Thursday, April 12, 2007

Students left in fear of deportation

Toronto Star
Immigration issues in schools prompt group to push for `don't ask, don't tell' policy
Apr 12, 2007
Nicholas Keung

Seventeen-year-old Katherina Davidson was on her way home from school two weeks ago when two strangers in a green minivan asked for her identity.

The Father Henry Carr Catholic Secondary School student denied she was the person the plainclothes officers were looking for, and ran into St. Andrew's Catholic Church near Finch and Kipling Aves. for safety.

"They didn't say who they were at first. One of them just yelled out, `Stop running. Don't make me chase you,'" recalled Davidson, whose family has been deported twice since they first arrived in Toronto in 1994.

"I called my sister and found out my mom had been arrested from her job earlier that morning. When I went back to the school later in the day, my vice-principal told me Immigration was there looking for me."

Davidson's fright comes nearly a year after other well-publicized incidents involving Border Services agents who entered schools seeking to detain children.

The incidents prompted Toronto District School Board trustees to vote unanimously last May to create a protocol for dealing with immigration issues in the schools. They asked staff for a draft by fall.

The Toronto Catholic District School Board does have a policy, but it stipulates that staff should co-operate with police and immigration officers.

And that leaves students like Davidson – who's two courses away from graduating – in fearful limbo.

For days, the teenager said, she stayed with friends and relatives, afraid the authorities would come to get her.

In fact, said a spokesperson for the Canada Border Services Agency, the officers went to the school only to inform the girl her mother was under arrest and that she would be allowed to stay in Canada until the end of the school year, when she finishes the chemistry and biology credits she needs to graduate.

The school referred questions about the incident to the school board, which declined to speak about the case without authorization by the girl's mother.

But Davidson's fear highlights the motivation of advocates who are putting a new push on schools to put a "don't ask, don't tell" policy into practice.

Dubbed "Education, Not Deportation," the campaign will be launched today by a coalition of teachers, students and activists who believe non-status minors have the right to an education without being hassled to reveal their immigration status and risk deportation.

Undocumented parents, they say, are often afraid to send their kids to school, where administrators may require proof of residency and immigration status in registration documents.

"The reality is, once the issue is off the spotlight, the policy is only alive on paper," said Sima Zerehi, chair of the group No One Is Illegal, which is leading the campaign.

Trustee Chris Bolton (Ward 10, Trinity-Spadina) said the public board has directed staff to develop the policy and hopes to have it in place by September.

"We're a year out, but as far as I know, little has been done," he explained. "We voted for the concept last year, but people on the front lines still don't seem to know the rule."

Lloyd McKell, the school board's executive officer for student and community equity, said all schools were told last fall of their obligation to admit non-status students and not to provide student information to immigration enforcement officials without the guardian's consent.

"We are committed to the notion that every child has a right to be educated regardless of their immigration status," he said.

"But the process is a bit complex because we need to provide specific guidelines for all schools that would enable them to get the information they need without asking for people's immigration documents."

Not only is the board required to come up with a new registration form, it also needs to find ways to obtain and verify a student's date of arrival to Canada to qualify for government ESL funding, and prevent foreign visa students from abusing the "don't ask, don't tell" policy to dodge international tuition fees.

McKell said his staff hope to meet with the coalition later this month to update them on their progress. A written policy will be presented at next month's school board meeting.

Craig Fortier, of the Grassroots Youth Collaborative, said a teenage boy from Grenada was picked up by police and turned over to Immigration for deportation two months ago when he was interviewed for a petty theft involving a classmate.
"The media always talk about the wall of silence between our youth and the authorities, especially when it comes to gun violence," he said. "If the city really wants to break that wall, it has to assure people that they can come forward without fear of being detained and deported."

Canada Border Services spokesperson Anna Pape said non-status children are not required to provide valid student authorization to attend elementary and secondary schools in Canada; enforcement officers only go into schools for investigation and arrest with a senior official's permission and under exceptional circumstances, usually at the request of a guardian already in detention or for national security and criminal reasons.