City council officially approved the concept of Hamilton being a sanctuary city on Wednesday, which means undocumented immigrants can access city services without fear of being questioned on their immigration status.

The Hamilton Sanctuary City Coalition brought the idea to councillors last year, and staff studied it. On Monday, a city committee unanimously approved providing services without investigating someone’s immigration status. The council vote was unanimous too.

Now immigrants can be sure to get help without fear of their status being revealed, councillors said.

“It’s about sending a signal to those new Canadians to know they’re not only welcome here, but they’re not going to be targeted,” Coun. Sam Merulla said.

Here are six questions answered about the sanctuary city concept in Hamilton:

1. What is an “undocumented individual?”

This refers to a person who has not been granted permission to stay in the country, or has overstayed their visa.

The majority of undocumented immigrants come into Canada through authorized programs but for various reasons, their status lapses. This includes refugee claimants awaiting a decision, failed refugee claimants still in the country or workers whose visas have expired. They aren’t all unemployed either — many immigrants without full status work and contribute tax dollars.

2. How many are there in Hamilton?

Nationally, there are between 20,000 and 500,000 non-status immigrants. The city report does not mention Hamilton-specific numbers. 

3. How much will this cost?

City staff say there is no cost associated with the decision, nor will it mean adding staff.

4. How is this different from what already happens?

In most cases, it won’t be any different. Numerous city services are already available to undocumented immigrants, and staff typically don't ask about immigration status. There are some exceptions outside the city's control, and those won’t change. Social assistance is one of them — that’s mandated by the province, so undocumented immigrants can’t be on social assistance. Some provincially legislated health services, such as OHIP, also require citizenship information.

5. What services will this impact?

This will impact public health, fire, recreation, transit and other services offered by the city. Hamilton Police Service, which is run by a separate board, says it needs time to review the notion and its implications. The police service is key — sanctuary city advocates say many undocumented immigrant women are often abused but afraid to call the police.

6. What does this vote mean?

It means the city’s anti-racism training program, “Equipped to Serve,” will be revised to include the new philosophy. The city will also develop a public education strategy to raise awareness for the issues faced by undocumented immigrants. It will also call on the federal and provincial governments to review their policies to help more immigrants gain full status.

Merulla and Coun. Brad Clark both said they’d received negative comments, but weren’t swayed by them. Clark characterized some of his calls as “bigoted and xenophobic.”

“I don’t think it’s Hamilton,” Clark said. “I’ve lived here my entire life and it’s a very kind, caring, compassionate city. But there are still people who have this latent racism underneath where if they’re unemployed and they’re suffering, they have to blame someone, and it’s the immigrants who get the blame.”

The sanctuary city concept is not new. Toronto, Chicago and New York and a handful of other cities have deemed themselves sanctuary cities.