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Migrant Advocates Push Toronto City Hall on Concrete Access

by Kelly Pflug-Back

Migrant Advocates Push Toronto City Hall on Concrete Access

Toronto City Council’s Community Development Committee met this past Thursday to finally receive a report on implementation of Toronto's sanctuary policy passed last February 2013. The sanctuary city policy passed in Toronto --- along the lines of those already implemented by numerous US states, municipalities and European Union cities --- was the first in Canada and came after years of extensive research, lobbying, and public pressure by groups such as No One Is Illegal and the Solidarity City Network.

Sanctuary city policies allow undocumented migrants to access life-sustaining resources such as shelter, health care, public education, and protection under law but they also require proper plans for implementation based on partnership with grassroots organizations or they risk acting as mere lip service rather than as practical instruments of human rights. Deputations illustrating the vital importance of community influence were given to the committee by both social service organizations and grassroots groups such as representatives of Migrant Workers' Alliance for Change, Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI), FCJ Refugee Centre, Solidarity City Network, No One Is Illegal, and Council of Agencies Serving South Asian Communities (CASSA).

Ayesha Basit, a representative of the Solidarity City Network, described to the committee the fact that city-wide audits have shown undocumented people are still largely denied public services despite formal changes in policy. Disparities between policy and practice may be arising due to the distance between policy makers and those who work on a first hand basis with marginalized communities.

Recommendations made by multiple deputants included issuing municipal identification cards so that people without documentation can access social services; training city officials and service providers in “Don't ask, Don't tell” protocols; initiating dialogue with the school board and police service board; establishing capacity-building initiatives for newcomers, especially newcomer women and youth; and establishing functional systems of oversight and accountability to ensure that city public service providers are complying with sanctuary policies. In the US and EU, multi-language public education campaigns have also been launched to increase awareness of access for undocumented people via websites, social media initiatives and kiosks in public spaces such as libraries.

One concern raised and commonly excluded from official immigration discussions is the special relevance of sanctuary policies for women, youth, and other groups who may be especially vulnerable to violence and abuse. Amy Casipullai, of OCASI, and Loly Rico, of the FCJ Refugee Centre, addressed the importance of specialized police training to ensure that undocumented women and youth who are experiencing abusive home situations, are working in the sex trade, or are victims of human trafficking, are able to access protection from law enforcement officials without fear of deportation or imprisonment. Bonita Roman, a social worker who works primarily with undocumented mothers, also addressed the fact that child care systems currently discriminate against families without documentation as proof of official employment is necessary to access subsidized child care.

Amendments to the committee’s report, based on recommendations by deputants were made by Kristyn Wong-Tam, councillor for Ward 27 (Toronto Centre-Rosedale). The amendments approved included inclusion of compulsory training for city staff and volunteers, public education campaigns and further investigation and advocacy work to the province on Toronto identification cards, access to childcare subsidies and access to Ontario Works. A provision that Toronto encourage other municipalities to create their own “Access without Fear” policy was also included. Wong-Tam additionally condemned Bill C-24 in her remarks, a federal citizenship bill which, if passed, would make citizenship significantly more difficult and costly to obtain, as well as much more easy to revoke.

Toronto City Council will meet on June 10th to discuss and vote on the committee's policy recommendations. With other cities in Ontario such as Hamilton following suit, many seem hopeful this is the first step to a similar sanctuary policy at the provincial level.

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Topics: Migration

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