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BC Politics

Undocumented Families in BC Face Tough Back-to-School Choices

Barriers to COVID-19 medical care and fears of deportation raise stakes as the return of classes comes closer.

Katie Hyslop 1 Sep 2020 | TheTyee.ca

Katie Hyslop is a reporter for The Tyee. Reach her here.

Parents, children and teachers across British Columbia are apprehensive about next week’s return to school in a pandemic. But for many families, the stakes are much higher.

They’re undocumented, in the country — sometimes for decades — without formal status. That means they have no health-care coverage and a child’s illness could mean crippling debt. The parents have no access to government support if they become ill and can’t work.

And the family risks deportation if they do seek care for a child.

That’s the reality for Paula and Alex and their children, all under age 13. (The Tyee has agreed not to use their names and withheld some details about the family because of the risk of deportation.)

Their two oldest children were born in Latin America, where the family immigrated from seven years ago. Neither they nor their parents have access to medical care in B.C.

Their fear of catching COVID-19 has made deciding whether the kids go back to school next month very difficult.

“I haven’t made the decision because I’m feeling very confused,” Paula told The Tyee via a translator. “Because if cases continue to spike, I believe I won’t take that risk because there’s a greater risk for the family.”

If one of the children contracts COVID-19 at school and passes it on to their parents, Alex, the family’s sole breadwinner, must miss work without pay. As undocumented migrants, they are not eligible for provincial or federal COVID-19 supports.

And if the parents or children without status end up in the hospital, at best the family will have thousands of dollars of medical debt. At worst, the hospital will call the Canada Border Services Agency, leading to their deportation.

“We’re alone here, we don’t have anyone else. Like if one of us gets sick, we are the only ones that can take care of each other,” Paula said.

It’s more difficult to make a back-to-school decision, because while the Vancouver school district’s COVID-19 draft safety plan came out on Aug. 19, as of Thursday it was only available in English on the district’s website.

Paula and Alex, who speak Spanish, are not fluent in English.

The Tyee reached out to the Vancouver School Board for an interview with Bruce Garnett, district principal of the Newcomer Welcome Centre, where non-citizens register their children for Vancouver schools. The district has Access Without Fear guidelines that let staff and families know that a child's immigration status is irrelevant when it comes to enrolling in school.

Garnett was not available, but he did send an emailed statement confirming a child’s residency in the city — not their immigration status — is all that’s required for enrolment. But he did not address the fear undocumented families are feeling about returning to class during a pandemic when they don’t have access to health care.

Vancouver School Board trustee Jennifer Reddy said the family’s fears are a concern. If information about health protection isn’t available in multiple languages, she said, families won’t know what safety precautions are required.

The family’s situation shows the importance of a remote learning option for students, which the district provided in the spring when schools closed.

“We need to make a provision that doesn’t penalize them for not coming, but they can still access their basic education,” she said. No student should lose their spot in a school — and no school should lose funding for that student if they decide to stay home this year, Reddy added.

At an Aug. 19 emergency meeting on back-to-school plans, trustees passed a motion calling on the Education Ministry to ensure elementary students had access to hybrid online/in-class options, which exists for middle and high school students.

In an emailed statement to The Tyee, Education Minister Rob Fleming said he expects districts to offer an online option for students who don’t feel safe in school. “We have asked school districts to contact all families to confirm if their child is attending school class, or if they require a remote learning option,” the statement read.

In a letter sent home to parents of elementary students on Aug. 24, the Vancouver School Board said it was considering a “Transition Program” remote learning option for students who are not ready to return to school. The letter sent to parents of secondary students on Aug. 27 does not highlight such an option, though some classes will be taught remotely on a rotating basis.

The province has only dedicated $45.6 million to its school reopening plan, not enough to hire more teachers required for online lessons.

Earlier this week the federal government pledged $242 million for COVID-19-related school expenses in the province. It is unclear yet how the province will choose to spend the money.

Enrolment brings uncertain risks

With help from Sanctuary Health, a grassroots migrant advocacy group, Paula and Alex were able to enrol their children in Vancouver public schools when they came to B.C.

Since then the district has adopted the Access Without Fear guidelines to ensure families don’t have to worry that enrolment will lead to problems with Canada Border Services Agency or other agencies.

But Reddy says too few district staff know about the policy.

“If you’re going to go register at a school in your neighbourhood, those folks at that school, whether you’re a secretary, support staff, teacher or even a principal, may not necessarily know what ‘Access Without Fear’ means,” said Reddy, who — before becoming a trustee — worked at the school district’s Newcomer Centre.

Reddy said she has met students who missed out on six months of school because they didn’t have proof of status and were hesitant to enrol.

