Regularisation from the Ground Up: The Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Campaign in Toronto

Posted by admin on May 6th, 2007

Regularisation from the Ground Up: The Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Campaign by Mohan Mishra and Faria Kamal

“We Are Here To Stay!” Those were the words echoed by millions last year when the migrant rights movement in North America exploded to demand justice for immigrants, refugees and non-status peoples. Marked with loud chants and vibrant banners in a myriad of languages, all converged on one unwavering demand: Legalization of immigration status for all. Protests in defiance of HR 4437 and in affirmation of the rights of all to live with respect where held in cities across the US: from Chicago, where half a million people poured out of their homes, work places, schools, churches, and community centres onto the street, to Los Angeles, which witnessed a historic presence of over a million people, to New York, where tens of thousands mobilized in force and successfully halted production in various factories and corporate outlets. In San Francisco, marches were coupled with hundreds of hunger strikes, while in Austin, thousands of high school and university students simultaneously walked out of their schools in solidarity. Dozens of other cities held similar actions against HR 4437.

These massive demonstrations were in response to the regressive nature of the HR 4437 bill proposed in the US Congress, ultimately succeeding in highlighting what a day without the contributions of immigrant communities to our society would look like. HR 4437 was originally passed by the House of Representatives in December and, in essence, would have criminalized over 12 million undocumented peoples – whose labour, sweat and hyper-exploitation fuel an entire economy – effectively making it a federal felony to live in the United States without legal documentation. The bill also included provisions whereby any individual or organization found to be assisting non-status peoples would automatically be levied with exorbitant fines or charged with a criminal offense, and further called for a massive increase in policing and militarizing the already heavily-patrolled US-Mexico border.

During the same period in Canada, we have witnessed the increased use of US-style enforcement policies. These include random identification checks in public spaces, work place raids, and the targeting of children within schools. These tactics are not mere temporary occurrences, but the result of increased harmonization of immigration control policies with the US. This is seen in Canada’s drafting and participation in the Safe Third Country Agreement, which forces migrants to file for immigration or refugee status in the first ‘safe’ country in which they land and prohibits them from filing a claim anywhere else. For example, if an individual were to leave Mexico and pass through the US on the way to Canada, the person would be forced under law to file an immigration claim in the US because Canada deems it a ‘safe’ country. This type of policy harmonization seeks to further restrict the rights of migrants to even apply for status and forces them underground since they are barred from legal avenues to gain status.

In solidarity with the emerging migrant rights movement in the US, thousands of people across Canada demonstrated in the streets last May. These demonstrations were organised as part of a National Day of Action for Status for All and took place in Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, Halifax and various other cities. These demonstrations were not simply a response to upcoming legislation, but rather a coordinated effort to demand an end to detentions and deportations and the implementation of a fully inclusive regularization program. The common demand that unites the movements across the country and across the Canada-US border is the demand for regularisation (legalization) for people living in either country without status. This demand is based on the recognition that non-status people are treated like second class residents, barred from accessing social infrastructure, and denied basic rights in both countries while being used as an easily exploitable pool of labour – constantly under the threat of deportation should they demand a living wage and access to essential services.

Contrary to popular belief, Canada does in fact have a history of granting regularization. However, every program that has been implemented in the past has been limited in the number of people accepted, limited in its criterion of who is accepted and ultimately deemed ‘admissible’, limited in the conditions imposed upon those who accept regularization, and always accompanied by increasingly regressive enforcement policies. Most have been introduced at a time when the Canadian state was facing severe labour shortages, and like our immigration policy in general, are based on furthering the economic interests of wealthy capitalists. In other words, wealthy employers through the exploitation of non-status workers get what they want, which is an extremely vulnerable pool of labour, while the Canadian state works in partnership to track this workforce, locate them and remove the workers when the labour crisis has passed or when it becomes politically convenient. Also, while previous regularization programs have been temporary, the accompanying enforcement measures remain a permanent part of Canadian immigration controls. Even when communities have been able to force concessions from the government in the form of a regularization program, these concessions have been accompanied by the criminalization and direct targeting of community leaders and organizers. The programs have also always included restrictions on eligibility, usually based on the divisive premise of criminality as a way to divide the community into the categories of “good immigrant” and “bad immigrant”.

