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A woman protests Trump's travel ban in Ottawa. Since the ban, some Canadian cities have become sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants. [Photo © Jasmine Sikand, via Flickr]

Somerset Councillor Catherine McKenney says she is still hopeful that Ottawa will become a sanctuary city despite the fact that a motion at city council scheduled for Feb. 8 has been put on hold. In a statement, her office outlined why the designation is important. 

“This is a small piece that the City of Ottawa can do to tell our most vulnerable residents that we are a caring and compassionate city and that they can access services without fear.” 

A sanctuary city designation would allow Ottawa to deliver services to undocumented immigrants without putting them at risk of deportation or detention. Ottawa councillors decided to put the motion on hold while they gather more public opinion on the issue. Council plans to introduce a report at a future Community and Protective Services Committee meeting.

If the proposal passes, Ottawa would join a handful of other Canadian cities that have declared themselves as sanctuaries, including London, Vancouver, Hamilton and Toronto. Cities like Montreal, Saskatoon, and Regina are also considering becoming sanctuaries.

In 2013, Toronto became the first. Mayor John Tory recently reaffirmed the city as sanctuary on Jan. 31 in the wake of U.S. President Donald Trump’s travel ban. Since the ban, interest has increased regarding sanctuary cities in Canada.

“We believe that we have a responsibility as a city to take care of the residents that are living here whether they are permanent residents, a refugee, an undocumented resident or a citizen,” says Toronto city councillor Joe Cressy. “We are stronger because of the presence of refugees. They make us stronger, not weaker.”

In an email, Councillor McKenney’s office says the sanctuary city designation will help those who have lost their immigration status, but won’t change their distinction.  

“The majority of immigrants or refugees who do not have status come into Canada through authorized programs but for a variety of reasons have had their status lapse,” says her office. “This will include refugee claimants who are awaiting a decision on their application or workers whose visas have expired.” 

She also asserted that the distinction would come at no extra cost to taxpayers. 

Sanctuary status leads to legal limbo

Howard Duncan, the executive head of the Metropolis Project at Carleton University, says declaring a city sanctuary is a bold move, as it potentially puts the city in violation of federal law.

“The fundamental point of a sanctuary city is that by declaring itself to be a sanctuary city, it’s committing itself to acts of civil disobedience,” says Duncan. “To do so is contrary to federal law.” 

Councillor Cressy says Toronto’s policy has benefited migrants.

“People feel comfortable or more comfortable accessing services and living in our city because of our sanctuary city policy. Residents know it’s a welcoming place and remains one.”

Spike in border crossings

In recent weeks, Manitoba and Quebec have seen an influx in undocumented migrants crossing the border from the United States.

“We can confirm that there has been an increase in illegal migration in Quebec, Manitoba, and British Columbia, with the largest increase being seen in Quebec,” The RCMP said in an email.

“Illegal migration continues to be a complex issue, however, cooperative efforts allow the RCMP and their partners to respond to the evolving trends encountered at the border.”

The police force would not comment on the specific number of people who have illegally crossed the border into Canada.

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