News / Vancouver

New West schools ponder policy to enrol undocumented kids

B.C. districts vary in interpreting of residency rules. In Royal City, one asylum-seeking family managed to get access — as decision-makers chart a new path.

Guatemalan asylum-seekers María and Carlos (not their real names) play with their two youngest children as they hold a photo of their seven-year-old daughter, who recently enrolled in a New Westminster school despite the family's lack of immigration documents. Metro agreed not to publish their names on the Internet because of threats they received in Guatemala.

Guatemalan asylum-seekers María and Carlos (not their real names) play with their two youngest children as they hold a photo of their seven-year-old daughter, who recently enrolled in a New Westminster school despite the family's lack of immigration documents. Metro agreed not to publish their names on the Internet because of threats they received in Guatemala.

Last week, New Westminster residents María and Carlos (not their real names) got their seven-year-old daughter’s first Canadian report card.

“It was amazing what the teacher said about her,” María, a 32-year-old former elementary teacher herself, boasted. “Even we were surprised.”

Her husband, 34, chimed in, proudly telling Metro the teacher praised their daughter’s progress in English and math, her ability to make friends, and her confidence in public speaking.

“She loves to do show-and-tell,” he said, laughing. “She loves her teacher. She tells me, 'Please never take me out of school.'”

The seven-year-old’s fear is real; she almost wasn’t allowed into Grade 2 at all.

Related stories:

Metro agreed not to publish their names on the Internet because of the threats, but could not independently verify their account.

However, because they arrived in Canada via the U.S. — under federal law considered a “safe third country” — their refugee request was denied at the border. So three days later, they sneaked across on foot and filed an asylum request. They became what some derogatorily call “illegals,” but are known to authorities because they applied for a Pre-Removal Risk Assessment.

“We had to find somewhere where our kids can be safe,” he insisted. “We hoped to receive help here.”

As the school year approached, they found themselves unable to register for school because they had no status and authorities seized their passports. But though their story is unique, it’s a barrier faced by children whose parents aren’t citizens or permanent residents, but aren’t tourists or international students either.

Like the Mexican family in Langley for nine years profiled by Metro earlier this week — whose Canadian-citizen kids were refused enrolment because of an immigration paperwork “glitch” — these families live full-time in their school’s catchment area and intend to stay.

For the vice-chair of the New Westminster School Board — trustee Mark Gifford — the situation facing families like Carlos and María’s spurred a “healthy conversation” about creating an official welcoming policy in the district.

“We’re still in progress in looking at what’s possible in New Westminster,” he told Metro. “We’ve been excited to engage and to better ensure that all children feel safe, welcome and secure in our schools.”

However, although he said a policy welcoming all residents regardless of their immigration status might help, Gifford isn’t yet convinced that’s even needed because the B.C. School Act is unambiguous: nowhere does it require citizenship or immigration for registration, only that students be “ordinarily resident” of the district — a clause the Ministry of Education confirmed to Metro in an email.

Gifford said he hoped the ministry would clarify publicly that districts should not be screening applicants based on immigration status, because there is “no consistency” from city to city.

But in New Westminster, at least, a conversation is underway.

What about some people’s concerns that explicitly welcoming undocumented or precarious migrants might open the door to people taking advantage of Canada’s free public education — instead of following the legal procedures?

 “Sometimes when people first try to make sense of what an ‘access without fear’ or ‘schools for all’ (approach) would look like, they get concerned that someone’s getting in the back door, or that this is about free international education.

“This is not about those things. This is about students who are residents here … for whom school could and should make an enormous difference in their lives.”

It wasn’t until the Guatemalan newcomer family approached advocates with the group Sanctuary Health that the New Westminster School District finally allowed their daughter into classes on Sept. 15 — pending review after a year, however.

“In Guatemala she was in school and she needs to continue her studies,” María said. “Children can't stop their learning.”

More on Metronews.ca