We don't need CBSA to manage our opinions for us. We can stand up for justice on our own.
CanWest filed access-to-information requests to get this story. Emphasis mine.
The doors of a church have long served as the final barrier between desperate asylum-seekers and deportation.
But, after at least two years of internal wrangling, the Canada Border Services Agency has come up with a formal policy, listing some examples of when the agency says it may be necessary to violate the tradition of sanctuary.
According to documents obtained by Canwest News Service, the agency believes church-sanctuary cases, "pose a threat to the integrity of the immigration system."
To date, CBSA officials have opted not to enter places of worship, even though there is nothing legally preventing them from doing so. Decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.
The policy, which was added to the CBSA's enforcement manual on March 29, maintains a case-by-case approach but outlines in broad terms some of the "exceptional circumstances" when entering a church might be necessary, including "cases where there are strong public calls for enforcement action" or where there's a risk to public safety or national security, such as cases involving terrorists or murderers.
The policy states that the frequency of sanctuary cases will be closely monitored and if there is evidence of widespread abuse, forced entry may be required in less-urgent cases "to maintain the integrity of the system."
All decisions to enter a church must be approved by the agency's Inland Enforcement Directorate, the policy states.
Access-to-information documents show that formulating a written policy has been difficult because the public appears divided on the issue.
Whatever action the agency takes will lead to criticism, agency staff acknowledge in briefing notes and policy proposals from the past two years.
"There is a relatively even split in public opinion on enforcing removal orders in sanctuary cases," the documents state.
"Thus, regardless of what approach is taken, managing public opinion will be a challenge." . . .
While church-sanctuary cases are rare they "pose a threat to the integrity of the immigration system" and "invite negative media attention," according to the documents.
There are currently three active sanctuary cases, two in British Columbia and one in Ontario.
In June 2009, former KGB agent Mikhail Lennikov took sanctuary in a Vancouver church. Immigration officials declared him a national security threat and denied him permission to stay in Canada.
In August 2009, Gankhuyag Bumuutseren, a Mongolian citizen who spied on Chinese dissidents in the United States, moved into a Toronto church to avoid deportation.
And in September 2009, American Rodney Watson, an Iraqi war deserter, sought sanctuary in a Vancouver church after he was denied refugee status and ordered to leave the country.
Since 2000, there have been about 30 church-sanctuary cases across Canada.
Reverend Ric Matthews of the First United Church of Vancouver feels CBSA's leaked stance further reinforces the need for sanctuary. Matthews offered war resister Rodney Watson sanctuary last year, and continues to shelter him at his church, which also feeds three meals a day to hundreds of homeless Vancouverites.
A Vancouver church minister says new guidelines on sanctuary that have reportedly been drafted by the Canada Border Services Agency may reinforce the ancient tradition of fugitives finding temporary shelter in churches.
The new policy outlines the exceptional circumstance when entering a church to seize someone might be necessary, including strong public calls for action or risks to public safety or security, according to a National Post story published earlier this week.
Rev. Ric Matthews, who has been offering sanctuary to U.S. Iraq war deserter Rodney Watson at Vancouver's First United Church since September, admits sanctuary isn't a legal right, but rather a respected 2,700-year-old tradition.
The CBSA has yet to comment publicly on the leaked report. The agency has never violated the principal of sanctuary, but under the draft policy, it reportedly maintains it has the right to do so and may under exceptional circumstances.
"The concern is the broad nature of the permission to go in and the circumstances. It's very subjective . . . particularly the clause that speaks to protecting the integrity of the system is a challenge, because it is hard to know how you interpret that," said Matthews.
But Matthews says the new policy actually reinforces sanctuary, because the default position will be that border agents not enter a place of worship to seize someone, unless that person poses a particular threat.
Bureaucratic safety valve
Matthews says people need to understand what sanctuary is, and compares granting sanctuary to pushing the pause button on the unjust application of the law.
"I don't think it's defiance. I mean, that Rodney Watson is in this building — he is not free to do what he wants — and this is clearly not something he can do for the rest of his life. There has to be a point where this has to be resolved one way or the other," he says.
Immigration lawyer Richard Kurland says sanctuary provides a second chance for those treated poorly by the immigration system.
"Sanctuary is a safety valve against bureaucratic failure. In Canada, the absence of an appeal for refugee decisions gave legitimacy to the sanctuary system."
There are two other cases of people living in sanctuary in Canada.
Mikhail Lennikov has been living in an East Vancouver church since last June, after the CBSA declared the former KGB agent a threat to national security and ordered him out of the country.
Mongolian citizen Gankhuyag Bumuutseren took sanctuary in a Toronto church in August to avoid deportation to the U.S., where he is wanted for allegedly spying on Chinese dissidents.