Don’t Ask. Don’t Tell: A Local Campaign In Defence Of People Withour Status In Toronto (The New Socialist Magazine)

February 18, 2006: Don't Ask. Don't Tell: A Local Campaign In Defence Of People Without Status In Toronto (The New Socialist Magazine)

Dont Ask Dont Tell: A local campaign in defence of people without status in Toronto
– From the New Socialist Magazine

The fear of detention and deportation is preventing Toronto residents without immigration status from accessing essential city services such as housing, food banks, education, health care and emergency services. Illegals, people without status, lead a marginalized underground existence which leaves them susceptible to exploitation and oppression.

Dont Ask, Dont Tell (DADT) is the slogan of a recent campaign to change Toronto municipal policy so that people without immigration status can access city services without fear of detention and deportation. No One Is Illegal-Toronto, one of the groups involved in the campaign, describes the DADT policy as one in which city programs would not require immigration status-related information, and city workers would be prohibited from inquiring into or sharing immigration information with citizenship and Immigration Canada or other government agencies or authorities.

A DADT policy would improve the security and quality of life of thousands of people. It would also make a strong political statement in support of migrant workers in the current social and political climate of fear mongering and anti-immigrant backlash.

The DADT policy in Toronto would have two main components:

1. A Dont Ask component: Application forms for city services and city workers themselves would be forbidden from inquiring into the immigration status of individuals. Therefore, access to city services would not be dependent on immigration status.

2. A Dont Tell component: Should city workers discover the immigration status of persons accessing services they would be prohibited from sharing this information with Citizenship and Immigration Canada (a department of the federal government). Consequently, municipal funds, resources and workers would not be used to enforce federal immigration laws.

Born In The USA

Variations of the policies similar to the one being proposed in Toronto have been adopted in 28 cities in the United States. For some cities the impetus for adopting the policy has been budgetary. By prohibiting city employees from participating in the investigation, arrest, or deportation of individuals accused of immigration violations, A DADT policy inherently resists the downloading of costs associated with enforcing immigration laws.

Other cities have adopted DADT policies for progressive political reasons. Cambridge, Massachusetts, for example, first implemented a DADT policy in 1985, in response to Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) roundups of illegal immigrants escaping political persecution in Latin America. Last year, Cambridge city council reaffirmed its DADT policy in response to the Bush administrations Patriot Act, which called for city officials to share with the Federal government information about individuals including their immigration status.

These Are The People in Your Neighborhood

There is no official count of people living illegally in Canada nor is there a way to verify their numbers. Estimates vary but the number most often cited in studies is 200 000. Many of these people have overstayed their visas. Others have had their refugee/humanitarian and compassionate claims turned down.

According to the 2003 Auditor Generals report on Citizenship and Immigration Canadas control and enforcement, The gap between removal orders issued and confirmed removals has grown by about 36,000 in the past six years ( This number is projected to grow despite tightened immigration laws and borders.

(These statistics do not include individuals who have voluntarily left Canada without reporting, those who are appealing their removal, and illegal entries that are not on immigration Canadas radar.)

The vast majority of illegals in Canada live in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver with Toronto being home to the largest number. Illegals are drawn to large cities like Toronto because the employment opportunities are greater in large cities. They are able to remain relatively invisible among diverse populations, and their settlement may be facilitated by the existence of common cultural and language communities.

There are intricate well-developed networks through which illegals are able to obtain work and housing. It is not uncommon for illegals to reside in Canada for years establishing families with children born in Canada: legal children with illegal parents. (Children born in Canada of illegal parents receive Canadian citizenship.)

Good Enough To Work, Good Enough To Stay

Illegal workers make a significant contribution to the Canadian economy. Jim Murphy of the Greater Toronto Home Builders Association put it bluntly, “If we didn't have them, we wouldn't be able to build houses” (November 13, 2003, Canadian Press). In any given day most Canadians have used a commodity that at one point involved illegal labour. Be it the clothes they wear, the spaces where they live and shop, the food they eat, or the manufactured goods they use. Illegals work underground in a variety of jobs including restaurant work, construction, child care, sex trade work, farming, manufacturing, day labour and cleaning.

