How should police interact with undocumented immigrants?

Some police forces have developed guidelines — but critics say they give law enforcement too much power
By Chantal Braganza - Published on August 9, 2018
Toronto Police Service officers
In 2006, the Toronto Police Service first released guidelines for interacting with people without documentation. (iStock.com/stacey_newman)

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Late last month, the Vancouver Police Department released a set of proposed guidelines outlining how its officers should interact with undocumented immigrants in the city. Initially called “Access to Police Services Without Fear,” it was drafted in response to Vancouver’s 2016 decision to pass a sanctuary-city policy, which guarantees residents without status access to municipal services.

“The VPD is mindful of the challenges undocumented migrants face,” it reads. “The protection of the public is without question the central objective of the VPD, one which applies equally to all people regardless of their immigration status.” The policy states that during the course of a police investigation, officers can ask individuals about their immigration status only in certain circumstances — when, for example, the person in question needs to enter the witness-protection program, a Crown counsel requires such information during a court proceeding, or police deem it necessary for public safety or to prove the elements of an offence.

But not everyone welcomes the guidelines. When the Vancouver Police Board met on July 19 to vote on them, refugee and migration advocates — including lawyers from the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association and members of the community group Sanctuary Health — expressed wide-ranging concerns about the policy: the terms it used were overly vague; its name suggested that people could go to police assuming they wouldn’t be asked about their status (the title was eventually changed to “VPD Guidelines on Requests Related to Immigration Status”); it gave police too much power. Some community members simply walked out.

“These new guidelines, when you actually read them, they’re so broad in accepting police discretion, ensuring that their officers have the discretion to call the Canadian Border Services Agency pretty much whenever they want,” says Omar Chu, an organizer with Sanctuary Health.

Policies such as the VPD’s are intended to ease the fears of people without status who might otherwise avoid contacting police for help or to report a crime. But according to community advocates and researchers, they’re often not very helpful — and can even be misleading.    

Hamilton, London, Vancouver, and Montreal have all adopted some kind of sanctuary-city policy since Toronto introduced one in 2013; others Canadian cities, such as Winnipeg and Ottawa, are considering doing the same. The question of how local police should be involved in developing such policies has often arisen: forces have agreements with the CBSA and are legally required to arrest individuals with removal orders if their status becomes known. But not every local police force has established guidelines for such interactions.

In 2004, years before Toronto adopted sanctuary-city status, this became a headline issue in the city when, after an undocumented teenager from Grenada contacted police to report an assault, her status was investigated, and she was handed over to the CBSA. Two years later, the TPS released a set of guidelines for interacting with people without documentation. Its current iteration states that “victims and witnesses of crime shall not be asked their immigration status, unless there are bona fide reasons to do so” — as with the VPD guidelines, such reasons can relate to the witness-protection program, court cases, public safety, and establishing the facts of a crime. “[The guidelines] show up in policies regarding sexual assault or domestic violence,” says Graham Hudson, a professor of criminology at Ryerson University. “So it’s written down from day one that you get hired.”

For the last few years, University of Ottawa criminologist David Moffette has collected data on police calls to the CBSA and the Warrant Response Centre, a 24/7 phone line available to law enforcement. While the Toronto Police Service has consistently requested the most status checks, the numbers have been falling: in 2015, there were 4,316 calls and in 2017, there were 2,873. Montreal, which doesn’t currently have guidelines, and Vancouver have edged up — from 2,099 and 283 to 3,028 and 366, respectively.

The difficulty with these numbers, says Hudson, is that we don’t know what’s prompted the calls. “What they never do is give details on the circumstances under which they’ll collect info.”

“The problem is when it’s used in PR to say, ‘Don’t worry — just come talk to the police,’” says Moffette. Toronto’s and Vancouver’s policies are “limited to witnesses or victims of a crime. It doesn’t protect anyone who’s being stopped on the street for jaywalking, being in a park after 11, or any other reason.” 

As the recent spike in asylum seekers crossing into Canada from the United States has become highly politicized, says Hudson, this uncertainty is significant. He points to the federal government’s recent appointment of former Toronto police chief Bill Blair to the newly created portfolio of border security and organized-crime reduction. “This came as a surprise to everyone in the field,” he says. “You’re seeing immigration being linked to criminal law.”

“I look at the writing on the wall and see many reasons to suppose that the federal government is going to foster ever-growing relationships with provincial and local police forces. So it seems to me that we can expect a regression with respect to the ability of cities to build their own policies around this.”

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