Migrant Futures

We need sanctuary cities and resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic

The defence and expansion of sanctuary policies are integral to our collective resiliency at this time.

Graham Hudson
14 April 2020, 12.01am
Member of the Confederation of Toronto Chinese Canadian Organizations arranges bags of donated face masks in Oakville, Ontario, Canada, on April 5, 2020
Picture by Zou Zheng/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images. All rights reserved
Toronto University CERC Migration logo with extra white space.png

Cities have been hit especially hard by the COVID-19 crisis. With over 105 000 cases to date, New York City accounts for almost a fifth of all cases in the US. Half of all cases in the Canadian province of Québec are located in the city of Montréal, with similar statistics across Canada. Population density, high levels of poverty and homelessness, and the local layering of restive global economies present distinctive health, social, and economic challenges in major urban centres.

In some ways, big cities are better positioned to meet these challenges than smaller cities and rural jurisdictions. They have more hospitals, medical professionals, technology, and economic clout. But resources are harder to deploy when human mobility is restricted by national and sub-national emergency management laws. The closure of public spaces, reduced public transportation, physical distancing, and targeted quarantines impede access to critical health and social services.

Fear, isolation, shifting borders, and lack of access to services are familiar experiences for precarious and non-status migrants. Lacking legal authorization to live and work within a country, they are the most vulnerable among us, forbidden from accessing public health, affordable housing, social assistance, labour rights, and education. This is so, even though they contribute to economies through labour, the payment of sales and property taxes, rent, and consumer spending. Social and legal exclusion renders them considerably more likely than the general population to experience serious, untreated physical and mental health issues, poverty, homelessness, economic exploitation, and interpersonal abuse.

We are facing a biological enemy that respects no legal or political barriers and makes no distinction between citizens and non-citizens

In ordinary times, sanctuary city and state policies can relieve some of these burdens. Built on expanded eligibility and promises of non-cooperation with federal immigration authorities, sanctuary cities are a resource for cultivating civic unity. This is sorely needed in the face of the politics of fear that swirl within national discourses, currently visible in the closure of borders even to asylum seekers and racist characterizations of COVID-19 as the ‘Wuhan virus’ or the ‘Chinese virus’. The defense and expansion of sanctuary policies are integral to our collective resiliency at this time, in terms of public health, economic recovery, rights, and the retention and restoration of democratic values.

We are facing a biological enemy that respects no legal or political barriers and makes no distinction between citizens and non-citizens. In Canada, citizenship or prescribed immigration status is ordinarily necessary to access publicly-insured health services. The COVID-19 crisis changed that – at least in Ontario. On 20 March, Premier Doug Ford announced that all persons physically present in Ontario can access hospitals and medical services regardless of immigration status. This measure prioritizes the limitation of contagion and aligns with the right of every human being to be treated as valuable and worth protecting. Other provincial jurisdictions are starting to follow suit, including Québec and British Columbia, though policies vary.

Although most of its resources have been redirected to broader emergency needs, key municipal institutions in Toronto – Canada’s first sanctuary city – are mobilizing to enhance implementation. The Toronto Newcomer Office, Toronto Public Health, and the City’s Emergency Operations Committee meet daily to triage emerging issues and ensure that residents without other supports can receive at least some of what they need. They are joined by several health networks and immigrant and refugee-serving community organizations, all of which have experience working with migrants and co-implementing access without fear policies.

Another pillar of state responses to COVID-19 are expanded access to social assistance, paid sick leave, shelters, and momentary reprieve from evictions. Spearheaded at federal and provincial levels, these services are legally or practically unavailable to non-status migrants; there is expanded but uncertain access for many precarious-status migrants, like temporary foreign workers and international students. There are ways to go around this problem. The government of Portugal recently decided to treat migrants and asylum seekers as though they are permanent residents, so they can access social services, although this still doesn’t address the situation of non-status migrants. With vastly stronger economies, Canadian and American governments have yet to extend access to the most vulnerable among us.

Social and economic policies have direct impacts on public health. Without support, the COVID-19 crisis will increase rates of homelessness, the need for city shelters, and the risk of infection in under-regulated industries. Reports from the US indicate that homeless persons are twice as likely to be hospitalized and up to four times more likely to require intensive care. The interdependence of economic policy, social support, (irregular) migration, and public health, requires governments to carefully recalibrate policy to be inclusive of all persons living and working in the country. Citizenship and official status is an irrational marker of difference.

There should be guidelines restricting the collection, retention, sharing, or seizure of data identifying immigration status

If access to services is expanded, implementation will require the halting or obstruction of inland immigration enforcement. ICE remains active, but claims it’s restricting inland enforcement to “public safety risks”. The inland enforcement operations of the Canada Border Services Agency are at a near standstill, with its limited resources being directed to screening at ports of entry and preventing irregular entry from the US. Currently, it has closed its call-in reporting operations, but it still receives online reporting, including, presumably, from police and other local authorities. Sanctuary cities and states have experience protecting the privacy of their residents. This experience should inform expanded access to social services in jurisdictions without a history of sanctuary policy. There should be guidelines restricting the collection, retention, sharing, or seizure of data identifying immigration status.

A final objective has to be contending with the policing of public space and the under-policing of private space. Non-status migrants will be at increased risk of being stopped and questioned, as restrictions on public spaces escalate. Private spaces are also dangerous. While overall crime rates seem to be down, incidences of domestic violence are higher. Non-status women will be at far greater risk of being abused during the COVID-19 crisis. In their dual role as enforcers of emergency powers and of criminal justice, police officers have to commit to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policies – now more than ever.

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