Vancouver city council to receive "sanctuary city" policies aimed to ensure access without fear

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      Vancouver’s “sanctuary city” movement finally has something down on paper.

      On April 6, city council is scheduled to receive a long-awaited plan designed to ensure that immigrants do not have to worry that registering their children for swimming lessons, for example, or calling for an ambulance could result in a member of their family being deported from the country.

      Originally dubbed “sanctuary city” but since renamed “access without fear”, the framework is a product of the mayor’s working group on immigration.

      “The purpose of this policy is to support access to City services by Vancouver residents with uncertain or no immigration status and who fear detention, psychological and physical harm, or deportation, when accessing services,” the report reads.

      In a tangible sense, the framework is designed to minimize the frequency with which city employees contact the country’s immigration police, the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA).

      The issue of undocumented immigrants gained widespread attention in B.C. 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 Metro Vancouver Transit Police after she was unable to produce proof of a paid fare for the SkyTrain.

      At the policy’s core are three directives: access to services should be independent of immigration status; personal information should be kept private; and the city’s relationship with CBSA should take into account the fact that city staff are “not responsible for the enforcement of immigration law”.

      The report states that implementation should begin with the drafting of guidelines for city staff. Ensuring that all city employees will be made aware of “access without fear” policies will be “essential”, the report reads.

      Zool Suleman is am immigration lawyer and a member of the mayor’s working group. In a telephone interview, he described the document as realistic.

      “It acknowledges the limitations of what the city can do within its jurisdiction, but given what the city can do, it is doing the best that it can,” he said.

      Suleman emphasized that the framework only covers the City of Vancouver. He said he hopes neighbouring jurisdictions will take note. “Refugees, immigrants, students—many people who might become non-status—live in areas like Burnaby, New Westminster, and Surrey,” he explained. “So more of  a metro-based approach would be excellent.”

      According to the document, the policies will benefit “no status” immigrants such as temporary foreign workers whose permits have expired, refugees whose claims have been denied, and foreign students who have overstayed their visas.

      “Key issues facing these individuals may include: women trying to leave abusive or violent situations but are fearful of reporting to police; foreign workers exploited by employers but who do not have the resources to leave the country; children of non-status residents who cannot access local programs; reluctance of some individuals to ask for emergency assistance which may result in at risk living conditions or even street homelessness,” it reads. “Many individuals may not access services out of fear that disclosing their immigration status may lead to detention, psychological and physical harm, or deportation.”

      Referrals to immigration police are more common that some people might think.

      On December 9, the Straight reported that during the preceding almost two years, Fraser Health Authority had referred approximately 500 patients to CBSA, resulting in an unknown number of immigration investigations and deportations.

      Fraser Health operates 12 hospitals across Vancouver’s suburbs, including facilities in Burnaby, Surrey, New Westminster, Coquitlam, and Langley.

      During about the same time frame, Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH), which operates Vancouver General Hospital and many facilities located outside the Lower Mainland, made 67 referrals to CBSA.

      Both organizations have since reformed policies to minimize contact with border police. As the Straight reported earlier this month, VCH did so in August 2015 and Fraser Health did the same in January this year.

      B.C. police and RCMP, similarly, refer hundreds of people to immigration police ever year.

      On March 16, the Straight reported that during 2015 (up to December 7), the VPD made 144 referrals to CBSA; Surrey RCMP did 114; Richmond RCMP referred 30; and Burnaby RCMP made 23.

      The report going to Vancouver city council next week emphasizes the limitations of the policies proposed.

      For example, it states that the park board, the police board, and the Vancouver Public Library are independent bodies that would not be covered by city council adopting policies outlined in the report. The document adds that council should “encourage” those bodies to “support the spirit and objective” of access without fear.

      In a telephone interview, councillor Geoff Meggs, a cochair on the mayor's task force, acknowledged that immigration is primarily a federal issue and so the city’s authority on such policies is limited. But he added that Vancouver is acting where it can.

      “This is a very important symbolic gesture," he said. "It is an important statement to make. And it will be backed up by training and orientation for our staff. But it’s not a sea change. The larger question, I think, is to set  a tone for the community for welcoming newcomers."

      Meggs said he expects the police board and park board will respond positively should council vote in favour of the report's recommendations next week. He added he hopes other bodies in the region will look at similar policies of their own.

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