The mayor of Burnaby has thrown cold water on a push to have B.C.'s third-largest city offer undocumented immigrant residents access to municipal services without fear.
Mayor Derek Corrigan's opposition to the idea came as a disappointment to migrant advocates, particularly because of the very high concentration of recent immigrants in a municipality that has grown by more than 10 per cent since the 2006 census and reports that many are flocking to Vancouver for newcomer services.
In late May, Corrigan met with advocates from the Sanctuary City coalition who lobbied him to ensure newcomers without legal status could access municipal services without fear of being reported to immigration authorities, and to consider becoming a "sanctuary city" following the lead of Vancouver which has been exploring the matter for several years.
But compared to a warm reception from Vancouver Coun. Geoff Meggs only weeks earlier, the meeting didn't go as the activists hoped.
Corrigan: 'Do I have a dog in this fight?'
"I had known nothing about it so I was interested in talking to them as members of the community," Corrigan told The Tyee only hours after the meeting. "After having an hour-and-a-half discussion, there weren't any issues that related particularly to this city.
"The only thing you would be doing would be making what I guess would be a grand political statement about the general issues that face people who are here without documentation... It's beyond the scope of the issues that we deal with every day, and I try to stay out of them unless they directly affect us."
Part of the problem, Corrigan, said, was that cities which have passed "sanctuary city" declarations -- as well as access to services without fear and police "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policies -- have broader mandates than his does. Those cities include Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York City, and north of the border, Toronto and Hamilton -- municipalities with "far wider jurisdiction" than Burnaby's, Corrigan argued.
"We have a very limited role that's clearly defined by the legislation," he said. "And as much as I may chafe at that -- and I do, on an ongoing basis -- it is a real limitation on the role that we're able to play and the level of influence that we're able to exert...
"Being eminently practical, I'm looking at, do I have a dog in this fight? Is there something that we need to deal with locally in regard to these issues? What kind of effort should we put into a very general kind of solution to a problem that is the result of many gaps in the immigration system?"
Immigrant activists described their meeting with Corrigan as one of the more "unpleasant" ones they have attended, but said they will continue pushing through other avenues in Burnaby to improve access to its services to all immigrants regardless of their status. But the mayor said that identification is already not required for civic services such as libraries, pools or community centres -- and those that do, such as schools, are provincial, not local, domain.
"Why would I support something that isn't required?" Corrigan asked.
Many Burnaby residents have 'immigration issues': activist
But service agency workers in Vancouver paint a different picture.
Byron Cruz, who is employed as a street nurse in Vancouver and works extensively with immigrant communities to access health services here, says that many of his clients -- and those of newcomer-serving agencies he works with -- don't live in Vancouver at all, but are in fact residents of Burnaby, Surrey and New Westminster.
In Vancouver, Downtown Eastside Women's Centre staffer Harsha Walia told The Tyee the agency gets drop-ins and phone calls "all the time" from immigrants who live in those surrounding municipalities but couldn't find enough supportive services there.
"Many of them have issues with their immigration status," said Walia, herself a Burnaby resident and member of the migrant justice group No One Is Illegal.
"If the mayor of Burnaby is suggesting this is an issue that doesn't affect Burnaby, I think he's grossly mistaken about the demographics of this city," she said. "There's a wide variety of people with precarious status; a lot of them definitely live in Burnaby.
"There's definitely an issue where a number of Burnaby residents are being denied access to services. Because there's a denial about this reality, there's a lack of services that cater to this diverse community. That's why people are increasingly coming to places like Vancouver to access services."
Asked about why he thinks the City of Vancouver and its police force are both pursuing the matter, including council-level interest in a "sanctuary city" policy modelled on Toronto's in February 2013, Corrigan speculated perhaps Vancouver's charter gives it more leeway than Burnaby.
"I try never to comment on what another local government is doing in regard to these kinds of issues," he told The Tyee. "I haven't talked to them at all about it, and I don't know what rationale there would be for them to become engaged in this kind of argument.
"They may have their own reasons for becoming engaged in this debate."
'Hugely complicated': Coun. Ball
With Vancouver gearing up for a heated election battle between the governing Vision Vancouver and opposition Non-Partisan Association (NPA), Coun. Meggs' stated support for "sanctuary city" hasn't yet garnered much interest from his opponents, who just announced their mayoral candidate Kirk LaPointe this week.
NPA Coun. George Affleck declined an interview on the proposed "access without fear" policy.
