Perspectives on Sanctuary Cities: An Interview with Dr. Judith Bernhard

by Vivian Whalen

Dr. Judith Bernhard is a professor at Toronto Metropolitan University and the founder of the University’s MA program in Early Childhood Studies.  She also teaches in the   Immigration and Settlement Studies MA program and is affiliated with the PhD program in Policy Studies.  As part of the North American Hub of Soli*City project, Dr. Bernhard and her colleagues, Dr. Julie Young and Dr. Luin Goldring, are currently completing a literature review on the extent to which a Sanctuary City can help to overcome barriers to access for families with young children. We interviewed Dr. Bernhard to learn more about her perspective on Sanctuary Cities and how it relates to her research. 

I asked Dr. Bernhard about the courses she was teaching, and she said that she supervises first-year students on placement at a variety of childcare centers.  This allows her to have personal contacts with practitioners and families. This situation, she explained, gives her the opportunity to see how immigration issues play out in practice.  She said, “I make sure to talk about how immigration status intersects with work in the early childhood field.” She specified that she had researched the questions that early childhood practitioners ask refugee parents and children, and she found that providers were rarely aware of the family’s legal status.  Further, she had reported that the kinds of issues practitioners deal with, such as children regressing or suddenly bedwetting or being clingy, turn out to be linked with trauma once one investigates in detail.

Her areas of current research were the next topic that we covered, specifically precarious legal status and the children in such families.  A critical point Dr. Bernhard made was that often the whole family is impacted even though just one member of the family has precarious legal status.  If a member faces deportation, there may be a deep sense of shame in the family.  This shame may lead them to avoid talking about the matter to practitioners. On the practitioner’s side, they may have been professionally trained to avoid inquiring about topics that a family has a right to keep private. Yet without such information, the practitioners and the agencies involved may not be able to effectively help the family. Dr. Bernhard emphasized what she has found to be a crucial methodological aspect of this research.  She recounted, “over the years, our team has developed strategies for building trust with participants.”  Being of Latin-American background herself, she has found that having a research team that conducts interviews of Latino migrants in their home language is critical to connecting with them on these delicate issues.  The approach applies to all ethnic or linguistic groups one may be investigating.

On publicly declared “Sanctuary Cities,” Dr. Bernhard made a number of points.  First: “Toronto being given the designation of Sanctuary City certainly doesn’t solve all of the problems, but it does raise awareness.”  Second, an assumption of many service providers is that there is a moral failing involved in clients’ apparent failure to seek legal status.  Dr. Bernhard stressed that we should all “challenge our assumptions about the stigma attached to people with precarious status.”   These people have no other avenue of escaping their situation in the home country; further because of ongoing changes to Canada’s immigration policy, for many, increasingly, there is no queue that they could take their place in.   Her hope is that once practitioners and the public become familiar with “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policies,  they will become more aware of the fears and obstacles families face in migrating, particularly where young children were present or arrived after the family, without legal status, managed to settle in Canada.  

We discussed the particular issues that arise regarding children in Sanctuary Cities. Dr. Bernhard mentioned the official, public promise that many essential services would be available under Toronto’s Access T.O policy.  Yet in terms of implementation, “there are likely many cracks and a great deal of misinformation.”  One problem she cited as an example involved secretaries at public or Catholic schools who still, now, ask parents for passports and other documents that are not legally required and which may not exist.  There is no ill intention, but what should be a clerical routine becomes a kind of gatekeeping process despite repeated statements by the city and the school boards that there is no eligibility requirement for children of precarious families to enter the education system. 

Dr. Bernhard has a particular interest in childcare centres and has studied the issues of childcare subsidies for families of precarious status.  Despite the official “welcome” policies announced by Toronto’s municipal childcare centers, access is not possible without subsidies.  Their rules at present state that most children without permanent residence are not eligible for subsidy.  So parents have to make a difficult decision about how to provide care for their young children so they can work to support the family. 

Learn more about Dr. Judith Bernhard and her work here.

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