Demanding access to public services without fear of deportation

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On this week's episode of Talking Radical Radio, Scott Neigh speaks with Mirtha Rivera and Emily Eaton.

Mirtha Rivera is a community activist who came to Canada in 1975 as a political refugee from Chile. Emily Eaton is a professor of geography and environmental studies at University of Regina. Her research interests include immigration issues and she, too, is a community activist. Rivera and Eaton speak with Scott Neigh about the Regina Access Without Fear campaign and about the lessons it can offer to activists and organizers in other small cities.

Both were active with the Regina Access Without Fear campaign, which demanded that the city of Regina adopt a policy enabling all residents to access city services without fear of repercussions related to their immigration status – an initiative that required rather a different approach than similar campaigns have often taken in larger cities.

Public conversation and action emerging from the struggles faced by newcomers to Canada – whether they are refugees or immigrants, documented or undocumented, on a temporary work or student visa or on a path that might eventually lead to citizenship – tends to be concentrated in and on the country’s larger cities.

On a certain level, this makes sense -- that’s where a greater proportion of immigrants and refugees tend to live, after all. But while there may be proportionately fewer immigrants and refugees living in many smaller centres, those who do live in such places have similar constraints, hassles, and even violence organized into their lives by the immigration system, and face similar kinds of racism and other marginalizations to those living in the big cities. Indeed, less attention to the issues and less political power in those areas may mean that things are, in some ways, worse. Not only that, the differences in context might change people’s experiences in qualitative ways and mean that people’s choices when it comes to survival and to fighting back collectively have to look different, and approaches devised in Toronto or Vancouver may have to be carefully adapted.

Take, for instance, Regina, Saskatcewan. Earlier in 2017, after the wave of protests across not just the United States but also Canada in response to anti-immigrant and other measures taken by the incoming Trump administration, a number of Regina social justice activists decided it was a prime moment to turn that attention and momentum into a local campaign. Regina Access Without Fear asked the municipal government to commit to policies and practices that would make it easier for immigrants and refugees to access services provided by the city. Similar kinds of campaigns, often under the banner of "sanctuary city", have occurred across North America over the last few decades, with a resurgence of interest in them on both sides of the border after the election of Donald Trump.

The circumstances for such a campaign are somewhat different in Regina than they might be in, say, Vancouver, Toronto, or Montreal. For one thing, it's not clear how many undocumented people live in Regina, but it doesn't appear to be a large number. Municipal services already don't ask for immigration documents, or at least they aren't supposed to. And unlike some Canadian cities, there has not been a high profile instance of police, transit police, school officials, or other service providers reporting people to the Canada Border Service Agency (CBSA) and getting them deported. Indeed, one of the primary responses that Regina Access Without Fear heard from politicians and mainstream pundits was the claim, "We don’t need that here."

The activists in the campaign did not agree with that assessment. A small and uncertain number of undocumented people is not the same as none. Policies that don't instruct service providers to ask for immigration documents and don't compel them to communicate with CBSA are not the same as policies which forbid those things. And most importantly, the activists realized that there is a sizeable population of peope in the city who are not undocumented but whose immigration status is in some way precarious – temporary foreign workers, students, refugee claimants, and so on – and that often people with precarious status have considerable fear about accessing the services to which they are entitled. Such fear may or may not reflect an actual risk, but from conversations in the impacted communities it was clear that it is a definite barrier that some immigrants and refugees face. The made-in-Regina version of an access without fear policy that the campaign demanded of city council was therefore focused on policies, training for service providers, and public education that would address the fears of people with precarious immigration status.

After developing the text of a motion, the campaign then obtained numerous endorsements from organizations and from high-profile individuals in the community, and won the support of a city councillor who agreed to introduce the motion. As well, there was extensive public debate and lobbying. Though there was relatively little right-wing xenophobic backlash, the campaign still needed to counter a range of objections and concerns in the media and through a night of delegations that spoke at city council.

Alas, despite a well-waged campaign, the motion was not passed. Along with ongoing reluctance to recognize the need, the context of harsh austerity imposed by the Saskatchewan provincial government made the city reluctant to take on even the modest cost that the measure would have involved. In fact, a procedural move meant that the motion was not even voted on, and instead the city council decided to claim that they were already doing what they need to do and to refer the motion to other levels of government for action. Though the city also adopted an administrative undertaking to engage in a few of the measures that the policy would have called for, the activists were disappointed that such a strong campaign was ultimately unsuccessful.

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow them on FaceBook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

The image modified for use in this post was taken by Nathan and is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic licence.

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