Immigration advocates are pushing for Vancouver to become the latest "sanctuary city" for undocumented immigrants in North America.

The policy would prevent the Vancouver Police Department from reporting a person's legal status to the Canada Border Service Agency, unless that person was suspected of a crime. 

It's a concept that has already been implemented in dozens of cities across North America, including Toronto, Hamilton, Portland, Seattle and Chicago. Activists argue undocumented immigrants should be able to feel safe enough to access basic services that they need. 

"We don't want someone to be afraid to go to a food bank because of their migration status," says Tasha Nijjer, a member of the group Sanctuary Health, which has been pushing for Vancouver to adopt a sanctuary city policy.

"We don't want someone to stay in an abusive relationship because she's worried if she calls the police that they're going to ask her about her migration status and she might be deported," Nijjer says.

"We've heard stories from people who are giving birth in their apartments and worried about making too much noise and not wanting the ambulance to be called. It's just not a situation you want anyone to be in."

City in talks with police

City officials have already met with the Vancouver Police Department and Vancouver Coastal Health to discuss how such a policy would work. The mayor's working group on immigration is planning to release a report on the issue later this summer. 

Joshua Labove, who teaches political geography at Simon Fraser University, greets the news happily, but as a legal researcher, he has a lot of questions. 

"In so far as Vision Vancouver and [police chief] Jim Chu are going to come out and say, 'We're not going to look at these people, we're not going to police them', they're probably not doing a heck of a lot of that to begin with," he says.

Unlike Toronto, many immigrant communities find homes outside the City of Vancouver, he says, and the move to be a sanctuary city is mainly symbolic without the support of Translink or other neighbouring jurisdictions such as Abbotsford and Surrey. 

"The city has limited jurisdiction over Transit Police, so it's still possible for a transit cop to over-zealously pursue a migrant from a bus or train station," Labove says.

Furthermore, many health and social services fall under the jurisdiction of the provincial and federal governments or rely on upper levels of government for funding. Any real effort to improve access to basic services for undocumented immigrants needs to involve these levels of government, he says, and the city should develop a legal strategy.

The Canada Border Service Agency maintains a massive inland enforcement operation in Vancouver, which could complicate matters, he adds. 

"Just because the Vancouver Police Department are not actively referring migrants for removal doesn't change the fact the Harper government will assert its territorial authority over border security."