When Wendy Maxwell Edwards was sexually assaulted by a security officer in 2001, she reported it to the police, which set in motion a series of events that almost saw her deported. Partway through the trial the Crown decided her testimony wasn’t needed. As an immigrant from Costa Rica living in Toronto with no legal status, she was then reported to immigration authorities. “Women with non-status cannot report sexual harassment at work, spousal abuse or even rape if the result is being punished by deportation,” she says.
It is because of cases like this that a group of activists is lobbying Toronto council to adopt a policy that would prevent city workers, including police, from inquiring about the immigration status of people seeking services. It would also prevent them from passing on information about immigration status to any federal or provincial agency. “We felt it was essential for a lot of people we were working with to be able to access services without fear,” says Sima Zerehi, a campaign organizer with No One Is Illegal.
Zerehi says the idea came about in 2003, after organizers heard of a similar policy in New York City and began to realize how many of the non-status people they worked with in immigration detention centres had ended up there as a result of trying to access city services. Non-status persons, sometimes called illegal immigrants, are people who entered the country legally but lost their right to remain here, either because their refugee claim was denied or they overstayed a tourist visa. Until they are ordered deported or granted status, they are stuck in a legal limbo, with no official immigration status. And with an estimated 20,000 to 200,000 non-status persons living in Canada—half of those in the Toronto area—Zerehi says it’s imperative the city make it easier for them to access essential services without fear of being reported to immigration authorities.
Campaign organizers say non-status persons are entitled to services because the Canadian economy benefits from their labour. “Communities without status do contribute in a positive way to our economy. There really isn’t any reason why they shouldn’t be offered adequate services,” says Zerehi.
Police routinely ask about immigration status when investigating unrelated matters, such as domestic violence complaints. “If, through the normal course of an investigation, we find people with various immigration statuses, obviously we communicate that to Immigration Canada,” says Sergeant Jim Muscat of the Toronto Police Service.
That’s precisely the kind of situation organizers would like to change. But they realize that even having a policy might not make a difference immediately. For example, schools in Ontario are required to admit children whose parents are “unlawfully in Canada.” Yet, according to Martha Mackinnon, executive director of the Justice for Children and Youth Legal Clinic, about 100 children were denied access to Toronto schools this past year, even though the school board has a policy of admitting non-status children. “We took action, and to our knowledge, everyone was admitted,” she says. “Unfortunately, I think that we need more work on the implementation of the policy, especially at a local school level,” concedes school board trustee Bruce Davis.
With the campaign still in its early days, organizers are hopeful. Mayor David Miller supports the principle that all city residents should have access to city services: “The general policy in our administration is that, unless legally obliged, city workers do not ask about immigration status.” But despite his tacit endorsement and the fact that a variety of community organizations and three city councillors have come on board, the city’s official position is that non-status persons already have access to some services, such as public health nurses and homeless shelters, and that the city is prevented by provincial legislation from providing other services, such as social housing. Under the Social Housing Reform Act, for example, every person in the household must have legal status in order for the entire family to be placed on the waiting list.
Organizers say their next step is to hold a public forum this fall. The sooner council addresses the issue, the better, says Cindy Cowan, executive director of the women’s shelter Nellie’s, who sees first-hand what happens when women at risk are afraid to call the police and why a policy is necessary. “It would reduce the fear,” she says, “and enable women to get the support and services they need.”