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Vancouver's Hidden Children

Many undocumented families, fearing deportation, don't enrol kids in school. Last in a series.

David P Ball 18 Jul

This concludes "Status: Inside Vancouver's Sanctuary City Movement," a Tyee series you can find in its entirety here. David P. Ball is staff reporter with The Tyee. Send him tips or comments by email, find him on Twitter @davidpball, or read his previous Tyee reporting here.

Written on a wall in Pedro's soon-to-be-demolished, cramped Vancouver apartment are words:

'I want water.' 'Can I go to the washroom?'

This, for Pedro's two oldest children, is the closest they will get to a classroom. Pedro and his wife say that when they tried to register the kids in Vancouver schools, they were asked to produce proof they were in Canada legally. But Pedro and his wife are not.

So, using erasable markers and letter-and-number props from the Dollar Store, Pedro writes English phrases on the wall for the children to learn. When he leaves every day to work for under-the-table pay on construction sites, his wife continues the lessons even though she doesn't speak English.

The couple had their first two children after they moved to B.C. in 2007 from Tequila, Mexico. That means the children, ages five and six, are Canadian citizens even if their parents are here without status.

"Even though my children were born here and are Canadians," Pedro tells The Tyee in an exclusive interview, "all the different people I talked to when I called different schools, and went in person, said it was necessary to prove my own immigration status when we tried to register for schools here."

The non-status couple have since had another son and daughter; a fifth is due next January. But things haven't panned out as they hoped here, a land of opportunity and stability compared to low wages and high unemployment back home.

"It wasn't safe for them there," he says, "And even working full-time, it's not enough money to make a livelihood for all the kids."

BC teachers union drafts 'sanctuary schools' policy

Pedro and his family are among thousands of migrants without legal status likely living in B.C.'s Lower Mainland. They are targets of federal Conservatives tightening immigration laws and cracking down on "illegals."

But critics say the new laws are just driving people like Pedro further underground. And, like their parents, Pedro's children live in a state of "legal limbo," as one immigration lawyer told The Tyee.

Education is just one front in a daily battle for non-status immigrants to access services most of us take for granted, but which also include health care, public transit, and safe work.

As such parents try to access education for their children, The Tyee has learned that the B.C. Teachers' Federation has passed a province-wide draft "sanctuary schools" policy -- one that Vancouver's school district is examining closely.

The policy runs separate but parallel to City of Vancouver's interest in enacting a "sanctuary city" policy to ensure undocumented residents can access municipal services without fear of deportation.

"I try to teach my children different things at home, but my children are missing a lot," Pedro admits of his teaching attempts. "I see other children my kids' age, some of them already know how to write, how to read and other things -- but my children are falling behind.

"It's been very frustrating... In our Hispanic community, I've met many other people who are in the same situation."

Unable to afford the bills in Surrey, Pedro's construction boss offered him a free two-bedroom apartment in a building the company is demolishing next month. The catch: one room is full of tools and equipment, the stove breaks frequently, and hazards like natural gas ruptures are frequent. Four kids and two parents sleep on the floor in the remaining bedroom.

For students, proof of residency all that's needed

Even though school district officials told The Tyee that only residency -- not citizenship -- are required to enrol in public education, even some Canadian citizens face demands of their status.

Surrey resident Ana David Emery, a Canadian of Caribbean origin, told The Tyee she has on multiple occasions been asked to produce proof of her citizenship when trying to enrol her Canadian-born children in schools -- both in Surrey and in her former city, Langley.

"We said, 'We have the birth certificates of our children -- it's not us parents applying for school, so what's the issue here?'" she recalled. "Nobody in those school districts could explain why it was a requirement for us to show our citizenship papers.

"So we refused to show them because they had no basis to ask for that request. We offered our water and hydro bills -- we are in the catchment area, we had our proof of that."

Wayne Wong is the Vancouver School District's Principal for English Language Learning and Student Placement. He expressed surprise that people like David Emery or Pedro, with Canadian citizen children, would have been ordered to prove their own status.

What schools require, he said, is documents showing that they live in the appropriate neighbourhood to attend a particular school, known as the catchment area.

"It shouldn't need more than proof of residence in the catchment area," he told The Tyee in a phone interview. "We would just need alternative documentation to see if they can prove that they have been maintaining residence here and are here to stay.

"In order for student to access publicly funded education, their immigration status is relevant -- but it is not the sole indicator of whether they are able to get free public education."

After the BCTF's executive passed its sanctuary schools draft policy several months ago, Wong said he and his higher-ups received copies and so far interest has been high. The district's superintendent also received a copy, but was away on holidays at press time; unnamed sources close to the draft said the district has expressed initial support for passing a similar policy following the union's which states "that the BCTF encourage locals to work with school boards to adopt a 'sanctuary school' policy."