Meanwhile, his city council colleague and NPA caucus chair Coun. Elizabeth Ball described the issue as "hugely complicated," although she expressed support for the Vancouver Police Department not treating immigration status as a priority issue compared to other crimes, as well as all students' right to enrol in schools regardless of status.
But while she insisted she has not yet studied the issue closely and intends to do so, she did raise some initial concerns about the message a "sanctuary city" declaration or "don't ask, don't tell" policies might send to the many thousands who are seeking asylum, residency or citizenship through authorized channels, often for many years because of massive federal backlogs.
"It brings up so many questions, but I don't know the answers," Ball told The Tyee. "You have people who sit on waiting lists for years and years legitimately and go through all the steps, it would be interesting to ask them how they feel.
"There are also people who go through all the ropes, and refugees who come from countries at war -- how do we honour all the people sitting on lists all over world, generally thinking they are going to be able to be a legitimate part of this country, if you don't have to fill out the forms and go through the record checks? Why bother having them?"
Likewise, Corrigan said he has so far only heard "one side of the story" -- that of the activists -- but although he acknowledged that many people have "serious concerns about the immigration system," there's also another side to Canada's laws that needs to be considered.
"There are probably significant arguments that would come forward from people at Canada Border Services [Agency] or [Citizenship and] Immigration Canada saying they believe their system is administered correctly and that, in fact, what they require is assistance in being able to assure that they are in a position to find out who's here without status -- and to act on those individuals," Corrigan said.
As to issues he feels are being raised around immigration as a whole, Corrigan added: "I've got enough things that I've got to deal with locally without trying to get into debates about the ideological and philosophical necessity of immigration laws."
No one in Canada 'immune' from federal law: CBSA
The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) was approached for comment on this series and refused The Tyee's interview requests and it would not speculate on potential ramifications of municipalities no longer cooperating with its federal enforcement operations, as is being considered.
"With regard to your question about a possible 'sanctuary city' policy being adopted in the Vancouver area, it is not the practice of the Canada Border Services Agency to comment on third party policies and proposals," said spokeswoman Jennifer Lee in an email.
In a previous email (regarding churches offering sanctuary to migrants facing deportation), Lee said that CBSA "has the authority" to take anyone into custody who "refuses to comply with a lawful removal order."
"There are no places in Canada where individuals can retreat and be immune from Canadian law," she insisted.
The Tyee asked Corrigan how he squares his opposition to declaring a "sanctuary city" -- on the grounds that Burnaby lacks the mandate to address federal laws -- with his outspoken opposition to Kinder Morgan's pipeline expansion, which also falls under federal jurisdiction.
"I was not interested or dealing with it at my city council -- the oil industry and impact of the tar sands on climate change, and whether or not pipelines should exist across our country -- until they were putting one through our community," he explained. "Then suddenly I had to become very sophisticated because it became an issue for us directly...
"The issue of problems that relate to immigration and unfairness in that system are really issues that we elect people to go to Ottawa for. That responsibility is clearly a federal one."
Federal policy has 'consequences' for cities: Coun. Meggs
But from Vancouver's perspective, the issue is one that has major local impacts. For instance, fear of deportation could dissuade victims of crime from calling the police, particularly in domestic violence and abuse situations, said Coun. Meggs. Ensuring affordable housing for newcomers is another problem. Likewise, simply taking the bus or SkyTrain is fraught with uncertainty for those afraid they might be turned over to CBSA.
"We're not dealing with immigration policy," he argued, "we're dealing with the consequences of it."
Meggs admitted that one obvious limitation of simply declaring Vancouver a sanctuary for undocumented migrants is that the various systems often extend beyond its jurisdiction. Case in point: the public transit system, which extends far beyond its boundaries into other municipalities. As The Tyee previously reported, Transit Police are responsible for a significant number of CBSA referrals -- 328 last year alone.
"Frankly, if you go anywhere on the transit system, you're going to meet people who are recent arrivals to Canada," Meggs said, adding that he hopes to invite neighbouring municipalities to the sanctuary table. "There's very large immigrant and refugee communities in Burnaby and New Westminster.
"Those transit-friendly communities -- Vancouver, Surrey, Burnaby, and New Westminster -- those are the ones where there are obvious reasons to sit down quite quickly."
Running Friday, the final instalment in this Tyee series on sanctuary city will look at how one undocumented family's struggle to find a safe school for their children has pushed them into the shadows -- but why some activists are urging caution as Vancouver pushes ahead with its 'access without fear' proposals.
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