Hamilton's sanctuary city languishes as political will fades

Photo: flickr/up4hours

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Two years ago, Hamilton's city council unanimously approved a motion that permitted undocumented migrants access to municipal services without providing immigration documents, turning Hamilton into Canada's second sanctuary city.

Sanctuary City Hamilton Coalition, a broad-based group of activists, service providers, and community members, brought the motion to city council in an effort to "re-shape our communities to provide access for all regardless of immigration status."

City council's adoption of the motion represented strides forward for the broader migrant justice movement and laid the groundwork for future campaigns like OHIP for All.

But a limited scope and lack of accountability have stunted the motion's effectiveness. Hamilton has failed to follow through on several clauses laid out in the motion, including their promise to lobby the provincial and federal governments.

"There hasn't necessarily been as much follow up in years since the motion has been passed," Caitlin Craven told rabble in a telephone interview. Craven is a community organizer with Justice Across Borders, a migrant justice group that grew out of the the Hamilton Sanctuary City Coalition.

Craven, who was also a member of the Hamilton Sanctuary City Coalition, told rabble that the motion "was also kind of limited in its scope."

"We always had a belief that the purpose of getting sanctuary city passed was only one step in a broader discussion about the problems and barriers faced by migrants and refugees in Canada," said Craven.

No will, no staff, not much change

After passing the motion, Hamilton would no longer require residents to produce immigration documents to access municipal services, including shelters, libraries, public transit and recreational facilities. But Craven explained to rabble that "most of the service providers in Hamilton had [already] indicated that their practice was to not ask for immigration status."

The motion also recommended that the city revise its anti-racism staff training program, develop a public education strategy, request the federal government review immigration and refugee policies, and urge the Ontario government to extend provincially funded programs to residents with precarious immigration status.

"The thing that was most successful from my perspective was the group of people it brought together and the raising of awareness," Craven explained.

In terms of "the actual follow through, what it practically means" Craven said that the motion did not change much, most notably because the motion did not bind the city to hiring staff to oversee implementation of the new policies or develop the public education program.

"We have heard stories from people of people still being told that they need to provide [immigration] documents that they shouldn't necessarily need to provide or confusion about what it actually means for the city," Craven said.

Assessing the motion's impact or success is difficult without monitoring or statistics. "We don't necessarily have any data on whether the services become more accessible," said Craven, because service providers cannot ask for immigration status.

Maria Antelo, a community development coordinator at the Hamilton Community Legal Clinic, told rabble that the public education strategy "hasn't happened because [the city] does not have any staff."

Antelo argued that Hamilton was not held accountable to the motion. "Even if they did have the staff, I think there's a lack of will," Antelo said. "So the motion passed and they sort of just let it sit there."

Police not bound to motion

Lack of accountability was not the only problem with the motion. Antelo told rabble that the motion did not adequately "push the issue of not having to reveal your status if you have any kind of involvement with the police."

In Toronto, police violated the city's sanctuary city motion by calling the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) over 4,000 times to verify the immigration status of individuals.

"One of the compromises we made was there wasn't a clear indication that police services would be part of [the sanctuary city] motion," Craven told rabble.

Craven explained that the motion could have targeted the police directly, which might "not necessarily have been more effective, but would maybe have been more focused in its targeting and have had a different impact for people."

Maggie Schoen of the Hamilton Police Service told rabble in an email that the Hamilton Police Force does not capture statistics on how many times the police contact the CBSA for status checks, but that "officers contact CBSA during investigations, when necessary to confirm information such as outstanding warrants."

"It is not the practice of the Hamilton Police Service to request immigration documents from residents of Hamilton, but we do recognize immigration documents may be the only documentation provided by the person being spoken to, to confirm their identity," Schoen explained.

Justice Across Borders recognizes that addressing policing practices is central to protecting migrants' rights. The group has committed to addressing "how police treat not only people without status but people of colour, Black people, [and] Indigenous people," said Antelo.

Sanctuary City laid groundwork for OHIP for All

"A lot of people really, really had wanted [the motion] to be something that could give them access to health services," Craven told rabble. Perhaps the biggest misconception about sanctuary city motions is that they open up health care for undocumented migrants.

There are approximately 250,000 Ontario residents without access to health care as a result of their immigration status.  

"One of the most common questions we received in email after the motion was passed was from people saying 'does this mean I can now go get access to a hospital or a doctor?' or 'where can I go get medical services?'" Craven told rabble.

OHIP, the Ontario's health-care plan, is provincially regulated and therefore only municipal community health clinics fall under the motion's purview.

"Unfortunately we had to tell quite a few people that it didn't actually mean that, and all it meant was that they could try going to the community health clinics but that they wouldn't necessarily be able to access a hospital or a walk in clinic or anything like that," Craven regrets.

While the motion fell short of providing health coverage to migrants with precarious immigration status, Craven and Antelo both argued that the motion laid the necessary groundwork for campaigns like OHIP for All, a grassroots campaign launched in late June.

OHIP for All's demands include extending OHIP coverage to all Ontario residents, including undocumented refugees, migrants, and foreign workers.

"My sense [about the OHIP for All campaign] is that it comes out of the longer standing effort to try and scale up the sanctuary movement to make it more relevant to a lot of the things that people are not able to access, like health care," Craven told rabble.

In a telephone interview with rabble, Marcella Jones, an organizer with OHIP for All, cited the sanctuary city movement in Hamilton as proof that the government can provide OHIP to undocumented residents without overhauling federal immigration policies.

OHIP for All staged rallies across Ontario on June 28 to kickstart the campaign. "We had a great turnout at all the rallies," Jones told rabble.

Jones is optimistic that the movement will effect change: "from the government perspective, the health minister's office release[d] a statement saying they would take our request under consideration and we hope to engage in an open dialogue with them in order to discuss how we can make our campaign a reality."

Photo: flickr/up4hours

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