Reasonable Doubt: Seeking sanctuary? Better hope the public is on your side
Jose Figueroa, an El Salvadorian man alleged to be linked to a terrorist organization, has sought sanctuary in the Walnut Grove Lutheran Church in Langley. The church disagrees with Canada’s decision to deport Figueroa, and has offered him sanctuary at the church as long as he needs.
According to the Canadian Sanctuary Network, a religious organization will offer sanctuary to protect refugees that it feels are being unfairly treated by the Canadian immigration system. Religious organizations offering sanctuary see it as a “civil initiative” to hold Canada accountable for its domestic and international obligations to refugees.
The practice of offering sanctuary dates back several centuries to when individuals were considered immune from arrest if they were on holy or sacred ground. At one time, the law in England recognized this practice. Now, sanctuary in countries like Canada is limited to situations where foreign nationals are facing deportation.
Over the years, there have been a few highly publicized cases of individuals seeking sanctuary. Both U.S. Iraq War veteran Rodney Watson and ex-KGB agent Mikhail Lennikov have been living in Vancouver churches for the last four years.
Sanctuary, however, has no legal basis in Canada. When a place of worship provides sanctuary to a person, there is nothing legally preventing authorities from entering that church or mosque or temple and apprehending the individual. In fact, it is against the law for a religious organization to offer sanctuary.
It is an offence to assist someone in violating the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA), which would include assisting someone to avoid deportation. If the government were to enforce this law, a church or its officials offering sanctuary could face a fine of up to $50,000 and/or up to two years in jail.
So what stops authorities with the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) from entering churches to arrest people like Figueroa, Watson, and Lennikov?
Negative publicity. Apparently the government recognizes that it looks bad to break down a church door, push past a pastor, and drag out refugees that the church claims ought to be protected.
CBSA even has an official policy on respecting sanctuary, whereby officials consider the circumstances of each instance on a case-by-case basis:
The frequency of sanctuary cases will be closely monitored in order to track the prevalence of sanctuary cases. If there is evidence of widespread abuse of sanctuary, then forced entry operations for traditionally lower priority removals (e.g. failed refugee claimants) cases may also be necessary to maintain the integrity of the system.
In other words, the government will weigh the negative publicity of forcing entry into a church against the negative publicity of allowing a deportee to escape enforcement. The mere threat of public outcry is enough to stop officials from enforcing the law.
While the Canadian government purports to be secular, the separation between church and state is muddled when it comes to sanctuary. Canadian officials remain reluctant to force entry into a church and, to date, there have been very few instances where this has occurred.
In 2004, an Algerian man subject to a criminal warrant was arrested in the basement of a Quebec City church. He had been charged after participating in a political demonstration and was arrested at the church for breaching his bail conditions. This case differs slightly in that the man was subject to a criminal warrant, not just a deportation order.
In 2007, police arrested Amir Kazemian, an Iranian man living in a Vancouver church basement, after he called police to report that he had received harassing phone calls. This was not a case of the police forcibly entering a church, but rather, they were responding to a call initiated by Kazemian himself.
The fate of these deportees rests in the hands of the media and the public. While sanctuary has no basis in law, it continues to be tenuously recognized as long as it garners public support. Once the public’s view begins to sway otherwise, the government is likely to enforce warrants in churches in the same manner it does everywhere else.
If you’re an individual in sanctuary, you better hope the people like you.
Thank you to Vancouver lawyer Christa Cordick, who assisted with the research of this article.