Hamilton – The Latest Sanctuary City

June 2nd, 2014

Merulla_and_AntelloIn February 2014 the city of Hamilton unanimously passed a motion making it a sanctuary city for undocumented individuals. Coming exactly a year after neighbouring Toronto took similar action, Hamilton joins dozens of other cities in the United States and Europe by “re-affirming its commitment to ensuring access to services without fear to immigrants without full status or without full status documents.”

We spoke to Councillor Sam Merulla, a key government representative who helped move the motion along, and Maria Antelo, community development worker at Hamilton Community Legal Clinic and a member of the Hamilton Sanctuary City Coalition, to find out what prompted the action.

Why is it important to Hamilton to provide services without investigating someone’s immigration status?

 Councillor Merulla: It’s a message to new Canadians that they should feel comfortable living in the city of Hamilton and not fear authority. It’s important for a city to come out and say, it’s not our authority, nor is it our jurisdiction, to seek out any new Canadians who don’t have the appropriate documentation. And nor is it within the city’s jurisdiction to report those individuals. At the end of the day, if you’re a resident of this city, whether you are documented or undocumented, from our eyes, you’re equal in the laws of the city of Hamilton. And I think it sends a clear message that we are a progressive and welcoming community.

Maria Antelo:Hamilton is the third largest city receiving immigrants and refugees in Canada. During the last couple of years we have seen injustices inflicted on people without full status.  Recent immigration changes are making it very difficult if not impossible for failed claimants, injured migrant workers or abused caregivers to file for permanent residence status in Canada.

In February 2012 almost 300 community members rallied in front of the federal building asking immigration authorities and specifically Jason Kenney (former Immigration minister) to let Lucene Charles stay in Canada.  Ms. Charles had been in Canada for over 16 years.  Her Canadian-born children knew no other country than Canada.  Her situation was unique, but the Hamilton community came to her support. Over 10,000 people signed the online petition and fundraising efforts paid for her legal fees. At the end Ms. Charles was granted a stay.

Members of what is now the Hamilton Sanctuary City Coalition (HSCC) were very involved in this process.  At the time, we knew that our community was ready to stand up for those that are being denied human rights, like the right to live without fear of detention or deportation.  When Toronto declared itself a SanctuaryCity in 2013, members of the coalition contacted organizers in Toronto.  On May 29 we held a public meeting calling institutions, unions, community leaders and public in general to join forces to make Hamilton the second sanctuary city in Canada. In November we held a public forum.  And on February 12, 2014, Hamilton became a SanctuaryCity.

 Why do you think HSCC’s idea got unanimous support at both the committee and council level?

Councillor Merulla: The fact that it was unanimously supported by members of council who represent various ideologically stripes means we all found common ground on this issue. It’s something that we should be proud of.

Maria Antelo: The coalition worked very hard with key community members who are respected both by the City and the community. HSCC worked with the community to make sure they understood what a SanctuaryCity is and why their councillor should support this motion.  We worked on building a comprehensive community and agency report, speaking to individuals, students, unions, agencies, etc.  Every councillor got calls from members of their ward expressing the need to make Hamilton a welcoming city. This is what the people of Hamilton wanted.

Hamilton Police Service still has to review the motion and its implications. How important is it to have police onside?

Councillor Merulla: At the end of the day, from my perspective, the police are onside. I’m not speaking on their behalf, but my understanding is that they’re enforcing the laws and they’re not asking for immigration status when they’re doing so. I would suspect that they’re focused on what their job is and their job is not an extension of the immigration department.

Maria Antelo: HSCC will make efforts to engage with the Police Service to make clear there might be victims without status who need police protection.  It is vital that anyone that needs police protection gets it and that status should not have to be disclosed.

What progress has been made to the anti-racism staff training program entitled “Equipped to Serve” and what public education strategy is being created in partnership with Hamilton Community Legal Clinic? Do you know how the city plans to monitor and ensure that the motion is enforced?

Councillor Merulla:  The only way you’re going to tackle xenophobia and ignorance is through education. We’re going to rely on our partners, particularly those agencies responsible for new Canadians, as they spoke pretty vocally on the issue about what their fears are and what they see on a day-to-day basis in dealing with new Canadians.

They really are going to be our eyes and ears in the community, particularly among new Canadians because the new Canadians’ circle of trust is very small. The agencies’ mandate is to penetrate that circle. I believe building this trust is our ultimate goal. Rather than having that circle of trust when they first arrive being so small, the circle of trust should encompass the city, the province, and the country.

Maria Antelo:  The Equity Office at the City of Hamilton has assured us that all city staff will receive proper training. Aside from that, the HSCC will also develop the education piece for the public, agencies, etc. HSCC will also take steps to make the City accountable and that the council’s motion is part of its philosophy.

Whether the City does or does not dedicate staff, we believe in working with communities, neighbourhoods, associations, etc. Institutions are important, but people come first.

The council also recommended that the City request the federal and provincial governments to “identify ways to better assist residents with undocumented status in Canada to regain their full status.” What’s your sense of how this conversation might go with your provincial and federal counterparts?

Councillor Merulla:  It would go better with provincial than federal, just clearly based on what I’ve heard to date. From a federal perspective they have an understanding that this is a black and white issue, but it’s not and has significant grey area. As a country of compassion, with many coming from immigrant roots, there needs to be recognition that it’s not as simple as yes and no. We all have a responsibility from a humanistic perspective to ensure that our residents have access to what they need to thrive in our city.

Maria Antelo:  HSCC along with other migrant/refugee groups will hopefully keep this conversation alive.  We need to educate our representatives on human rights abuses and workers rights issues. The number of migrant workers right now is greater than immigrants coming to Canada.  As a community, we need to realize that injustices are lesser when policies are put in place to make Hamilton a home for those who do not have one.

Hamilton is one of only a small number of cities declaring themselves as sanctuary cities. What is it that you will tell other cities considering similar action?

Councillor Merulla:  I think what they need to consider the obvious. Globalization, when it comes to migration, has existed for decades.  We were all new at one time, we all need to not forget where we have come from. We need to provide a climate that better serves needs as opposed to the ignorance associated with those who want to subject everyone to their xenophobia.

It’s a very local issue in Hamilton with very significant global impact. And we need to look at ourselves as more of a global community, as opposed to in isolation locally. Exclusion has historically been destructive, in all aspects of our society.

Maria Antelo:  The work is being done first at a local level.  Everyone deserves to live in a community where dignity respect and equality is guaranteed.  No one is illegal.  We are all connected by our common humanity. We have to start at home, from the bottom up.

Related:
Access to Services for Undocumented Individuals (PDF)

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