Why Denis Coderre wants to make Montreal a sanctuary city

As a growing number of asylum seekers flee the U.S. to Quebec, Mayor Denis Coderre is planning to designate Montreal as a sanctuary city. But what does that mean exactly?

Designation takes on new meaning in age of Donald Trump

Demonstrators outside Cincinnati city hall on Jan. 30 chant against President Donald Trump's executive order temporarily banning immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. Mayor John Cranley has declared Cincinnati a 'sanctuary city.' (John Minchillo/Associated Press)

As a growing number of asylum seekers flee the U.S. to Quebec, Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre is planning to introduce "very concrete measures" to ensure people without status or documentation have access to municipal services without fear of expulsion.

A declaration making Montreal a "sanctuary city" is expected to be put to a vote this week.

"There are people who have been here for six or seven years, and then they are being expelled. It creates major social disorder,"  he told reporters Wednesday, adding that he would seek approval from the Quebec government to get the designation.

"Montreal is already a city of solidarity; it is the second largest centre of immigration in the country. We have a role to play, and I take my responsibilities."

Calls to 'get beyond easy symbolism'

Coderre, a former federal immigration minister, noted there could be exceptions under such a policy, saying undocumented immigrants with a criminal record or those thought to be a security risk would be treated differently.

So far, though, he has not offered details about what the designation would entail. He is planning to consult with the Quebec government on the issue.

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre says a proposal will be brought to city council as soon as next Tuesday. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Solidarity Across Borders, a Montreal-based human rights organization, welcomed Coderre's announcement, but it cautioned that declaring Montreal a sanctuary city isn't enough on its own.

"The City of Montreal needs to get beyond easy symbolism, and undertake tangible measures to ensure non-co-operation with the Canada Border Services Agency to end deportations and ensure access without fear by undocumented migrants to all essential services, including health care, education and housing," says Stacey Gomez, a spokeswoman for the organization.

The designation is most common in the U.S., where about 400 jurisdictions have sanctuary policies — including major centres such as New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago.

While the term carries no official legal definition, in the U.S. often it means more limited co-operation with federal immigration officials and the safe harbour of undocumented immigrants. Sanctuary ordinances might ban police from helping federal officers with immigration status checks, for example.

Why now?

The notion of a sanctuary city has taken on greater meaning under President Donald Trump, who has vowed to crack down on illegal immigrants.

Trump signs two executive orders during a visit to the Department of Homeland Security. The orders jump-start the construction of a U.S.-Mexico border wall and end federal funding for so-called sanctuary cities. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
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.

A Reuters analysis of federal grants awarded to the nation's 10 largest county and city governments estimates they could be stripped of $2.27 billion in annual funds if each jurisdiction defies Trump, and he makes good on his threat.

On our side of the border, Vancouver and Toronto are already designated sanctuary cities, as are Hamilton and London, Ont. Ottawa is also considering the designation.

Quebec, meanwhile, is dealing with a substantial increase in the number of asylum seekers crossing illegally into the country from the U.S.

In January, 452 people claimed asylum at Quebec border crossings — a 230 per cent increase from January 2016, the RCMP said. 

with files from Matt Kwong