motivations for supporting sanctuary policies may not be completely humanitarian, but they can provide a bulwark against federal overreach.

At the same time, such arguments lend themselves to counter-attacks from anti-immigration groups claiming that undocumented people are more likely to be criminals themselves. In the summer of 2015, the now disgraced Fox talk show host Bill O’Reilly ranted against sanctuary cities almost daily after a white woman (Kathryn Steinle) was killed in San Francisco by a stray bullet from an undocumented man. Trump used the moment to his advantage. As MSNBC reported at the time, his “hardline position on immigration deeply resonated with conservative voters, and within a week of Steinle’s death, Trump’s poll numbers shot up to put him at the top of a crowded field of Republican candidates.”

No matter how solidly the data disproves this myth of the criminal migrant, supporters of sanctuary policies can get stuck in numbers games with politicians and other opponents, which distracts from the bigger picture. In her recent book, Sanctuary City: A Suspended State, author Jennifer Bagelman of the University of Victoria points out how asylum applicants in the U.K. are also often treated as “criminals before the crime.” The implication is that asylum seekers must be coming here to take advantage of us somehow—otherwise they would have used the so-called proper channels.

In Canada, Quebec’s far-right group La Meute made such claims openly and brashly during an anti-immigration rally in Quebec City at the end of August. "We think the RCMP should be upholding the law, not carrying the suitcases of illegal immigrants," Sylvain Brouillette, the group's chief spokesperson, told CBC News. The rally was just one of several anti-immigrant and anti-Islam events held in cities across Canada over the summer.

Trump and the symbolic gesture

Given this long bipartisan record of heavy-handed, not to mention counter-productive border policy, you could reasonably ask if Trump changes the equation much at all. But the president’s threats, and plans by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to block funding for local policing in cities that don’t fully co-operate with the Department of Justice and border agencies, are a real danger.

This summer, Chicago, California and San Francisco joined a group of jurisdictions suing the federal government for attempts to condition police funding on the removal of sanctuary policies—a move they claim to be unconstitutional. Some U.S. states, however, have used the moment to crack down on their own cities that are refusing to toe the president’s line. Texas, for example, has introduced legislation that could lead to police officers being jailed for abiding by sanctuary policies, such as by ignoring ICE requests to check a person’s status on arrests for driving infractions and other minor crimes. Miami-Dade County in Florida has already changed its immigration policies to comply with Trump’s orders.

In response, many Canadian politicians at all levels, no doubt legitimately alarmed by Trump’s anti-immigration measures, are finding high-profile ways to try to portray their city, province, or Canada generally as truly welcoming, tolerant and open spaces. Montreal’s mayor, Denis Coderre, rallied councillors to support a sanctuary city motion in February, which includes a commitment to offer services to people without status and a plan for people in “vulnerable situations” to receive help from police without being asked for ID. But the group Solidarity Across Borders called it “easy symbolism,” warning that without resources and follow-up by the city, and until Montreal police stop their routine arrests of undocumented people on behalf of CBSA, the declaration will remain a hollow gesture.

The symbolism of Canadian municipal declarations compared to some U.S sanctuary policies is not totally unreasonable. As Hussan points out, many U.S. cities operate as counties under the law because of their size, which gives them managerial roles in policing, education, housing and sometimes health care. Canadian cities don’t have this kind of power.

So when Toronto migrant rights groups started to organize for a sanctuary city policy in 2003, they avoided the city altogether. “We first went to the Toronto police services board, then we went to the Toronto District School Board, then anti–violence-against-women shelters, then food banks,” says Hussan. “We campaigned in these different sectors for the next 10 years [because] decisions about services are made at the sub-municipal or provincial levels.”

By the time Toronto was looking into a citywide sanctuary policy in 2013, the large number of people and organizations now backing the idea were concerned it would be powerless unless it included a systemic retraining of public-facing staff and volunteers (so they were not asking for IDs, for example), a large public outreach campaign targeted at immigrant communities and undocumented residents, and an accountability mechanism so that where services were denied a person could make a complaint safely. “So it was as much a question about changing culture and creating a space where the notion of illegality that is stamped on undocumented residents is removed,” says Hussan.

What the campaign got was a pared down “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, with a website instead of the broad public education campaign and limited funding for targeted training. Then there were the police, who refused to co-operate because they disputed the policy’s legal foundations. In a report to city council this spring, Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders said immigration law was a component in 684 of over 747,000 general occurrences between 2014 and 2016, and that the “majority of these stem from investigations into an unrelated offence or infraction, whereby the IRPA infraction is discovered as a secondary component."

 Protesters outside Toronto police headquarters, Spring 2017.

Protesters outside Toronto police headquarters this April (Photo by Michelle da Silva / NOW Magazine).

“The police are never going to be a safe service,” says Cocq, who was involved in the Toronto sanctuary campaign before moving to Ottawa. “But with the police not even willing to engage in a basic review of procedures or anything like that—a flat out refusal at the political level to engage—it meant that the implementation of the [sanctuary] policy would always fall down on that point.”

Nonetheless, Toronto’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy still stands on paper, and after 2013, activists used the victory to press for similar policies across Ontario and Canada, and to put pressure on the Ontario government to stop co-operating with CBSA and address barriers to access in provincially mandated services like health care. All these city motions are symbolic, Hussan says, “like when Burnaby puts out a statement saying we are against a pipeline. It doesn’t actually do anything, but it creates momentum.”


