Immigration advocates raised concerns after the Straight presented them with statistics on police and RCMP referrals to the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA).
The numbers obtained via a CBSA freedom-of-information request reveal stark discrepancies in how municipal police forces and RCMP detachments refer cases to the federal agency tasked with immigration enforcement.
“This might reflect racism and ethnic profiling,” Byron Cruz, an activist and member of Vancouver’s mayor’s working group on immigration, said in a telephone interview.
Cruz said the issue is immigrants’ health and safety. “We can see women who have suffered from domestic violence in situations where they don’t call the police,” he explained.
The Vancouver Police Department has the highest numbers, having contacted CBSA on 144 cases in 2015 (up to December 7). That was down from 321 in 2014 and 165 in 2013.
Surrey RCMP takes second place, with 114 referrals in 2015, down from 265 in 2014 and 178 in 2013.
In third place is Richmond RCMP, which referred 30 cases to CBSA in 2015. Burnaby RCMP had 23 referrals, and North Vancouver RCMP had 21.
Most local police agencies such Delta, New Westminster, and West Vancouver, had single-digit numbers. An exception was Victoria, which referred 20 cases in 2015.
Across the Lower Mainland, there were a total of 456 police and RCMP referrals to CBSA last year.
(Update: In an email that arrived seven days after deadline, CBSA clarified that statistics supplied for 2013 only cover the last six months of the year. That information was not included in the FOI response package.)
Cruz called attention to the small number of CBSA investigations that resulted from all those referrals. In 2015, those 456 police and RCMP contacts resulted in just 36 actual CBSA investigations.
He argued that this suggests there was seldom a real need for police to call CBSA, and that officers might be contacting CBSA based on a person’s appearance as a visible minority.
“It's very concerning to see the number of [CBSA] contacts from police departments and the RCMP, and then to see the number of contacts that result in an investigation,” Cruz continued. “Why is that happening?”
Surrey RCMP, which, adjusted for population, had the highest rate of CBSA referrals of any southern B.C. city, refused repeated requests for an interview. B.C. RCMP and CBSA also both refused repeated requests for an interview.
Reached via phone, Vancouver police sergeant Randy Fincham told the Straight that VPD relations with CBSA are largely defined by three written agreements. “There are obligations under those systems,” he said.
However, the spokesperson for the force acknowledged that officers do have discretion to contact CBSA on a case-by-case basis.
“A lot of times, we will deal with people that, for one reason or another, we are not able to verify their identity,” Fincham said. “And we have an obligation to identify these people, and one avenue would be working with immigration authorities.”
Zool Suleman, a Vancouver-based immigration lawyer, described the numbers as evidence of a “disconnect”.
“It’s very troubling,” he said. “If this many people are being detained and turned over to the CBSA, and if the CBSA is saying, ‘We don’t have as high a level of concern as the arresting police authority did’, it raises questions about thresholds.
“What is the threshold which the Vancouver police and the Surrey RCMP have for finding someone to be of interest?" Suleman continued. "Why is CBSA’s threshold so much higher?”
Mable Elmore is the NDP MLA for Vancouver-Kensington and Opposition critic for immigration. She told the Straight a review of the numbers has left her thinking racial profiling is a “valid concern”.
“It raises questions and concerns as to what is going on and what the basis is [for referrals],” Elmore said. “I do have ongoing concerns, generally, around the use of racial profiling… I have more questions.”
CBSA is in the news out east this month after two people in its custody died in less than a week. On March 13, Francisco Astorga was found unresponsive in a CBSA detention facility in Milton, Ontario. And on March 7, Melkioro Gahungu hung himself while awaiting deportation in a CBSA facility in Toronto.
In B.C., CBSA referrals gained widespread attention beginning in December 2013 after a Mexican woman named Lucia Vega Jiménez committed suicide in a CBSA detention facility at Vancouver International Airport. Jiménez had been turned over to CBSA officers by transit police after she was unable to produce proof of a paid fare for the SkyTrain.
More recently, last December, the Straight reported that during the past two years, Fraser Health’s 12 Lower Mainland hospitals collectively referred about 500 patients to CBSA.
The City of Vancouver has been working on a framework that would ensure undocumented immigrants have access to police, emergency, and social services since May 2014.
Vision Vancouver councillor Geoff Meggs told the Straight these policies—previously called “sanctuary city” but today referred to collectively as “access without fear”—are expected to go to a vote sometime in April.
“The VPD has been involved in this process from the beginning and has been making really positive contributions,” Meggs noted.
Cruz said there is a demonstration planned for March 21, the UN International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. He said that protest was initially planned to call attention to hospital referrals to CBSA and will now also make police referrals a topic of discussion.