Sgro’s sanctuary proposal under fire

Posted by admin on Nov 3rd, 2004

Toronto Star, 3 November 2004
Bruce Campion-Smith

OTTAWA-Immigration Minister Judy Sgro is in hot water after offering Canada’s church leaders a secret deal to review the cases of refugee claimants who have sought sanctuary in their buildings. While publicly shooting down a long-promised refugee appeal process, Sgro quietly tried to make a side deal with religious leaders to enact a special process to give these claimants another shot at staying in Canada.

But Sgro said she would review no more than 12 such cases a year, church officials said.
Opposition MPs yesterday denounced the proposal as “morally offensive” and accused Sgro of holding the churches “hostage.” Church leaders rejected Sgro’s idea, saying she was trying to make them do the work of the immigration department.

“She said she would not look at our cases unless we agreed to a proposal that we think frankly is not good for her, for the department or for the churches,” Heather Macdonald, national refugee staff person for the United Church of Canada, said yesterday.

“It was a proposal where we felt that we would be doing the government’s work. We did not have the capacity or the training or the resources of the department to
become the only avenue of appeal in the country.”

But late yesterday, there were signs the proposal was still alive after Macdonald and other religious leaders met with Sgro, followed by an hour-long afternoon meeting with immigration officials.

“I think we’re on the process now of having fairly productive talks,” Macdonald said afterwards.

Still, with the prospect of special treatment for refugee claimants who take shelter in churches, religious leaders fear they would be inundated with desperate families. “Our congregations can’t look after all of them,” Macdonald said.

About half a dozen individuals, most of them failed refugee claimants, are being sheltered in churches across the country. There are about 30,000 refugee claimants in the system.

Yesterday, Sgro defended her proposal, which was developed over the fall during talks with the church representatives. Sgro said she wanted to take a second look at “exceptional” cases presented by church leaders to ensure that “no injustices” were occurring.

If the 10-day review produced a favourable decision and the church agreed to be a sponsor, Sgro said she would grant the refugee permanent resident status.

“It was to be for those very rare cases that the churches feel compelled to deal with,” Sgro said.

“I worked this idea out with the department. It was a bit of an unusual move for a minister,” she said, denying there would be any cap on how many cases a year would
be reviewed.

And in a signal that church leaders are split on the issue, Archbishop Andrew Hutchison, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, this week thanked Sgro for her proposal.

Still word of the offer, under wraps until this week, had Sgro on the defensive yesterday when she appeared at a Commons immigration committee meeting.

NDP MP Ed Broadbent (Ottawa Centre) took Sgro to task for suggesting “morally inappropriate” quotas.

“Why not six? Why not 18? Why not 30? How do we know how many such cases there will be?” he said.

“I’d like the minister to explain the logic and the morality behind this proposal.”

Later, Broadbent said Sgro was trying to silence the churches that have been outspoken in their demands that Ottawa make good on its promise to enact an appeal process for refugees.

“The churches are very active, they’re very vigorous, they do their homework. And they bring attention,” Broadbent said.

“If she could have reached a settlement with them, she may have well have concluded that things will settle down. It’s a terrible bargain, it’s a terrible imposition to say to the churches you must do my job for me.”

Broadbent said Sgro should exercise her authority to review the sanctuary cases now.

Sgro left no doubt yesterday the appeal process – promised since 2001 – was dead in the water. “Bringing in … that particular appeal at this time would simply add more and more roadblocks,” she said.

During the summer, Sgro urged churches to abandon the time-honoured practice of providing sanctuary to people under the threat of deportation.

In other business at the committee, Liberal MP Colleen Beaumier (Brampton West) urged the immigration minister to adopt an amnesty for the thousands of illegal immigrants living and working in the country.

Sgro agreed to consider the request.

“Those of us who are from the Greater Toronto Area know of the challenges there and the fact there are a lot of people working in an underground economy,” Sgro said. “I
think we have to start talking about the amount of people in the country who do not have status.”

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