Ottawa councillor Catherine McKenney, who launched the sanctuary discussion at city hall this year, is aware of the need to go beyond symbolic gestures. She says she was sparked into action by a friend who had moved here from Iran about a decade ago. When Toronto reaffirmed its sanctuary policy earlier this year, her friend asked why Ottawa was missing in action. “Honestly, I thought it was going to be easy…and that there would be widespread support,” she says. “If anything, I thought that coming second to Toronto might have made us feel that we should have been quicker.”

The election of Trump, despite or in some cases because of his anti-immigrant rhetoric, and his administration’s move to block migration and punish U.S. sanctuary cities, “made it seem more real,” says McKenney, though she acknowledges that “we’ve had residents in the city, in the country, with precarious immigration status forever.” Also on the councillor’s mind were the xenophobic messages coming out of the Conservative leadership race and confluent mass shooting at a Quebec City mosque in February.

With a motion for debate in play, Ottawa activists, with support from veterans of the Toronto campaign, got to work building public and council support. Organizations dedicated to ending violence against women played an outsized role, since they have regular direct contact with the kinds of people who will benefit most from a sanctuary policy.

“Some  of  the  women  we  work  with  and/or  their  family  members  have  precarious immigration status and as a result, they often do not access the city services and supports they need for fear that information about their immigration status might be shared with  immigration enforcement and put them at risk of detention or deportation,” read a letter signed by 25 groups and sent to Mayor Jim Watson and council in March. “This can include not accessing women’s shelters, counselling services, public health services, food banks, emergency services, city recreation programs, and even public transit.”

Many of the same groups presented to the committee hearing set up in March to discuss a sanctuary policy. To their surprise and disappointment, councillors were not just disinterested but even hostile to the idea. A few councilors “demonstrated a blatant lack of respect for presenters, questioning their expertise, ignoring their testimony, even talking over them or leaving the room during deputations,” reported the Ottawa Sanctuary City Network in a bulletin to supporters. 

The opposition’s main weapon was a city staff briefing suggesting that a person’s status is currently not requested when they access city services. "I checked with staff, and they could not come up with one single example in recent memory of any individual being denied service in an emergency fashion, or a library card, or other city services—not one," Mayor Watson told CBC News in February. There were also red flags about possible lawsuits should the city fail to share information on a person’s status when it’s requested by other levels of government.

McKenney says she is not surprised there is no anecdotal evidence on record of denied service. In fact, it may prove her point that some people are afraid to come forward. “You have to believe and put faith in the organizations and the people who work every day on the frontlines with newcomers when they tell us it’s happening, that they’re hearing from refugees who won’t access services because they’re afraid, because they don’t know what could happen.”

Seeing that most of her colleagues were not prepared to do that, McKenney decided to table her report on sanctuary cities and let the debate stand on record, rather than put the matter to a vote. “To bring a motion and have it voted down, sometimes that can work just to put an issue on the table, but in this case it’s not what I wanted. I didn’t want to force my colleagues into voting. What I wanted to do was to be able to have that discussion [with the experts]. At some point we’ll have to revisit it,” she says.

“I am very aware of the fact that having no policy around sanctuary is better than having a policy that is not strong. So I think that my role going forward and the role I play with the sanctuary network is to keep the conversation alive and active. We’re coming up to another election; maybe that’s the time to have the conversation again.”

Sanctuary from the ground up

Today, the Ottawa sanctuary campaign talks of building “sanctuary from the ground up.” The debate in council exposed the biases that will have to be overcome and the public education work ahead for the network of organizations pushing the policy. But it also opened up a space for ongoing organizing in support of equal access to the community and all it has to offer, not just the services one level of government provides.

“The sanctuary city debate provided cover for us to have conversations that were actually about borders and about racism and about authority and community building and social justice,” says Cocq. “It was about not waiting for politicians to make things better, but our need to organize on the ground for change.”

Actually, says Hussan, the campaign has always been about change at the bottom. In Montreal they call it a solidarity city, recognizing the need for communities to come together, outside of official city channels, to defend themselves against state overreach.

“The purpose of the work is to create a culture, not a set of laws, but a culture where undocumentedness or illegalization of human beings is rejected outright,” Hussan says. “It’s extremely important that this is a cultural issue because most border enforcement is done by transit ticket agents, it’s done by the public school administrator who asks for your documents and turns you away, it’s done by the health administrator at the hospital who says if you don’t have a health card you can’t get services.

Hussan adds that we also have to rethink how we talk about migrants in these times, especially with a loudmouth like Trump, who can lead some people to act as if the difference between fairness and exclusion is a matter of personal choice: a tweet, a brand, an empty gesture.

“The way that Canadian mayors and other politicians have responded [to Trump] shows a complete lack of historical understanding of the kind of dispossession, suffering and impoverishment that undocumented people face here as a result of Canadian laws,” says Hussan. “Because Trump is racist doesn’t mean Canada immediately became more open. That line of thinking being bandied about really needs to be pulled back.”

Like McKenney, Cocq says sanctuary policies will play an important role in getting us to that point. “If a conversation around sanctuary can open up the door to a conversation about what our immigration system looks like, what it does to people, how could it be different, and how could we think differently about the kinds of places we want to live in….then I think it’s very useful.

Stuart Trew is Editor of the Monitor.

This article was published in the September/October 2017 issue of The Monitor. Click here for more or to download the whole issue.