‘It just seems unfair': Langley kids booted from school over mom in citizenship 'limbo'
As Trump’s deportation vows stir fear in U.S., in B.C. some migrant parents still struggle to enrol kids in school — one Langley family is just the latest.
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“Where kids reach for the stars.”
That’s the motto emblazoned above the entrance of North Otter Elementary School, surrounded by snow-glistening fields in Langley, B.C. east of Vancouver.
But for two siblings living just minutes away, that motto appears not to apply.
Despite the fact that both the five- and seven-year old were born in Canada — and are therefore Canadian citizens — the local school district won’t let them enrol because of their horse-trainer Mexican parents’ paperwork troubles.
The federal government offered the mother and children visitor visas so they could enrol by a Sept. 30 deadline, while their father continues his paperwork in Mexico to resume his 10-year employment as a trainer at Hastings Racecourse.
“I sent all the papers, I never lied. They asked me for my status, and I sent my visa,” explained their mother, a 30-year-old optometry student from Mexico City, whom Metro agreed not identify because of their precarious immigration process. “They were really excited to be at school — the principal was so nice and took the kids to their classrooms. But after only a couple hours, they called and told us to pick them up: 'Your kids cannot be here.'”
It turned out they were neither registered for classes, nor covered by the school’s insurance, a staffer told her.
When she returned to the school, her five-year-old son was building something with other children on a classroom floor, and her seven-year-old daughter was about to go outside to play with her peers.
“They asked us, 'Mom, why are you picking us up early?” she recalled, apologetically beginning to sob. “They asked, 'Mom, why can't we go to school?'
“She says, 'Mom, I want to see my friends and make more friends.' I do my best to teach her, but there are so many questions I can't explain to a seven-year-old.”
According to a provincial Ministry of Education — which couldn’t discuss “details” of this specific case — “eligibility for free public education is based on residence rather than citizenship or immigration status,” spokesman Craig Sorochan said in an emailed statement.
The problem lies in the B.C. School Act’s wording that what is required is parents be “ordinarily resident” of the province. But although individual school districts fall under provincial jurisdiction, each determines its own enrolment policies.
“The specific rules concerning documentation may vary by district,” Sorochan added. “… While boards may request documentation concerning immigration status, immigration status is relevant, but not determinative, of ordinary residence.”
Langley School District did not respond to Metro’s request for comment Friday morning.
But the province needs to clarify and standardize its registration rules, argued two advocates with Sanctuary Health, which campaigns for undocumented and precarious migrants’ “access without fear” to services.
“There are many kids who are not able to go to school here,” said Byron Cruz, himself a former refugee who studied farming and animal husbandry in Guatemala. “But in Vancouver we've been able to make some changes at the school board.
“It's still case-by-case, but we bring each family to the school board, talk to the school board and finally their able to help … We are talking about a vulnerable community.”
His colleague in Sanctuary Health, Alejandra Lopez Bravo, said the issue is much larger than this one family in Langley.
“It illustrates the situation of many families, whether they're waiting to hear the outcome of their applications, are deciding what their options are to regularize their status, or they're undocumented,” she said. “There are a lot of families facing these barriers … We're looking forward to meeting again with the ministry so that they can clarify this.”
The parents’ employer, Mel Snow, welcomed the family into his family’s Langley basement suite until they can get status in Canada. There they learn math, reading, writing, phonics from books provided under the table by a teacher friend.
“It's tough on both the kids,” said the veteran horse trainer and vice-president of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association of B.C. “But it’s especially tough for a little girl to not understand why she's not allowed to go to school.
“They're going through the process and doing everything properly. They've been here for nearly 10 years, working and contributing. It just seems unfair.”