Given this history, how do we begin to move forward with the demand and the need for a full and inclusive regularization program? To answer this question, another question must first be answered: What does regularization mean to people’s daily lives? It means being able to go about your daily life without the fear of detention and deportation. It means being able to access services and spaces without this constant fear looming over your head.

The answer then becomes clear: We need to build a regularization program for ourselves, from the ground up. We need to take back our community centres, schools, health centres and neighbourhoods by declaring them as sanctuary zones free of immigration controls. We need to take up the fight to demand justice and status for all not just nationally, but locally as well. This is the idea behind the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Campaign (DADT) in Toronto.

Access Without Fear: Envisioning A Toronto Without Barriers

DADT was launched by No One Is Illegal-Toronto in 2004 and seeks to prohibit city workers from inquiring into an individual’s immigration status in order to provide them with a vital service, such as healthcare, housing, obtaining assistance from police, and gaining entrance into schools among others – the Don’t Ask component. Also, in the event that these officials do become aware of a person’s immigration status they would be barred from disclosing this status to federal or provincial immigration authorities – the Don’t Tell component of the policy.

The Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Campaign has been instrumental in building support for a full and inclusive regularisation program in Canada. It has opened up the discussion around regularization within the city and through sustained mobilizations been effective in winning several victories that have concrete effects on people’s lives. Additionally, the ongoing efforts to ensure that on the ground service providers are themselves taking up the call to implement DADT policies in their work places, community centres, and neighbourhoods have allowed this campaign to take back public spaces without formal municipal legislation. Today, the DADT campaign has grown into a broad coalition including immigrant and refugee-rights activists, women and youth organizations, faith groups, unions, front-line social service workers, student groups, and members of various non-status communities. By taking back our communities, we are creating spaces for ourselves to live without fear of detention and deportation.

Victories: Non-Status Communities Under Attack Are Fighting Back, Resisting And Winning

Toronto Police Services Board

A young woman immigrates to Canada with the hope of finding a better life. She imagines Canada as a safe haven, a place where she can live without political repression, economic instability or fear for her life. After all, she – like millions before her and millions after her – has heard Canada’s official rhetoric of multiculturalism, diversity, compassion and opportunity. However, for the estimated half a million undocumented immigrants living and toiling under terrible employment conditions, their reality of Canada is far from the stated myth.

Take Cecilia, a young immigrant woman living and working in Toronto. On her way home, Cecilia was brutally beaten by two men, suffering severe trauma and bruising. Emotionally and psychologically drained by the experience, she thought she could trust the police. When she went to the police station to report the violent assault, rather than reassuring her, the police called Immigration Canada and she was immediately taken to a detention center to await deportation. Her mistake was believing that the police were there “to serve and protect” her.

Unfortunately, cases such as Cecilia’s are all too common. In fact, many people are afraid to access police services, shelters, food banks, healthcare and other services because of the risk that accessing such resources represents.

To ensure that cases such as Cecilia’s don’t happen again, the DADT campaign has mobilized at the Toronto Polices Services Board (TPSB), the highest decision making body for Toronto police. Initially, TPSB refused to even accept the existence of non-status peoples within the city, referring to them as ‘criminal’ or unworthy of protection. However, as momentum around the DADT campaign grew the TPSB was effectively shamed into recognizing the contributions of these communities and forced to attempt to bridge the barrier of fear by passing a Don’t Ask component of the policy for victims and witnesses, which means that when the police are called to respond to a situation, they are not to ask about people’s immigration status.

Unfortunately, as important as this is, the policy is limited by a stipulation which says that although the police are not to ask, they can if there is a “bona fide reason” to do so. In other words, the policy as it currently exists provides only limited protection for non-status people to access police services without fear of detention or deportation. Also, though the policy was passed over a year ago by the Police Services Board, information about the policy and what it means in practice is only now starting to be widely communicated to police officers, an essential step in minimizing the discrepancies in the daily decisions officers make about people they come into contact with. Nonetheless, this is the first step in an ongoing fight. The acknowledgement from the Police Services Board that undocumented residents have the right to access police services was successful in changing the discourse of criminality that often shadows the lives of people without status. Also, due to ongoing community pressure, the TPSB is being forced to look into strengthening the existing policy. This fight will continue until the Toronto Police are no longer acting as an enforcement arm of Immigration Canada.

