What's in a name? Vancouver not a 'sanctuary city' says councillor

Vancouver is not a sanctuary city, and one city councillor says that's a good thing.

The term "sanctuary city" has no legal definition, but traditionally it's been used to define a city that welcomes refugees and immigrants and does not devote municipal funds to target or arrest undocumented people.

The idea of a "sanctuary city" has grown stronger in recent months in reaction to U.S. President Donald Trump's crackdown on undocumented workers and the increased number of reports of refugees crossing the U.S. border into Canada. 

Toronto became the first sanctuary city in Canada in 2013. Last month, Montreal voted unanimously to become one, and approved a motion to ensure non-status migrants are able to obtain municipal services without fear of being deported. London, Ont. passed a similar motion earlier this year.

Councillor Geoff Meggs told CBC'sThe Early Edition that many people misunderstand the meaning of the word.

"A lot of people when they hear the term think of churches providing refuge to people who would otherwise be deported and so forth," Meggs said.

But the city can't legally overstep federal immigration law, Meggs explained, and would not be able to provide that kind of security or shelter for undocumented people who come to the city.

"We felt, and this is what the settlement and newcomer services said as well, that we should not oversell what is happening."

'Access without fear' policy

The City of Vancouver has an "access without fear" policy which it adopted in April.

Meggs says that policy allows people to access city services — like the library or a community recreation facility — without disclosing immigration status.

The policy also extends to city workers who are directed to leave status questions out of daily tasks when dealing with the public.

For example, Meggs said, if a city worker is doing a building inspection at a site with undocumented workers, they are encouraged to stick to the inspection, and leave immigration enforcement to Canada Borders Services Agency.

But Meggs admitted there are grey areas — particularly when it comes to Vancouver police, who have a duty to enforce the law.

"The police have relationships and obligations they have to uphold because it's been a sensitive area," he said.

City could provide more services: advocate

Mario Ayala is a refugee services director for the Inland Refugee Society of B.C., an organization which provides support for undocumented individuals.

Ayala said the city has fewer powers than federal officials when it comes to immigration enforcement.

"The [city] has limited power to avoid detention for undocumented people who are coming here," he said.

However, Ayala said the city could provide more services to the most vulnerable newcomers to the city.

"Basically what they're trying to do is provide to them the basic services the city has, like access to the library, access to the recreational centre, but still we need more," he said.

"We need more access perhaps to free clinics [and] education."

With files from The Early Edition

To listen to the interview, click on the link labelled Vancouver shouldn't become a sanctuary city says city councillor and City should provide more services for undocumented people in Vancouver, advocate says