Montreal becomes 'sanctuary city' after unanimous vote

The City of Montreal unanimously approved a motion on Monday declaring itself a "sanctuary city" for unauthorized immigrants, promising undocumented people will be able to obtain services without fear of deportation.

Critics welcome gesture, but say city must go beyond words to help asylum seekers

RCMP officers help children as they climb through the snow to cross the border into Quebec. (Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

The City of Montreal unanimously approved a motion on Monday declaring itself a "sanctuary city" for unauthorized immigrants. 

The motion includes provisions to ensure undocumented people can obtain services without fear of deportation.

Mayor Denis Coderre said the move is more than symbolic and will help protect and assist the most vulnerable without compromising security.

The designation ​comes as the province is dealing with an increase in the number of asylum seekers crossing the border illegally from the United States.

Solidarity Across Borders, a Montreal-based human rights organization, welcomed the idea but said the city needs to take steps beyond what it called "easy symbolism."

The group said Montreal police routinely arrest undocumented migrants and hand them over to the Canada Border Services Agency. It wants that practice stopped.

In a statement, the group also called on Montreal to bar border agents from all city premises.

Changes for police, city services

Coderre, a former federal immigration minister, said the designation would lead to substantive changes.

"We have the expertise. We know the situation on the ground," he said.

Among the provisions contained in the motion:

  • A commitment to offer access to city programs and services, particularly municipal housing, without fear of being detained or deported.
  • A plan for undocumented people in "vulnerable situations" to receive assistance from Montreal police without being reported to immigration officials.
  • A call on the Quebec government, which is responsible for the provincial immigration, to ensure access to health care, emergency services and lodging.​
  • A call on the federal government to regularize the status of undocumented migrants.

Sanctuary cities in Trump age

Coderre initially referred to Montreal as a "sanctuary city" while tweeting a response last month to U.S. President Donald Trump's travel ban, which proposed limiting entry for visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries.

While the term "sanctuary city" carries no official legal definition, in the U.S. it has come to mean more limited co-operation with federal immigration officials and the safe harbour of undocumented immigrants.

Sanctuary ordinances might, for example, discourage police from helping federal officers with immigration status checks.

U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order to end federal funding for sanctuary cities. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Last month, Trump issued an executive order to pull millions of dollars in grants from local governments that fail to comply with federal immigration enforcement laws.

As Trump has pressed ahead with his more restrictive immigration policies, large numbers of asylum seekers from the U.S. have been crossing the Quebec border illegally. 

But Jenny Jeanes, a representative from Action Réfugiés Montréal, a social justice group, said asylum seekers crossing into Canada aren't likely to be affected by Montreal's new status as a sanctuary city. 

"Sanctuary, I think, applies more to people who are without any status in Canada or without any documentation giving them the right to reside," Jeanes said.

Undocumented migrants include visitors who've overstayed their visa, failed refugee claimants and those who've had their refugee status revoked.

Many of those currently crossing the U.S. border illegally are taken into custody by the RCMP before being processed by immigration officials, during which they are given identification papers.

Lessons from Toronto?

Toronto and Vancouver are already designated sanctuary cities, as are Hamilton and London, Ont.​

Several other cities across Canada, including Ottawa, Saskatoon, Regina and Winnipeg, are also considering the possibility.

A new report by criminologists at Ryerson University found that Toronto, which became the first sanctuary city in 2013, lacked the funding and political leadership to follow through on the commitment.

Idil Atak, one of the authors of the report, said police are still turning people in for being undocumented, "sometimes witnesses of crimes, or people who are victimized themselves — for example, domestic violence victims. The victim himself or herself is very much afraid of calling the police." 

Jeanes said Montreal police will need to be on board for the declaration to be meaningful, noting that the motion adopted Monday doesn't go into detail about whether police officers would co-operate with federal border officials.

"I often meet people who are in immigration detention who were initially met by the police, not even because of any crime but sometimes it's a traffic violation," she said. 

With files from Jessica Rubinger, Emily Brass and Kamila Hinkson