Policing the Undocumented


As the end of August was dawning and families with children began to turn their attention to school preparation, probably agonizing over the costs of the expected new outfits, supplies and the latest trend in back packs, an unexpected and harsh blow was dealt to some of these families in Toronto.

The City of Toronto is not only Canada's largest city, but its most diverse- in ethno-racial make-up, languages spoken, cultural communities, socio-economic class, sexual minorities and immigration status. This diversity and its ‘management' (I expect to get some pushback by legitimizing the concept of ‘managing diversity' here) is critical to the ongoing success of the city as a place and space. This means that policies, by-laws, guidelines and established practices must respond to this diversity with the end goal always being inclusion and social cohesion. In fact, this value is embedded in the motto of the city, Diversity our Strength and in policies like Access without Fear, which stipulates that all who live in the City of Toronto, will have access to its services and programs regardless of immigration status.

As a city, province and country we are clear that security forces, particularly the police (at all levels) are here to serve and protect. They are subject to civilian oversight and are expected to adhere to the letter and the spirit of the laws which govern us all. As a democracy we ensure the segmentation of duties amongst various State actors for good reason.

None of this seemed to matter however on the morning of August 14 when tens of folk - primarily men in the northwest end of the city were stopped, asked for immigration status identification and those unable to provide the proper ID were arrested on immigration charges and cued for deportation. The majority of those detained were passengers in various vehicles, many on their way to day work, often construction sites where they labour for less than they should be paid in order to feed, clothe and shelter their families. The northwest corner of the city of Toronto is home to Black and Brown communities, many born outside of Canada (which isn't surprising since over 50% of Torontonians were born outside Canada). They were targeted.

Raids on neighbourhoods by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) often leave a bitter taste in one's mouth. It is unsettling to know that one can be going about one's business and without warning, be picked up, jailed and deported. Families – often of mixed citizenship- are torn apart. Fear reins in the communities. Work is skipped, children are kept out of schools all for fear of being picked up and sent away from a life that is being built, often over many, many years.

What made the actions of August 14 even more egregious is the fact that it was carried out under the guise of a transportation safety blitz headed up by the Ontario Ministry of Transportation (MTO) and the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP). The question must be asked, and continue to be asked until a satisfactory response is had: Why is a provincial ministry acting as or allowing itself to be used as a shill for the federal government's deportation regime? In a city, province, country where we do not have (and Goddess forbid ever will have) national identity cards that we must carry, how can such an action be justified?

The outcry from the affected communities and from activists and advocacy groups concerned with civil liberties have been swift, loud and articulate in its outrage. Mainstream media covered it for a day or so then moved on to other stories, but the affected families and communities are still reeling from this action. We have heard excuses and explanations from MTO but nothing convincing. We must be clear though, that nothing short of a disavowal, of any future joint action by any provincial or city actor (ministries, departments, units, employees, etc.) with CBSA will suffice.

The beginning of September brought more troubling news, when OCASI received calls from a member agency informing us that there were complaints from clients that they were being stopped and asked for identification. This was happening on public transit, in bakeries and on construction sites. The information we've been able to gather suggest that folks are approached by individuals identifying themselves as ‘immigration'. This is causing a chill and many folks are being deterred from accessing services on hearing the news. This is not okay.

While I support our right as a country to remove those we deem to be a threat to our communities, expending untold amount of dollars on harassing and rounding up (for the most part) hard working men and women trying to get by makes no sense. There is no evidence about undocumented or those with less than full status posing a threat to our way of life: In fact, quite the opposite. Many of these people are our neighbours. Their children are our children's friends and schoolmates. They contribute to their neighbourhood. Pay property taxes through rent or consumption tax through the HST. Some even have income taxes deducted through work. Yet these people are jailed although they have committed no crime. They are dehumanized by the powers that be so that when their civil liberties are violated, there is no huge public outcry as there should be. Instead there is public silence, because the undocumented are seen as ‘them' not us. As ‘other' who do not belong.

We cannot allow actions like this by police and other enforcement actors like CBSA. We cannot allow these State actors to get away with this without some very hard questions being asked. We risk devaluing our democracy and all that we hold dear as Ontarians if we allow our provincial bodies to act as cover for regressive, unethical and morally questionable actions. We hope our Premier and Cabinet leaders are listening. We await their responses.

In Solidarity