In 2001, the Ontario Construction Secretariat estimated that the underground economy cost the province about $1.3-billion a year in unpaid income taxes and that underground construction workers accounted for about one-quarter of that industry (about 76,400 workers) (November 15, 2003, The Globe and Mail). Though they do not pay income taxes, illegal workers pay sales taxes on the goods and services they use directly contributing millions of dollars to the governments coffers.

Blame the System Not the Victim

Illegal workers are a fact of life in advanced capitalist countries. Illegals do not come to Canada for the lovely weather. They are sometimes displaced from their country of birth through political repression and war and environmental degradation. The majority, however, come to Canada to escape the harsh economic realities of their home countries. Working people have a clear choice in life: find work or starve. If they can, people go to where the money is, with or without the proper papers. The scale and scope of migration today is unprecedented in human history.

The International Labour Office estimated that the number of international migrants (people who crossed borders to reside and work) was 85 million in 1996 (International Labour Office, International Migration and Migrant Workers. Committee on Employment and Social Policy, 265th Session, Geneva, March 1996). A World Bank working paper (based on United Nations census data from the 1980s) reports that the number of people that are living outside their country of birth is well over 100 million (
The majority of these people are economic migrants. Both these organizations note that their numbers underestimate the number of illegal migrants crossing borders.

Despite well-publicized, regular crackdowns on illegals, the Canadian state has neither the wherewithal nor the inclination to fully remove illegals nor to stop their entry into Canada. The state lacks the wherewithal because a program to completely eradicate illegals would be too costly. The state lacks the inclination because, as noted previously, illegal workers are an important component of the economy.

Mainstream economists have stated that the economically optimal level of illegal migration is almost certainly greater than zero. The possible fiscal and political costs generated by illegal labour need to be weighed against the economic benefits of cheap and often complementary labour, as well as the often high costs of border controls and internal checks (

Illegal workers are a flexible workforce. That is, they are highly exploitable, willing to work for little pay, with no job security, no benefits and in unsafe conditions. Their precarious status and the fear of deportation make it difficult for them to collectively organize. Illegal workers are the ultimate surplus army of labour; their illegal status ensures that capitalists are able to maximize their profits by keeping their expenses down.

The Enemy Within vs. Working Class Solidarity

Migrants, especially those without status, serve as a scapegoat for social problems, an enemy within which can be blamed for societys ills such as crime, terrorism, unemployment and a crumbling social safety net. Politicians and the capitalist class they represent are able to deflect criticisms of the system onto a marginalized and largely voiceless segment of the population while a divided working class is played off against itself and weakened. The ability of capitalists to squeeze the labour of illegals, by driving down wages and working conditions, increases their ability to squeeze the labour of all workers. Illegals and their struggles are part and parcel of the struggles of the working class as a whole and their defence is a defence of the class as a whole.

Many organizations have joined the DADT campaign in Toronto. Endorsers include womens shelters, community centres, trade unions, anti-poverty groups, social service agencies, immigrant and refugee organizations, and anti-racist activists. Key to moving this initiative forward is the support and backing of city workers as they are the ones whose work this policy would effect. Efforts have been made to have their active involvement and input.

The time is right for the implementation of such a policy in Toronto. The Federal government has recently announced that it is going to be working more closely with municipalities like Toronto on issues of immigration. It is imperative that this work does not include inquiring into or sharing immigration information with Citizenship and Immigration Canada or other government agencies or authorities. The DADT campaign is but one component of a larger anti-racist movement that is coalescing in Canada and is also part of a larger campaign to grant amnesty and citizenship to all undocumented workers in the Canadian state. Readers are encouraged to get involved by contacting or visiting http://toronto.