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Graham Hudson and Idil Atak are professors in the department of criminology at Ryerson University.

The "sanctuary city" motion unanimously approved by Montreal's city council last month is a welcome development. The motion, already adopted in Toronto, Hamilton, London and Vancouver, pledges to ensure that all city residents can access municipal and police services, regardless of immigration status. As Ottawa, Edmonton and other Canadian cities consider adopting similar policies, it is worth pausing to ask: Why are sanctuary-city policies important, and how can they be made more effective?

There are as many as 500,000 non-status migrants living in Canada. Some have entered the country without permission, as is currently happening in Manitoba and Quebec with those seeking asylum illegally crossing the border from the United States. However, most were given permission to live and work in the country and have overstayed visas, so are looking for pathways to regaining status.

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Consider one woman we interviewed for our study on sanctuary-city policy in Toronto. She entered Canada as an international student. After her study permit expired, she filed a refugee claim that was rejected on unreasonable grounds. She lived without status for eight months, until a court ruled that she was entitled to refugee status. Many non-status migrants live in a state of limbo for years, as they try to transition though a rigid immigration system. In that time, they start families, work and pay provincial sales taxes and GST.

Yet they are denied access to basic municipal services, including libraries, shelters, community centres and police services. Victims of crime, or those who witness crimes, can't turn to police, knowing they're as likely to be arrested as the offender.

In 2013, Toronto became Canada's first sanctuary city. City council's first action was to assess the feasibility and costs of implementing sanctuary-city policy. Four years later, no additional funding or resources of note have been provided. Training of city staff has been general or altogether absent. Outreach with local community organizations and the public has been scant. There has been no dialogue with the provincial or federal governments. Only a handful of the city's thousands of employees have been assigned the task of making the policy work.

As a result, the policy is faltering. Some city staff – especially the police – ignore sanctuary-city policies. But even well-intentioned staff are unaware of how to interact with vulnerable populations. With little community outreach, the city seems to be waiting for non-status migrants to start walking through city hall's front doors. This is not likely to happen until the city cultivates relationships of trust.

The sanctuary-city movement in Canada is new, and it does take time to change institutional culture. But change will not happen on its own. Cities must have a concrete plan of implementation and allocate adequate resources. They must seriously engage with community organizations to build trust and break down barriers. City staff must be provided with adequate training that takes into account the realities of distinct service areas, such as health, education or shelters. Each service area must have at least one person whose primary responsibility is overseeing the implementation of sanctuary-city policy. Finally, cities must follow the lead of New York, San Francisco and New Haven, Conn., by issuing municipal ID cards. These cards enable access to services without any need to think about, much less inquire into, status.

The sanctuary-city movement is growing. Canadian and U.S. cities are uniting to stand for the values of humanitarianism and community. But the policy can't run on goodwill alone. It's time for city councils to roll up their sleeves and finish the job.

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