Abdullah Shihipar is a master of public health candidate at the Brown University School of Public Health. Chris Ramsaroop is a PhD candidate at the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education at the University of Toronto and an organizer with Justice for Migrant Workers.
Mistreatment by immigration and customs officials in the United States has become so rampant that it has begun to feel routine. Citizens are being held, people are being separated from their families in draconian street pick-ups and children are being held in squalid conditions at the border.
So for Canadians, it may be easy to breathe a sigh of relief that we live in a country that prides itself on welcoming people from all over the world.
Not so fast.
In July, CityNews reported that agents from the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) conducted street checks in the Jane and Wilson neighbourhood of Toronto. They demanded proof of status from people of colour, according to a woman whose father was stopped by agents; he provided his driver’s licence and they accused him of lying. CBSA confirmed that agents were in that area at the time, but said it could not comment on "ongoing investigations or provide information relating to investigative techniques or plans for specific lawful investigations.”
This is a concerning development. But it is certainly not novel. As organizers and researchers, we have long seen the effects that CBSA has had on immigrant communities across the country, specifically on migrant workers. These workers come here, often with massive debts owed to recruiters, and then are burdened with the stress of potentially losing their status if their paperwork is messed up or if they are terminated or injured. Many workers cannot simply get up and leave – they have debts to pay off and families to support back home.
According to workers, CBSA goes after these people by conducting raids at workplaces, separating Canadians from non-Canadians, blocking entrances, and subsequently arresting those who are found to be out of status. In late August, around two dozen foreign workers were arrested after a raid at a Vancouver racetrack. We have also heard stories about CBSA intercepting people as they walk to and from work and conducting raids at homes.
These raids can create anxiety and fear. We have visited communities where, reeling from a raid’s aftermath, workers express fear of going out, even for errands such as getting groceries. Workers often live with other workers and have to deal with the absence of their friends. The fear can impact people’s ability to access everyday services, as well: In a study conducted in Toronto a few years ago, undocumented immigrants reported not visiting the doctor, in part owing to fear of being reported to authorities.
CBSA has even detained citizens. In 2016, a Canadian citizen was randomly checked and then mistakenly held in detention for eight months after officials did not believe his claim of citizenship. People have also died in CBSA custody, with 14 deaths occurring since 2000. Most recently, a 49-year-old Nigerian man died while under the eye of officers deporting him in 2018.
Children have also been affected by CBSA enforcement. Children have been held in custody with their parents, or in some cases alone. A study conducted by researchers at McGill University found that, among asylum-seeking families in Canada, even a short period of detention and separation can be traumatic for a child, and that trauma can last for months afterwards.
And, at least in the United States, we can learn about the conditions at the border from reports issued by the Office of Inspector General at the Department of Homeland Security. The CBSA does not have an equivalent oversight body that looks into allegations of misconduct. The Liberals started the process of establishing one, but that stalled in the Senate.
Now, we’re faced with a federal election during which more and more Canadians are expressing anti-immigrant sentiments – 63 per cent believe that the country should limit immigration – and that will likely inspire more promises of more enforcement by politicians. Already, the government has promised to increase deportations by 35 per cent.
As Canadians, we can all take steps to protect undocumented people in our community. Sanctuary cities should enforce policies that protect all immigrants – for instance, not requiring proof of status for services, pushing police departments to not co-operate with CBSA, and spreading know-your-rights information among immigrant communities. As citizens, we can help by documenting when we see CBSA in our communities.
After all, if Canadians are outraged about what’s happening down south, then it’s incumbent on us to take action to protect migrants within our borders and ensure CBSA is held to account.