At the base of the back-alley staircase into a Vancouver health clinic, two men lay the groundwork for an enclosed community garden plot and introduce themselves with an eager "¡Hola!" Upstairs, Latin American women and men cook fresh tortillas for lunch while they ready the clinic's new digs, working among unpacked moving boxes and furniture stacked like Jenga blocks.
Around the corner, nurse and migrant advocate Byron Cruz introduces The Tyee to a Mexican woman who made headlines after a midwife delivered her baby at home because, as an undocumented immigrant in the city without insurance, she couldn't afford the $10,000 hospital bill and feared deportation if caught.
In her arms now, the woman's baby boasts a grin, a healthy, full head of hair, and paint-speckled pants. Cruz asked that the clinic's name not be published because it offers services to others like the mother who are deemed "illegal" by the Canadian government.
The issue of undocumented immigrants reared up on Jan. 27, when 24 Hours newspaper revealed that the B.C. Coroners Service was investigating the death of an undocumented Mexican hotel worker, Lucia Vega Jiménez, while in the custody of Canada Border Services Agency. Vega Jiménez had been in custody a full month after being stopped by transit authorities. A string of deportations after tips from transit police to CBSA, often following unpaid bus fares, has deepened mistrust towards basic city services among many immigrants, Cruz said.
Now, five months after Vega Jiménez's apparent suicide (and with a public inquest planned for September), advocates are closer to seeing a new city policy implemented that would prevent municipal agents, like transit officers, from feeding immigration authorities the information they need to find and deport undocumented migrants.
Vancouver council is now actively moving towards a "sanctuary city" designation, with city officials, the Vancouver Police Department, Vancouver Coastal Health and other agencies recently meeting with advocates from Sanctuary Health, a group formed in 2012.
City supports 'sanctuary' declaration
In Vancouver, various social housing projects, food banks and schools require users to present government ID, something unavailable to those without status. This means a number of service providers know who undocumented migrants are. While providers are under no obligation to report them to CBSA, Cruz said, without a clear policy it puts them in a difficult position withholding the information if asked.
In an interview in his city hall office, Vision Vancouver councillor Geoff Meggs said he supports implementing a sanctuary city policy, similar to one adopted by Hamilton on Feb. 12, nearly a year after Toronto's last February. Dozens of cities across the U.S. have such policies.
For instance, in 1979 the Los Angeles Police Department issued an internal rule that police officers cannot question people simply to determine their immigration status, shortly before the city's mayor declared LA a "sanctuary city." A decade later, New York City issued an edict barring city staff from reporting migrants' citizenship status to federal agents, although the city's police must still cooperate with immigration in criminal cases.
Meggs said that a planned report from the mayor's working group on immigration, planned for release late this summer, will recommend the city move towards a sanctuary policy, cautioning that "it's not something that we can do just by passing a resolution and consider the work done," but requires careful thought and implementation. If such a resolution is passed by the Vision Vancouver-dominated council, Meggs said, a draft agreement with the Vancouver Police Department and the separately elected park and school boards would be prepared.
Some, however, are suspicious about Vision Vancouver's motives for climbing aboard the sanctuary city bandwagon, particularly before an impending civic election. Daniel Tseghay, a member of the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE), put forward a similar and successful motion at the left-leaning party's policy meeting in March. If elected, he said COPE will "immediately on day one" declare Vancouver a sanctuary.
With rising housing prices in the city "disproportionately" affecting migrants, especially those without status, Tseghay argued such a policy from Vision, which he described as a "neoliberal party making this city far too expensive," would be hypocritical.
"Vision Vancouver is aware they have an election coming up; they're trying to co-opt this very sensible policy and program," he said. "If they don't commit completely, but just touch on it to show they're interested in it, it's a way to get some of the progressive vote."
Meggs countered it would be foolhardy to rush in a policy that might "over-promise and under-deliver," a warning he said members of the immigration working group raised when he asked them to examine a sanctuary city designation.
Without TransLink or the Vancouver Police Department adopting similar policies, for instance, some immigrants could falsely believe they are protected from being reported to immigration.
Alejandra López Bravo of the advocacy group Sanctuary City agreed with Meggs on that point. "We think that a policy on paper doesn't make any sense; there needs to be meaningful implementation," she said. "For that, we need to have TransLink and the VPD on board, otherwise you might have a lot of backlash, or a policy that doesn't mean anything in the lives of affected people."
Not just a 'rebrand'
A councillor for Vancouver's Non-Partisan Association (NPA) was unavailable for comment before press time, but Toronto's move to adopt sanctuary city garnered blowback from several conservative-leaning councillors who unsuccessfully voted against the motion.
"Giving sanctuary to illegal immigrants is an insult to everyone who is waiting to enter this country legally," Toronto councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong told the Toronto Star. "It sends a message to the world that it is okay to break the law to come to Canada, and now you can get away with it."
Meggs said he doesn't expect similar political heat over supporting non-status immigrants in Vancouver, or over concerns that the city may be over-stepping its jurisdiction into federal immigration turf. "We're not dealing with immigration policy, we're dealing with the consequences of it," he said.
There are very few statistics about how many people live paperless in Vancouver, Meggs said. "Generally speaking, people understand that support is necessary, and we need to be clear [these] people generally are here for all the right reasons. We're not talking about criminals by any means. There are all kinds of reasons why people wind up in this situation."
CBSA declined to comment on its response to such a policy change, or its impacts on enforcement activities, saying in an emailed statement that "it is not the practice of the Canada Border Services Agency to comment on third party policies and proposals."
Meanwhile, as volunteers in the relocated Vancouver clinic begin to unpack supplies for their new offices, which offers no-questioned-asked care to people regardless of their citizenship, Sanctuary City advocates said they will continue to push for a comprehensive policy that ensures undocumented immigrants feel safe to access basic services.
"This is not only about human rights, it's about shifting the mentality," muses López Bravo, as a crew unloads a white van in the alley below. She said a sanctuary city policy should not simply re-brand the city, but represent a "shift in culture, to be able to see people as people and not as different categories of people who are deserving or not deserving."
"Sometimes we think of Canada as a very humanitarian place that is very diverse and inclusive," she said. "We have to realize that this is not the case for many people that live and work here."