Advocates for migrants are sounding the alarm after reports of random ID checks by immigration officers in Toronto this week.
A woman who did not want to be identified told CityNews her father was stopped Monday afternoon after buying cigarettes at a convenience store near Lawrence and Weston.
“When he came out, there was a man and woman, both dressed in jeans and had dark jackets, maybe around their 30s, going up to people (all obviously of colour) and taking them aside,” she wrote in an email.
She said they identified themselves as immigration officers, showed their badges, and asked her father for ID to prove he was legally in Canada. “He gave them his drivers licence, and they accused him of lying,” she says.
It wasn’t until he provided his wife’s name that she said they determined he was telling the truth, commenting, “you don’t look Portuguese,” presumably referring to his dark complexion. The woman told us she was concerned the whole interaction might be some sort of scam, and reported it to police.
But CityNews confirmed with Canadian Border Services Agency that immigration officers were in the area of Weston Road and Lawrence Avenue on Monday, though they would not tell us what they were doing there or whether they interacted with people.
In a statement, a spokesperson told CityNews, “The CBSA does not publicly discuss ongoing investigations or provide information relating to investigative techniques or plans for specific lawful investigations.”
Hours later, a second email added, “The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) does not conduct random street checks.”
Multiple advocates CityNews spoke with disagree with CBSA’s statement.
“From our experience in rural settings like Southwestern Ontario, the Windosr-Essex area, we’ve confirmed Canadian Border Services has undertaken similar types of racial profiling checks,” said Chris Ramsaroop, an organizer with Justice for Migrant Workers. He claims immigration officers often stop vans travelling to and from work-sites, and even raid places undocumented people may be working to conduct status checks.
“People think these are exceptional practices, they happen once in a blue moon,” says Ramsaroop, “but these occur all the time.”
The woman CityNews has been communicating with told us after her father’s interaction, he watched officers approach an older woman – and when she didn’t produce documentation, she was escorted away in a vehicle.
Ramsaroop said if the officers were in fact performing random street checks, that would be illegal.
“It’s our understanding that Border Services should have a warrant when processing or talking to people, and in many cases, people don’t know this,” he said.
Advocates tell us that one of the biggest issues is that there is no oversight body policing the CBSA.
“You can complain to CBSA about CBSA, which we know is completely ineffective,” said Syed Hussan with the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change. “The fact of the matter is, the CBSA is like the wild west; immigration enforcement runs amok, they target people, jail them forever, and then no one is controlling them.”
The agency has faced heat for its actions in the past. In 2006, they were criticized for a sweeping raid at Dufferin Mall where officers arrested undocumented migrants after shutting down the mall to check IDs.
The federal Liberals had introduced a bill that would set up an outside review body for border agents, but it failed in the Senate last month despite having all party support. CBSA remains the only public safety agency without an independent oversight body in Canada.
Canada’s Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen – who also represents the riding where Monday’s alleged incident took place – addressed the question at an event in Toronto on Friday.
“I’m not in charge of CBSA, but I can tell you carding is wrong and it doesn’t matter which institution is carrying it out,” he said. “We as a society need to make sure our institutions put in place measures to make sure this activity doesn’t occur at all.”