OUR SANCTUARY CITY
Donald Trump’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants in the U.S. means Hamilton and just a few other Canadian municipalities with “sanctuary city” policies will be beacons of hope for people fleeing their homelands
IT WAS JUST THREE YEARS AGO, but in some ways it was another world.
The vote at Hamilton City Hall came before savage terrorist attacks in France, before Canada accepted refugees from wartorn Syria, and 16 months before reality TV show character Donald Trump declared his candidacy for president.
Feb. 12, 2014, was when Hamilton was dubbed a sanctuary city, following a council vote that meant it would be the second Canadian city to declare it would provide refugees with services such as emergency shelters, recreation, public transit, libraries, food banks, and police and fire services without asking questions about their status.
It’s an open question if the measure — which did not use the phrase “sanctuary city” but rather “Access to Services for Undocumented Individuals” — has carried much weight.
But for those people in recent weeks who have been making potentially dangerous breaks for freedom at the Canadian border, any city declaring itself a sanctuary represents life-saving refuge in the age of Trump — even if such idealism may ultimately be misplaced.
HAMILTON COUNCILLOR Jason Farr says the sanctuary city policy has not been a mere motherhood statement, and the proof is in how effectively Hamilton has welcomed Syrian refugees (1,491 to date).
But Coun. Donna Skelly, who was not on council back then, counters it “has no teeth” because immigration is an issue for senior levels of government.
“It’s a wonderful message to say ‘we welcome you’ but it has zero clout,” she said. “This is an issue the feds and province will need to address, because that’s where serious change can be made.”
The vote in 2014 came after lobbying from a local citizens’ group, the Hamilton Sanctuary City Coalition, in light of federal immigration policy that led to deportations of migrant workers living here without legal status.
But the issue of undocumented immigrants and refugees has since taken on new dimensions, with the massive displacement of people from civil war in Syria and Iraq: 65 million in 2015 alone, according to the United Nations. By comparison about 60 million were displaced after the Second World War.
Add to that equation the rise of Trump-fuelled nationalism and calls for tightening borders in the U.S. and Europe, and there seems potential for new waves of refugees to filter to cities that have declared themselves sanctuaries — like Hamilton and Toronto, and more recently Montreal and London, Ont.
In a sense, while the scale may yet prove to be unprecedented, this is nothing new for Hamilton, a diverse border town with a big-hearted tradition.
In the late 1970s, local churches took up the cause of accepting and protecting refugees from the Vietnam War, and then again in the 1980s for those who fled the devastation of war in Central America.
In the new post-Cold War world of the 1990s, Hamilton took in refugees from war in Kosovo and Bosnia when the former Yugoslavia disintegrated.
The late 1980s was when Ines Rios started her work in Hamilton as director of what is now called the Immigrants Working Centre, helping settle refugees from El Salvador and Nicaragua.
She says refugees finding their way in a strange city are hesitant to seek basic city services for fear of being asked about their undocumented status.
They feel marginalized, she says, and may go into hiding or even turn to crime because of the perceived need to survive.
Rios isn’t sure how much tangible impact the local sanctuary city policy has had to date, but suggests the current immigration climate may put it to the test.
“We started (at the centre) because of that need 30 years ago, for people asking for protection,” she said. “We responded well that time; we will respond this time as well.”
Some who lobbied Hamilton councillors three years ago to declare a sanctuary city believe the designation has accomplished little.
Blake McCall, a resident who spoke at council on the issue, says the city has failed to live up to the intent of the policy, suggesting few resources have been allocated toward implementing it, such as training staff on how to deal with refugees, or lobbying senior levels of government to get involved in areas such as health care and education, where the city has no jurisdiction.
Cities are a start, McCall suggested, but what he thinks is needed is for Ontario to become “a sanctuary province.”
On that note, Mayor Fred Eisenberger says he plans to raise the issue of education access for undocumented residents with the school board.
“We want to embrace people who come here to make a new life,” he said, conceding the city can only speak for services provided locally.
“I’m happy that Hamilton is a sanctuary city, and proud to say it loud and clear.”
Toronto’s city council reaffirmed its status as a sanctuary city last month. But a recent story in the Toronto Star quoted a refugee settlement official calling the designation “a joke,” in part because members of the Toronto Police Service have in certain cases passed along information about undocumented refugees to the Canadian Border Services Agency.
Hamilton Police Service, for its part, told The Spectator through a spokesperson that officers “subscribe to the letter and spirit of the (sanctuary city) policy” and a resident’s status would never be “an impediment to service delivery in any way from a policing perspective … We will continue to provide policing services to all members of our community regardless of status.”
The notion of a sanctuary city goes back to ancient times, when cities were designated as places of asylum for those accused of accidental manslaughter.
The term came into the modern lexicon in North America in the 1970s when Los Angeles passed sanctuary city legislation. Today there are more than 30 such cities in the U.S.
But in recent years the concept has come under fire from immigration hawks in the U.S., the connection between crime and “illegals” the rallying cry for Trump and many of his supporters. (Trump has threatened to withdraw federal funding to sanctuary cities like Chicago.)
Trump features prominently on the home page of a Texas-based ad- vocacy group in the U.S. called the Remembrance Project, which supports families “whose loved ones were killed by illegal aliens” and calls this violence an “epidemic across the country.”
Eisenberger accuses the new president of stoking fear in North America and around the world: “It is irrational fear, but then that is sometimes what fear is.”
Henry Giroux, who was born in the U.S., teaches cultural studies at McMaster University, and is author of “America at War with Itself,” rains rhetorical fire upon Trump for his immigration policies.
And he suggests the concept of sanctuary should be radically expanded.
Institutions such as schools, universities, churches, synagogues and mosques should take on the role of “democracies in exile,” supporting undocumented immigrants and helping teach what democracy is about.
He loves Hamilton for its official position on the issue and says sanctuary is “a metaphor for taking seriously what it means for society to never be ‘just’ enough … We won’t organize around shared fears, but around shared responsibilities.”
But the apparent popularity of Trumpism in the U.S. and beyond suggests there is extreme polarization on the emotionally charged, complex issue: the viewpoint of the mayor or Giroux is either enlightened compassion or blindness to dangerous realities.
In the end, the gulf between the two sides perhaps represents fundamentally different perspectives on human nature and civic duty.
One such perspective appears on a plaque at one of the most popular tourist attractions in New York City.
The poem, called The New Colossus, was penned in 1883 by Emma Lazarus. Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand … Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Depending on your point of view, the words on the plaque at the Statue of Liberty, which sits 30 kilometres from where Donald John Trump was born, represent a sacred commitment, with all the implications therein.
Or they are just words.
“That’s how we started (at the immigrant centre) because of that need 30 years ago, for people asking for protection.” INES RIOS DIRECTOR, IMMIGRANTS WORKING CENTRE “We want to embrace people who come here to make a new life.” FRED EISENBERGER HAMILTON MAYOR “We will continue to provide policing services to all members of our community regardless of status.” HAMILTON POLICE SERVICE
Family members from Somalia are helped into Canada by RCMP officers at the U.S.-Canada border in Quebec a week ago. The number of asylum seekers crossing into Canada is expected to grow as the weather gets warmer.
A couple claiming to be from Turkey are warned by an RCMP officer before crossing the U.S.-Canada border into Quebec on Thursday.