Councillors are being asked to make Toronto a “sanctuary city” where where non-status migrants can access services without fear of being jailed and deported.
NICHOLAS KEUNG / TORONTO STAR
George Williams, 58, came to Toronto as a visitor and lived without status for three years. He nervously approached a shelter in 2010 after he lost his job and home, fearing he’d be deported. But the shelter helped him apply for refugee status, and he is now a permanent resident.
Maria didn’t go to police after her Canadian husband beat her up. When the food bank staff asked for her ID, she just left. And when she was owed $1,600 in back wages for two months’ work as a cleaner, she could do nothing but bite her lip.
“I’m denied access for help and services because I don’t have any immigration paper,” explained the Toronto resident, who came here from Mexico City in 2000 and has lived an undocumented life ever since.
“It’s not only affecting my life — because of my (lack of) status, my daughter is not getting the support, even though she was born in Canada. Better access to services means better quality of life for her.”
Maria, who asked that her full name not be used for fear of being pursued by immigration enforcement officers, is among Greater Toronto’s estimated 200,000 undocumented migrants: visitors who have overstayed their visas, or failed refugee claimants dodging deportation.
Anticipating a surge in the region’s undocumented population in 2015 — when many legal but temporary foreign workers will see their four-year work permits expire under a new law and potentially move “underground” — Toronto City Council is set to vote on an “access without fear” motion Wednesday or Thursday.
The city’s community development and recreation committee has come up with a plan to transform Toronto into a “sanctuary city,” similar to San Francisco and other U.S. cities that have passed laws ensuring that non-status residents can turn to city services without fear that they’ll be turned in for detention or deportation.
The motion calls for training for front-line staff and managers to ensure that undocumented residents won’t be asked about their immigration status when accessing services — calling police in an emergency, for example — and establishing a complaints protocol and public education strategy to inform Torontonians of the policy.
“The undocumented live here, work here and pay taxes here. They are part of the community. They also need services and support. Government services should not be tied to immigration status,” said Karin Baqi of the Solidarity City Network, an umbrella group behind the campaign.
“They are the backbone of our economy. They take care of our kids, clean our offices and build houses.”
The motion doesn’t suggest that the new policy would contain any benefits for city government, only for the undocumented residents themselves. Maria, who makes a meager income as a cleaner, said her daughter could at least have had more nutritious food from the food bank than steamed rice and potatoes, if the local food bank hadn’t asked her for documents proving her status as a resident.
“I make very little money from my job. Any support I can get will help,” said Maria, who is in her 30s.
George Williams came to Toronto as a visitor from St. Vincent in 2007 and lived under the radar until 2010, when he lost his under-the-table job at a popsicle factory and became homeless.
Despondent, Williams decided to risk being reported to immigration officials and walked into the Maxwell Meighen homeless shelter for help.
“I was brave enough to go in,” recalled Williams, 58. “Fortunately, they didn’t ask for my immigration paper.”
When shelter staff later found out he fled to Canada to avoid persecution as a gay man, they gave him encouragement and helped him file a refugee claim, which was accepted in 2010.
“It’s really important for people to have a place to go to where they are not afraid to ask for help and support,” said Williams, who became a permanent resident last year.