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Police in Toronto Are Accused of Doing the 'Dirty Work' of Immigration Officials

A new report says Toronto police made 3,278 calls to the Canada Border Services Agency between November 2014 and June 2015. That's more than police in Quebec City, Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton, and Vancouver combined.
Joe O'Connal/The Canadian Press

When Jared, a man living without legal status in Toronto, saw a random act of violence in early June, he did what the average person would do and dialed 911. But now, looking back at the incident months later, he says he wouldn't have made the same call.

The 20-something man, who asked to only be identified by his first name as he waits for his status application to go through, says he overlooked his fear of being caught for living in Canada illegally, and immediately phoned the police after his cousin was shot in the leg. Jared went to the police station, provided a statement, and waited for an officer who offered to give him a ride back to his car. It was a long wait.


When the officer did finally return, he was accompanied by a man holding a piece of paper. Jared says the officers told him they had discovered an outstanding immigration warrant against him. Canadian border enforcement officials were already on their way to pick him up. Jared, who had lived in Canada for about 10 years, thought of his wife and child, and broke down in tears.

A new report released by No One is Illegal, a group that advocates on behalf of migrants, on Wednesday has found that in Toronto, stories like Jared's are not uncommon. Police regularly call Canadian border authorities to check immigration statuses, violating Toronto's Sanctuary City policy, adopted in 2013.

The policy is supposed to give an estimated 200,000 people living in Toronto without legal status access to city services — including the Toronto police — without fear of being turned over to border officials.

Related: Undocumented Immigrants Pay Billions in Taxes to Fund Programs They're Banned From Using

The report, compiled using data obtained through access to information requests, says Toronto police made more calls to the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) between November 2014 and June 2015 — 3,278 to be exact — than police in Quebec City, Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton, and Vancouver combined. The calls from Toronto police accounted for nearly one third of all calls received by CBSA from policing agencies.


Eighty-three percent of the calls made to the the CBSA's Warrant Response Center by Toronto police, its most frequent users, were to verify immigration status, known as "status checks," the report found. Only 7.1 percent of the people reported to the CBSA actually had outstanding immigration warrants that the cops were previously aware of.

As a result, the report went on to say, Toronto police, who are supposed to abide by a "don't ask" policy that says victims and witnesses of crime can't be asked for their immigration status unless there are bona fide reasons to do so, were involved in "indefinite detentions and deportations," putting many undocumented Torontonians at "grave risk."

Police spokesperson Mark Pugash challenges the numbers in the report.

"I don't believe those numbers are accurate," he says. "There are serious issues with them in addition to allegations without substance and conclusions without evidence. I'm not certain that either the numbers or their interpretation of those numbers are at all accurate."

In addition, from his perspective, the report presents a flawed understanding of the laws and procedures police are required to follow.

"'Don't ask' means I don't come up to you — I'm seeing you for the first time — and ask 'Are you in the country legally?' But if I am investigating you and I become aware that you have an immigration warrant against you, I am required to check that," he says. "The only point at which we raise an issue is when we become aware of something that suggests that someone is here illegally … If you tell me there's a warrant out for someone who lives in the next apartment, we have to check that."


"They make suggestions [in the report] that are simply ridiculous," he adds. "The idea that police can look the other way, I don't know where they got that, but that makes no sense whatsoever."

Cities across North America, however, are doing just that. In February, transit police in Vancouver ended their memorandum of understanding with the CBSA. It was established that "police who encounter undocumented migrants during the course of fare enforcement activities will leave any follow-up action to federal authorities."

In 2012, Chicago's city council passed a "welcoming city ordinance," which stops city police from holding undocumented immigrants for immigration authorities unless they've been convicted of a serious crime or there's been an arrest warrant issued for them.

Although Toronto police don't have a "don't tell" policy, several legal experts in the report say the force is not obligated to report a person's immigration status to the CBSA.

"They just decided to interpret the Police Services Act that way," said MacDonald Scott, an immigration consultant at Carranza LLP. "In the law, if you're compelling someone to do something, you use words like 'shall' or 'must.'"

"The word 'may' shows discretion," said Scott. "They have the discretion not to tell immigration, and if they want to make Toronto a safer place, they shouldn't."

Toronto immigration lawyer Michael Niren also agreed that the police aren't required by law to report non-status residents to the CBSA.


"Rather, it's their policy to do so," he said, adding that he continues to regularly get calls from people who have been detained by the agency as a result of being picked up or detected by police.

But in an interview, Pugash reiterated the police's long-held position that they have "no choice" when it comes to turning undocumented residents to CBSA and that to say otherwise was a misinterpretation of the law.

Related: Escaping into prison: The battle over immigrant mothers and children detained by the US

The report also argues that since "status checks" are done based on a suspicion that a person may not have immigration status, police are racially profiling individuals on the basis of their skin tone and accent.

"That to me is entirely unwarranted," counters Pugash. "If we have evidence that someone is here illegally, does that mean we're profiling them? Where is the evidence for that? That is absurd."

But Jared, who had no criminal record and was at the station as a witness to a crime, has never received an explanation for why his immigration status was checked in the first place. He suspects it was because he's a black man.

"At the same time as the federal government is making congratulatory statements regarding the rightful welcoming of refugees, we have undeniable evidence that Toronto police racially profiles immigrants in the city based on their accent and skin color to find out if they have full immigration status, and if they don't, arrests them and hands them over to immigration enforcement," said Karl Gardner, an organizer with No One Is Illegal-Toronto in a news release. "TPS is doing federal immigration enforcement's dirty work, using city resources to do something that's not in their mandate."


The report recommends police add a "don't tell" component to the "don't ask" policy, which would mean not reporting undocumented people to the CBSA if their immigration status is confirmed.

"[Toronto police] are 31 percent of all calls from the CBSA, and I think that's a disturbing statistic," says city councillor Joe Mihevc, who is trying to have the Toronto Police Service struck from the list of services available to undocumented residents under the Sanctuary City policy. "This is about being honest to people and what we're telling them — are they accessible services regardless of status?"

Jared says police officers reassured him that he'd be released in a matter of days. Instead, he was left waiting at the Toronto Immigration Holding Centre for almost three months to learn his fate, while fighting his deportation in federal court.

"I regret ever trying to help them," he says. "I'll preach this into my kid's head. I'll tell him straight up if you see someone shot someone in the head … you come home and tell me, and we'll keep this between us. We'll not go to another police officer."

Follow Tamara Khandaker on Twiter: @anima_tk