By Daniel Tseghay
In recent years, the federal government has made a number of changes to immigration policy that have made it more difficult for migrants to gain permanent status. Refugee claims, and the number of accepted claims, has dropped dramatically. Countries like Mexico are deemed “safe countries” by Canada, making Mexican refugee applicants subject to fast-track deportations.
In April, 70,000 temporary foreign workers were made undocumented by the “four and four” law where they can only work in the country for four years at a time and cannot return on another work permit for at least another four years. Many of these workers have either been deported, left voluntarily, or remain in the country underground.
On May 29th, a part of Bill C-24 was put into effect, immigrants and those with dual citizens can have their citizenship stripped for committing an ever-expanding set of crimes.
Migrants throughout Canada are living without status. “It could be that they came on a temporary work visa, or they actually ran away or crossed the border because where they were they feared violence,” says Natalie Wai, a Vancouver teacher and member of the BC Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) in a phone call with RankandFile.ca. “In one instance, a Mexican family, they were threatened with violence, so the mom took their son and daughter across the United States and came to Canada. They don’t have a work or student visa. They have nothing, but they came in order to escape violence. They could have an expired work or student visa and they don’t want to go back so they stay, and they try to be eligible to try to find work.”
They’re also trying to access basic services – from health care, food banks, libraries, public transportation, and education – but the fear of being identified as residing without status keeps many from doing so.
Even children who were born here and therefore are automatically permanent residents are affected by federal immigration laws. If the parents are undocumented, many fear they’ll have to prove their immigration status in order to enroll their kids.
“School staff, when they answer the telephones, may inadvertently ask questions which scare families from registering their kids. They might ask questions like: What’s your status? Are you illegal? Are you a refugee?,” says Wai about the extent of the barriers facing many migrants.
“When we talk about these students and their families we tend to think that the most vulnerable are just those who are poor but the truly invisible are those who come to our cities and countries and for whatever reason they don’t get status, and they’re scared that if they have children and they want to be educated they might be found out and they feel that Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) will come and take them away,” says Wai, who is also a member of the Committee for Action on Social Justice, an anti-racism subcommittee as part of the BCTF. “And they would have to be deported and leave the country.”
As a result, Wai and others presented a draft proposal to the Vancouver Secondary Teachers’ Association in early May. They detailed their desire to work with the Vancouver School Board on a sanctuary schools policy for students without status.
“It would be a shame if school officials, teachers, and staff were to share information about these students with Canadian Border Services because all children are entitled to an education,” says Wai. “All children, regardless of their status are entitled to an education. We want those students and families to know that they can come to school and be safe.”
The draft policy would stipulate specific rules for staff, “where we…have a ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy…which would help families feel that they’re welcome to come to school regardless of status”.
This would not be the first time workers – in this case teachers and school staff – would decide to do more than protect and advance their own interests but also take a stand on a broader social issue.
Because of their direct, and daily, relationship with some of the most vulnerable victims of federal immigration policy – undocumented, or precariously residing, children – teachers have an opportunity to make their workplace sanctuary zones for others.
They have an opportunity to bridge the migrant justice and the labour movement.
“We’re in the business of education,” Wai underscores. “We’re not border police.”