By Julia MacRae (she/her), BCTF staff
The Canadian labour shortage crisis has brought up a lot of talk about immigration, migrant rights, and temporary foreign workers. Unfortunately, our immigration system is still a labyrinth. Refugees can be in limbo for years, awaiting interviews and appeal processes. Other migrants may overstay visas or arrive irregularly. In all this, we sometimes forget that children migrate with their parents. These children and youth are living in our community but may not be accessing school because families living with undocumented status in Canada are often afraid to approach any agent of the state for fear of deportation. Teachers and other school staff have a role to play in helping these kids attend school.
School staff care that the neighbourhood children are in school. However, it is not our role to be an extension of border enforcement, because a family’s immigration status is none of our business. In one instance, a family came to Canada as refugees, and since being a refugee is a status, they had no particular difficulty registering their children in school. Several months later, the parents had their refugee hearing and were rejected. They launched an appeal process, and finally, after three long years, they were admitted to Canada. All that time the children were in school, learning English and everything else they needed to have a chance to succeed. What was going on with the refugee application and appeal process was no business of the school or the district. There is no difference when considering the rights of children from families without immigration status.
School districts must act!
Children and youth whose families may have precarious immigration status in Canada have the right to attend public school in BC. Section 82 of the School Act mandates the provision of free education to every school-age student if they and their guardian are “ordinarily resident” in BC.1 The term “ordinarily resident” was included in the School Act specifically to protect the rights of undocumented children and families, and children and families with precarious immigration status. When the School Act was drafted, early drafts limited education funding to citizens and permanent residents; however, the BC Teachers’ Federation, the BC Principals’ and Vice-Principals’ Association, and the BC School Trustees Association mobilized to keep the language “ordinarily resident” in the act.
Despite this School Act right, schooling is still not accessible to all. In April 2022, the BC School Trustees Association Annual General Meeting (AGM) enthusiastically passed, with 93% support, a motion to develop a template to help school boards remove barriers to registration. Hopefully this galvanizes boards to do away with their current ineffective and inequitable “case-by-case” method of admitting students.
School districts should not fear the Ministry of Education’s provincial audit when admitting students who are ordinarily resident because the Ministry does not request specific immigration documents as a part of its compliance audit process. Instead, compliance reviews follow the Eligibility Policy that says, “Student files should contain reference to the documentation used to support eligibility for funding.” The Funding and Financial Accountability Branch at the Ministry says that boards are responsible for complying with provincial law and regulations. The Ministry and boards of education do not have the authority to enforce federal immigration law.
Getting into the weeds
Using my Spanish language skills and privileged access to senior administration in Surrey, in my spare time I advocate to help some families register their kids in schools. I can report from personal experience that it is not always straightforward to register in our schools.
Parents who contact me via WhatsApp usually don’t give their full names because of fear. After checking which school is their catchment school, I try to alert the district to their special situation. When they show up at a school to register their child, with me sometimes interpreting over the phone, school staff often try to refer us back to the online registration procedure. This procedure requires uploading more documents than are necessary to prove that the family is ordinarily resident, and the form cannot be completed without these extra documents. Other times, school-based staff refer us back to the district office or welcome centre, confusing things further. These referral loops are very frustrating and cause more fear.
Thankfully, all the children I have assisted have been able to start school quickly. However, sometimes parents call me again later because they have received a district request for their documents or their status. It is obvious that front-line staff are trained to complete files and are missing training on these children’s rights.
After these experiences, I wonder how many migrant families don’t have an advocate to help. I have no idea, but I know Spanish speakers are probably not the majority language group in need of advocacy. Individual advocacy has its limits. For broader institutional change, school boards must develop clear policy that is communicated and enforced so that every child in the community can be in school. Thankfully, meaningful changes to registration procedures are now in process in Surrey.
Can you recall a moment of rejection from your childhood? Perhaps it was a moment when you were picked on or excluded? A child who is rejected from an institution that they dearly wish to attend can carry that feeling of rejection for a lifetime. I know my colleagues do not want that experience of rejection to be a legacy of trauma in a student’s life. As teachers, we have strong values of inclusion and acceptance.
Migrant workers with precarious immigration status are probably present in almost all of our communities, not just in large cities or near the border. A small group of teachers or a couple of representatives from a union local could pressure their district to improve practice in this area by doing the following:
- Understand the issues more deeply. A useful FAQ is available here: schoolforallbc.wordpress.com/about
- Ask for a meeting with your trustees on this particular issue, reminding them of the motion passed overwhelmingly at their last AGM.
- Demand specific improvements to the district website and registration process, for example, to facilitate access without fear.
- Request specific training of all administrators and school office staff about children’s rights under the School Act to register as ordinarily resident. This training should:
- clarify that declaring immigration status is not required.
- include clear and inclusive ideas about what documentation should be accepted: a phone bill, rental contract, letter from a community member, etc.
- Recommend that information about the alternate path to register be communicated in several languages.
- Advocate for district policy that includes meaningful guidance highlighting that staff have a positive duty to not disclose information to parties such as the Canadian Border Services Agency unless they are legally compelled by a court order to do so.
- Follow up your meeting with a letter that emphasizes these demands!