Although families without status wishing to access an education for their kids are assessed on a case by case basis, the guidelines state families only need proof of residency in the city to enrol their child in a Vancouver public school.

But Paula and Alex say that still leaves them unsure about whether it’s safe to send their children back to school during the pandemic without guaranteed medical coverage or financial supports.

“When the coronavirus started, before they did close the schools, we sent them, fearful about the spread, but we wanted to prioritize the kids’ schooling,” Paula said.

But despite the challenges of educating their kids at home, the children did not return to school when classes reopened in June. In part that’s because of an expensive health scare last year that still weighs on their minds, when they were forced to take their eldest child to the hospital with the flu.

“We got a bill of $1,600. Just for one visit to the emergency room,” Alex said. “We were able to pay $1,200, but after lots of working and saving. And then that also jeopardizes our ability to regularize our status by the way, to have bills.”

If COVID-19 required a hospital visit or kept Alex away from his under-the-table construction job, “it would be chaos,” he said.

During the first months of the pandemic, the province extended temporary Medical Services Plan coverage to some migrants and international students waiting on work and study permits.

But it is not available to Alex and Paula and their older children, who have no legal residency.

Sanctuary Health organizer Byron Cruz says the REACH medical clinic on Commercial Drive in Vancouver is the only primary care centre he knows that doesn’t ask patients about their immigration status.

The clinic doesn’t charge families for visits, but any testing is done by outside labs, which do charge.

“Sometimes the physicians find it a little bit difficult to provide health care because they say that they need labs, they need testing, and it is a difficult part because if they go to the lab, they get a big bill for hundreds of dollars, and always with the risk of also getting phone calls later on,” said Cruz.

Unpaid bills are often sent to collections agencies, which may call border services. Cruz said sometimes hospitals will call border services when patients can’t pay their bills.

“A few years ago, we had several hundreds of phone calls going from the Fraser Health hospitals to Canada Border Service Agency reporting people,” said Cruz. “Most of the phone calls were trying to find out people who couldn’t pay for the services, and they end up being deported.”

It was only after many meetings between Sanctuary Health and Fraser Health officials — and a Sanctuary Health demonstration outside Fraser Health's offices — that the health authority changed their policies around calls to border services.

But that’s not the case for Vancouver Coastal Health, which operates the hospitals in Vancouver where Paula and Alex live.

“We still have a lot of problems,” Cruz said. “It’s not very clear what their policies are in terms of privacy and confidentiality of the patients who do not have permanent residency.

“Usually patients are getting thousands of dollars in bills after being in the hospital, and it’s a big barrier. I get phone calls every week from people who have accidents at work, and they are very, very afraid of accessing the health-care system.”

In an email to The Tyee, a spokesperson for Vancouver Coastal Health did not identify policies regarding patients’ immigration status. However, the health authority is providing COVID-19 care to people without status as part of the province’s extension of provincial health insurance to undocumented or temporary migrants in the province. This extension ends on Oct. 31.

But Cruz says that Sanctuary Health has still had to advocate for undocumented patients at B.C. hospitals, and some patients have still received bills in the thousands of dollars for their care.

There are some supports for undocumented families in the Lower Mainland.

When the province suspended in-class instruction on March 17, Paula and Alex were among thousands of B.C. parents who borrowed school tablets and computers for online learning. The family still struggled to keep up with remote learning.

“The first month, even though they borrowed the iPad, even the older kids didn't know how to navigate the new system that the school provided. And like by the time they were able to like navigate it and understand it, even for me to be able to support them, the school year ended,” Paula said.

“But it was very stressful to be at home trying to take care of the little ones and also trying to support navigating the homeschooling.”

Paula and Alex say their children want to go back to school this fall — and their parents want that for them. “They’re like, ‘We want to go to school. We forgot how our classrooms are, we’re just tired, we just want to go to school.’”

But the lack of MSP coverage for the family is a major barrier.

“If we had MSP, I would still be scared, but I would take that risk, because then we can access health care and recover at home and then continue with our life,” Paula said.

Medical coverage would also help reduce the pandemic stress on the entire family. “Our older son tells us, ‘I don't want to go to school because I worry about you, too,’” said Alex.

Cruz wants health-care coverage extended to everyone in the province, regardless of status. It’s part of a push for better treatment for domestic workers from other countries, migrant workers and undocumented migrants, he said. “We are trying to put all the demands together as status for all.”

Cruz knows that’s an uphill battle, but there’s already been some success. On Aug. 14, the federal government announced a temporary path to permanent residency for refugees serving as frontline workers during the pandemic.

“It’s a small change, but it is happening because we are keeping up with this pressure on the federal government, otherwise it would not happen,” Cruz said. “This is the time when we can build up a movement based on status for all.”  [Tyee]

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