Toronto District School Board: Education, Not Deportation

For the past year and a half, DADT has worked closely with the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (the largest union of teachers in Ontario), high school students, parents, staff, and the wider school community to pressure the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) to take a solid stand in safeguarding the right of students to attend school without fear of detention and deportation and to abide by the provincial Education Act, which explicitly outlines how students must not be refused entry into a school because of a lack of legal status.

The need to protect students in schools was initially made visible by the cases of Kimberly Lizano-Sossa (15) and her brother Gerald (14), both of whom were brutally arrested by Immigration Enforcement while they were in classes and subsequently deported. After a successful campaign by students, teachers, parents and community activists to prevent this from happening again, the TDSB voted unanimously to adopt a Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy and to declare schools sanctuary zones by preventing the entrance of Immigration Enforcement into schools. Additionally, if Immigration Officials try to enter schools in the future, they are to be denied entry and redirected to TDSB headquarters. By forcing the largest public school board in Canada to adopt such policies, major steps have been taken to break down obstacles facing non-status children and their parents while simultaneously making significant gains in reclaiming public spaces.

In recent months, both the TDSB and TPSB policies have been challenged by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), the enforcement arm of Immigration Canada. The efforts of the CBSA to quash these policies is evidence that they are worried about the effect this campaign can have on their ability to detain and deport migrants, and also shows the need to increase our efforts in making this campaign successful.

Organised Labour: Justice for Undocumented Workers

Throughout the campaign, DADT organizers have been working with local unions to educate and mobilize their members, so that individual workplaces are made accessible to people without status. At a broader level, this is shown by the passage in 2006 of supportive resolutions by CAW Canada (Council Emergency Resolution #2) and CUPE Ontario (Resolution 17), both recognizing the deplorable labour conditions facing non-status people, and further, calling for a regularization program for undocumented workers. However, it is at the local level that the true goals of this campaign become clear.

Central Neighbourhood House (CNH) is a community centre based in the Regent Park neighbourhood that serves a large number of immigrant and refugee families. Over the past two years, the DADT Campaign, working with CUPE Local 4308, has fought alongside the staff at the centre to make CNH a safe and accessible place for non-status people. This fight has ranged from small educational events, to picketing outside the centre in support of staff demands. As a result of this ongoing work from both CNH workers and activists, CNH now has a full Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy for all people using the centre. This is now one more space created in the city that has affirmed the right of non-status people to access services without fear and that is open to non-status community members. This does not mean that the fight at CNH is over. We are continuing to work with the union and staff for a DADT hiring policy, so that safe and equitable job opportunities are created for undocumented workers.

Moving Forward

The fight to reclaim public spaces – community centre by community centre, school by school, and neighbourhood by neighbourhood – is only beginning, but the victories achieved so far are all steps in the larger fight for Status for All. We know that these victories are meaningless if they are not based on broad community involvement and support to hold those who make the policies accountable. This point is a key part of building the DADT campaign, and we will continue to build, based on the recognition that we have the power in our communities to create a regularization program from the ground up.

On May 5th, the DADT campaign will be highlighted in a demonstration and community fair as part of a National Day of Action. It will be a chance to announce new community spaces that have declared themselves free from immigration controls, and to echo the demands for an end to detentions and deportations, access without fear to essential services, and Status for All. We will also be marching in solidarity with hundreds of organizations in the US who have called for a National Boycott Day on May 1st to call for a just legalization plan. This movement is growing in workplaces, schools, neighbourhoods, and on the streets and on May 5th we will celebrate our victories, as well as strengthen the demand for all migrants to be treated with dignity and respect.

If you are interested in getting involved with No One Is Illegal-Toronto and the DADT campaign or would like to find out more information, please contact us at or visit us on the web at

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