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Market Squared: Gimme shelter from this sanctuary city debate

Yes, the debate is pure politics, but a like all good policies, this seems to be teaching us something about ourselves and our own ideas.

"Well that escalated quickly." 

That was my thought last Thursday as I perused the comments section of a GuelphToday story about James Gordon bringing forward a motion to council to make Guelph a sanctuary city.

Of course the topic was going to be controversial, but it’s become a rather startling example of a somewhat scary undercurrent in our own backyard.

I know that last sentence is going to be controversial. Heck, this entire post is likely to be seen as controversial whether it's read or not, but let’s begin from a place we can all agree (I think): This entire debate about sanctuary cities is pure politics, no matter what side you're on.

What is the definition of a “sanctuary city”?

Well, the term goes back to the 80s. You know, back in the day when Donald Trump was merely the living embodiment of the Monopoly man and with no real political ambitions. Originating in the United States, it’s merely a policy where the municipal government does not use any local funding to enforce immigration laws.

Such is the purview of the Federal government anyway, but say, for example, that federal agents ask for a list of “non-citizen” students. In a sanctuary city, the university can refuse, but if the feds come back with a warrant that’s another matter all together.

In Canada, the concept is the same although the difference is that we don’t have millions of people that entered our country illegally, by foot, from our southern border (yet). Most of Canada’s illegal immigrant population are individuals that have overstayed their visas; like people who are brought to Canada under the temporary foreign worker program and mysteriously “disappear” when the time comes to go home.

Sanctuary cities have never been much a “thing” in Canada. London, Ontario became the fourth last week following Toronto, Hamilton and Vancouver, but Montreal, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Regina and Saskatoon, along with Guelph are presently flirting with the option.

Still, the mere flirtation here in the Royal City has already gotten people riled up.

I don’t want to ascribe motives to the people who are dissenting, for they are, on the surface of things, correct.

By labelling itself a “sanctuary city” Guelph is actively saying that if you are not a legal immigrant, and have no official status, we will, in this city, look the other way.

But not looking is all they can do. As Toronto city councillor Joe Mihevc pointed out when Toronto named itself a sanctuary city in 2013: “With the police, their policy is, ‘don’t ask.’ But if they find that someone tells them, they actually have a legal obligation to report it to Immigration Canada. That’s the nuance with respect to the police. This doesn’t change that.”

Regardless, Mihevc voted in favour of the motion.

The source of concern in the comments on the GuelphToday article, and, oddly enough, a second article about the reaction, was that Guelph’s designation as a sanctuary city would open the proverbial floodgates.

The same argument was used to pass prohibition in the States a century ago, take away the alcohol and no one will ever want to drink again, as if people wanting a drink are going to care about its legality. For not-so temporary foreign workers and farm migrant labour, they’re not waiting for the floodgates, they just trickle in (so to speak).

Still, there was one comment I found astute from the "No" lobby.

“Declaring Guelph as a Sanctuary City will NOT stop what happened to the Mayor via email or what was said to the poor Lady at Walmart,” wrote Thomas James Miller. “But, it will without a doubt create more of it.”

Sad, but likely true. The trend has been disturbing the last couple of weeks.

First, Mayor Cam Guthrie’s offering of condolences to the victims of the Quebec mosque attack in a blog post was greeted by a post that said, among other things, that the mayor should “dye your hair purple and hold up a Vagina Sign and then hastag (sic) #guelphproud.” I’m not sure what a “Vagina sign” is but Spartacus here posted anonymously, so I can’t find him and ask.

Then, on the same day Gordon announced the sanctuary city motion, news broke that a young woman named Yasamin Zia was discriminated against by a Walmart cashier who demanded to see Ms. Zia’s citizenship papers before selling her the items she’d come to Walmart to purchase. Of course, I’ve never been in a store when a cashier wasn’t eager to take my money, the quicker you pay the quicker you leave, right? But then again, I’m white and my name is Adam.

One wonders how many times this now dismissed cashier might have done the same thing before Ms. Zia posted on her Facebook page about it. Who knows how many might have felt the hard bigotry of the checkout line and did not say anything out of shame or embarrassment? But Mr. Miller, who I quoted above, is right, the Gordon motion is going to bring more of this to light, and that’s a good thing.

The great mistake south of the border was that they thought electing an African-American president was the end of racism, and they acted like this was the case.

In the background of Americans applauding themselves for their humanity, was group seething, and growing more angry and desperate, just waiting for the right person to come along and give them voice. Donald Trump is many things to many people, but he is, ultimately, the first mainstream presidential candidate to be endorsed by the KKK in half a century.

But that’s America’s problem, ours is "What kind of people do we want to be?"

Those against us being called a sanctuary city aren’t universally racist, and those in favour aren’t all naive hippies that can see the music and declare things as being “real now.”

The matter of sanctuary cities comes to down to a simple matter of compassion. Do we have it, or do we not have it?

The day after Guelph declares itself a sanctuary city, if it declares itself a sanctuary city, will be exactly the same as the day before, but with one important difference: We codify our compassion.

While it's true that illegal immigrants didn’t do the paper work and the usual things to emigrate here, does it make their reasons for being here any less valid?

Is not the sacrifice greater for a less substantial reward? Isn’t there a part of that to be admired? To be a part of a society that you can never really be a complete part of?

For those that accuse Gordon of playing politics, is it any less political than playing up to the law and order lobby by promising to enforce a strict interpretation of immigration policy?

Yes, the debate is pure politics, but a like all good policies, this seems to be teaching us something about ourselves and our own ideas.

So before passing judgement on the motion, or the motives or the mover, ask the question, what is this debate teaching us about ourselves?