Schools don't talk to border services: Wong

Wong said he has encountered only a "few" cases of undocumented families seeking schooling for their children, and that requests would be reviewed "case-by-base."

But he said that with proof of long-term residence -- and an intent to remain here -- parents' status shouldn't be a barrier. Pedro alleged one school principal seemed supportive and sympathetic, but kept copies of his passport, heightening his anxieties about being turned over to Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA).

"We do not send this information to Border Services," Wong insists, emphatically.

"If somebody just leaves their kids here because they're Canadian citizens, they'd need to access it through the international program," he explained. "But if the parents are living here for several years and can prove it, they can come through us.

"You'd just need to show proof you've been living here for some time. If we can see documentation that you're residing here, we would probably look at that as proof of maintaining ordinary residence here."

Wong has reviewed the draft BCTF policy, and said the matter is up to "a higher level" -- the superintendent and the trustees.

"We need to have a little more time to look it over," he said. "But in general, I don't have anything against it.

"I don't have anything against a sanctuary city. Kids should be in school. Education is important; it's not just for some, it's for all students."

One member of the BCTF committee that wrote the draft sanctuary schools policy is Britannia Secondary teacher Nassim Elbardouh, who this fall is moving to Sir William Macdonald Elementary School (pending a resolution to the current teachers' strike).

Before agreeing to an interview with The Tyee, she emphasized she doesn't speak on behalf of her union, but simply as a teacher and member of its Committee for Action on Social Justice.

"I've spoken with families whose children are unable to be registered in the school system because the parents can't provide a Social Insurance Number or a passport," she said. "Even if they're not turned away at the door, by not having a policy that explicitly states, 'You're welcome' to families living in fear of deportation, what we're doing is creating a climate of fear that makes people too afraid to come and try to enrol their children in school."

'You can't learn if you don't feel safe'

In her own experience as an educator, she said it would be hard to tell if a student had precarious immigration status. But the family of one student, she recalls, was applying for refugee status, and "dealing with a really complex bureaucracy," leading them to fear deportation at any moment.

"It's often really difficult to understand, particularly if English is not your first language and you're living with the fear of deportation," she said, "of never knowing whether or not you're going to be able to stay, if you're going to be there for the next school year."

Elbardouh cites academic studies concluding "that you can't learn if you don't feel safe," which she says is precisely why many B.C. schools offer hot lunch or breakfast programs for those in poverty, and settlement support services to refugees and immigrants.

Vancouver school district has an "Educational Opportunities Policy" that states that schools won't discriminate based on ethnicity, gender, economic means or other barriers.

"When people really think about it, it does not make sense that... we would create the conditions that make it unsafe for certain groups of people to access the school system," she argues. "Why would teachers be in a role where we have to determine someone's immigration status before we teach them?

"Our jobs as teachers and administrators are to teach, not to be immigration authorities. We're not border guards."

'Don't ask, don't tell' in schools

In 2007, Toronto District School Board passed its own policy, labelled "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." It was the first educational authority in Canada to do so. (See sidebar).

The change came after intensive lobbying by advocates and members of the public outraged that CBSA had detained two minors from their school, as immigration lawyer Laura Best described, "to smoke out their parents" who lacked citizenship status in Canada.

Facing an outcry that children were being used as pawns in Canada's immigration enforcement, Toronto schools passed a policy that students of any citizenship status could attend classes without fearing being reported to CBSA.

But Elbardouh, who has studied the Toronto policy closely, warns that since its passing, the policy has been poorly publicized, and impossible to find online. That means the message of safety is muted for nervous families -- something crucial for B.C. schools to avoid in adopting similar policies, she said.

'I have no Plan B': immigrant

Back in Tequila, Pedro was a musician in a band playing musica norteña, a central- and northern-Mexican traditional music featuring accordions, bass guitars and singing. A construction co-worker lent him his guitar and sometimes he plays it for the children.

When he's at work, he lives constantly fearful of an immigration raid. If he is caught, he admits, "I have no Plan B." Another undocumented worker in a different construction site, who also requested anonymity, told The Tyee a CBSA raid forced her to plunge into a rooftop water tank, where she hid in frigid water for more than an hour despite her asthma, as authorities searched for her in vain.

Pedro understands his status is precarious here, but massive immigration backlogs mean following the "legitimate" process were simply not possible for his family. But he asks: Should the children, however, be punished for their parents' choices?

"I feel that it's not fair because I think that all children deserve to go to school -- everyone should have access to an education," he says. "Regardless of the status of the parents, my children were born here and should be allowed to go to school."

All he wants is for his four -- soon to be five -- children is to grow up in a "stable, safe and peaceful" country like Canada, he insists.

"Mostly," he adds, "I want them to fulfil their dreams.

"My daughter wants to be a teacher. I feel really emotional about that, because they're not even able to attend school. But children are the future of our communities."

* Name changed because of deportation fears  [Tyee]

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