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Canada experiments with U.S. ‘sanctuary city’ model

Large Photo Caption: People protested the immigration policies of U.S. President Donald Trump outside the U.S. Consulate in Toronto in January. (arindambanerjee/

By Gregory Scruggs February 28, 2017
The idea of a city serving as a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants goes back nearly 40 years in the United States, where it’s become a symbol of resistance against President Trump’s hardline immigration policies. But does the “sanctuary city” concept translate outside the U. S.?

Montréal is going to find out. Last week, Canada’s second largest city became its third to formally adopt the “sanctuary city” designation. The decision means that municipal services will be available to all residents, regardless of their immigration status. It does not specify whether local police will be directed not to cooperate with national immigration authorities.

The point about police cooperation has been a sticking point for Canadian cities as they follow the lead of more than 200 jurisdictions in the U. S., including New York City and the state of California.

In the U. S. context, sanctuary policies generally mean that local police will not ask a person his or her immigration status, or report a person’s undocumented status to federal law enforcement officials. The Trump Administration has vowed to cut off federal funding to jurisdictions that continue such practices.

But in Canada, a country where multiculturalism is becoming a key part of the national identity, immigration policies are much more welcoming to begin with. That causes some to question whether moves like Montréal’s are even necessary.

After the city council approved the declaration on 20 February, Montréal Mayor Denis Coderre said the city’s public security committee will study how police should respond to the new policy.  Migrants’ rights advocates are encouraging Coderre to direct police explicitly not to cooperate with the Canada Border Services Agency on any actions that could lead to deportation for persons without legal status.

By contrast, a pro-immigration columnist for The Globe and Mail called Coderre’s move “a needless test of Canadian tolerance.” Konrad Yakabuski argued that Canada’s immigration laws — unlike those of the U. S.— function well. Declaring Montréal a sanctuary city, Yakabuski argued, would only “encourage the creation of a permanent underclass of undocumented illegal immigrants” and meddle with the public’s trust in its laws and institutions.

The response suggests that the idea of sanctuary cities may cross the U. S.-Canada border more easily than its practice.

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