In 2005, Isabel Garcia took her two children and fled to Canada from Mexico to escape her abusive ex-husband. Garcia had made a refugee claim—but it was denied. To avoid deportation, she and her children went underground in Toronto.

Salina Abji, a U of T doctoral candidate in sociology, spoke at last Thursday’s Feminist Lunch Hour about feminist efforts to address violence against women like Garcia, who have no immigration status.

Abji shared a chapter of her dissertation with the audience, which offered a look at the Shelter Sanctuary Status campaign that ran from 2008 to 2011 in Canada.

In 2008, a coalition of 200 feminists and migrant rights workers met to march in protest for the rights of women with no immigration status. They carried signs that said, “Let the Garcias stay.”

The activists were responding to the growing incidence of border guards entering women’s shelters to investigate and deport non-status women and their families. Activists argued that all women should be able to access safety from violence regardless of their status.

“Out of our shelters! Out of our lives!” is a slogan that comes from the social sanctuary campaign—and that is the focus of Abji’s chapter.

To study the case of the social sanctuary campaign, Abji depended on campaign material (such as video, posters, and pamphlets), policy directives, and newspaper reports.

“I argue that [the case] is significant for multiple reasons,” Abji said. “This is the first major public alliance that we see between state-funded non-profit, non-partisan, anti-violence organizations, like the YWCA and women shelters, and activists from a group called ‘No One Is Illegal’. ”

No One Is Illegal challenges the state’s right to enforce borders and control migration. The group argues that no nation state has a legitimate right to render someone illegal.

Unfortunately, the campaign was unable to stop the Garcia family’s deportation.

In October 2010, following reports that border-crossing guards went in a shelter to deport a refugee claimant, advocates from the campaign spoke to the Toronto chapter of the Canada Border Services Agency.

The CBSA then sent out a directive stating that no border guards were to enter women’s shelters.

Two months after, the CBSA national headquarters responded to the directive with a new national policy. The policy states that immigration officers do have the authority to enter a women’s shelter, subject to a series of considerations. The local director of the Toronto chapter of the CBSA was fired a short while later.

While researching the campaign material, Abji found a shift in the Shelter Sanctuary Status campaign’s approach to the politics of state responsibility.

In the beginning, the campaign had approached the state as the protector, and appealed to the state’s responsibility to uphold human rights and expand state responsibility to include all women, regardless of their status.

Towards the end of the campaign, advocates adopted a post-national approach. The post-national approach reframed the state as a perpetrator of violence. This approach saw borders and exclusivity as fundamentally unjust and deportation as violence against women. In fact, the campaign’s slogan “Out of our shelters! Out of our lives!” reflects the post-national approach the campaign took.

Abji suggested that the model of the nation state “is so deeply entrenched” that it is just as difficult to imagine a post-nation state today as it was difficult for people living in a feudal structure to imagine a different world.

This article has been corrected.
  1. February 2, 2016 at 5 p.m.: Two mentions of a campaign were misstated and should have referred to the Shelter Sanctuary Status campaign.
    Notice to be printed on February 8, 2016 (Volume 42, Issue 17).

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