By Kevin Werner, News Staff
Hamilton officials and politicians attempted to calm residents’ fears that by allowing undocumented immigrants to use city services won’t cost them any more money.
In a unanimous vote Feb. 12, councillors agreed to guidelines that would designate Hamilton as becoming unofficially the second sanctuary city in Canada behind Toronto.
But at the Feb. 26 council, politicians said they have received calls and emails from people criticizing the decision.
“There is some ignorance out there,” said Mountain councillor Terry Whitehead, who said he has received some “mean-spirited calls and emails.”
Stoney Creek councillor Brad Clark said he “fully supported” the motion because it was the right thing to do. As a former MPP and cabinet minister, Clark had to deal with people who ended up in Canada without papers, or who are exploited by their employers and didn’t know where to go for help. He said migrant workers, for instance, who were brought to Canada to work on area farms, came to him for help because of documentation problems, or when employers took away their passports and documents.
“We’re helping people who don’t know where to turn,” said Clark. “Hamilton has always been a caring community.”
He said if people in Hamilton don’t like council’s decision, then “they don’t have to live here.”
Ancaster councillor Lloyd Ferguson acknowledged that he had been receiving “some push back” from members of his community about council’s decision.
Paul Johnson, director of neighbourhood development strategy, told councillors the plan adopted by politicians doesn’t expand access to public health services for undocumented workers, nor will it cost taxpayers more money.
“It doesn’t mean we are harbouring illegal immigrants,” he said. “It does not change our service delivery system about the way we treat people. You can come forward and ask questions. It’s a city that welcomes folks inquiring about services.”
A sanctuary city by definition pledges to give undocumented immigrants access to city services such as shelters, housing, food banks without fear of being deported, turned over to immigration authorities or the police.
Johnson says the city won’t have a dedicated staff person overseeing the policy.
City staff stated in its report that “All Hamiltonians should feel comfortable accessing city services and should not be fearful that their status will be reported to anyone unless required by law.”
Johnson said city staff will receive training under the new policy. In addition, the municipality can help urge the federal and provincial governments to relax their own tough policies toward undocumented immigrants. For instance, the majority of non-profit agencies that are funded by both levels of governments can’t provide services to undocumented individuals, such as Ontario Works or Ontario Disability Support Program. He said the city can serve as a model to other agencies in how to interact with undocumented immigrants.
Toronto became the first sanctuary city when its council approved a formal policy last year. Toronto and Hamilton join 36 other United States cities that have adopted sanctuary city status, including Chicago, San Francisco and New York City.
The decision to adopt so-called sanctuary city guidelines comes when the undocumented population in Canada is expected to increase in 2015 when many legal but temporary foreign workers will see their four-year workers’ permits expire under a new federal law.