The realities behind the curtain

Illustration of a figure walking in the dark with a flashlight approaching an ominous curtain.

This article explores the experience and the challenges faced by students with precarious immigration statuses. Derik Chica, a teacher in District 12, Toronto, provides the perspective of an educator who has worked with undocumented students. And two undocumented youth, using pennames in order to remain anonymous, give us a glimpse of the challenges and struggles they face.—Editor

An educator’s perspective
I began teaching in a secondary school six years ago as a mathematics and science teacher. Like many teachers, I was deeply committed to supporting my students in any way possible. There was one student, let’s call her Sarah, who stood out. She was very bright, but seemed disengaged and often absent, but very bright. As I got to know her, we began to see a need to start a student club where similarly disengaged students could come together. It was then that Sarah disclosed to me that she and her family were undocumented, without legal immigration status.

The federal government had been denying many refugee claims, and Sarah’s family feared for their safety and their lives if they were forced to return to their country of origin. One of their key concerns was to provide Sarah with a stable educational environment, and they knew that Ontario’s Education Act stated that all children, regardless of their immigration status, should have access to education. However, Sarah knew that she would have little or no opportunity to access post-secondary education, so her motivation was low. Nonetheless, she still became president of our new school club, and we had ten or more members attending meetings. Her marks began to improve and her social engagement, as well as the engagement of those around her, began to grow. Then officers from the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) convinced another family in her building to disclose Sarah’s family’s location.

Sarah became nervous about attending school. While the CBSA stated they would not enter schools, they were allowed to hover around school property, which they did. Some of them even spoke to the Safety Resource Officer (police officer) assigned to the school. Sarah began to miss more and more classes. Eventually, she and her family were detained by CBSA, and then deported.

This is not a unique story. Education is a right for all children in Ontario, a right in which many undocumented families place their trust. The children of those families are our students. Some of those children have been here since infancy, raised almost entirely in Canada. As educators, we have a responsibility to listen to their stories, understand the unique barriers they face, and support them wherever we can.

The journey of undocumented youth trying to navigate both the immigration system and the education system is almost always perilous. Below are two perspectives from students with precarious immigration statuses who have experienced barriers to our education system.

A student’s perspective Part 1
By The Emancipating Writer

Life as an undocumented immigrant who wants an education can be a complicated situation. We all try to be something in life, yet there are obstacles that prevent one from succeeding in life, namely access to education. Some years ago, after immigrating to Canada, I imagined myself sailing through the system without any glitches.

As a new immigrant to Canada, I knew I had to adapt to a different education system. I had to go to the Toronto District School Board (TDSB)/Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) Orientation Centre to register for school. Without the test it would be impossible for me to attend high school.

Once the test was complete, in a matter of hours, I was finally in high school. I envisioned just three short years of high school, and then I would go to university to further my education. The first two years were a breeze, I was enjoying a new school, a new environment and, for the first time in my life, I loved school. When the 2013–2014 school year came along, I had to apply for university. Then my immigration application was denied. My future was blocked by a “Trumped up Wall.”

It’s been two years since graduating from high school. It’s hard to see friends I attended high school with; they have carried on with their lives while I’m still in limbo. I’m still in this trance, while I’m waiting for the results of a new application. I feel deflated; I know I’d be an asset to Canada. While I wait, there can’t be a mistake. The Canadian immigration system and the education system have both failed undocumented immigrants according to the “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights:”

Article 14 guarantees that: “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”

Article 26 guarantees that: “Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.”

It’s time for the Canadian government to act and help undocumented youth pursue their dreams.

A student’s perspective Part 2
By After the Storm

I came to Canada as a refugee in 2010. I didn’t speak any English; so naturally, during my first year in school I learned nothing. That means I’ve completely skipped Grades 5 and 6, and started at a disadvantage. With no status, my parents didn’t have a work permit that lasted long enough for them to find a job and start working. And renewing a work permit took money we couldn’t earn, because my parents had no work permit.

The stress of not being able to make money, and having to wait for our hearing, took its toll on everyone. I was always feeling stressed, even though there was nothing I could do, and since I still didn’t speak English well enough, I didn’t make any friends at first either. So in Grades 7 and 8, I hated school. Between Grades 9 and 10 our claim was rejected, and I didn’t care about school any longer. How could I, when a deportation order was already out for us? Around that time, I was getting 60s and 70s, and felt apathetic about everything.

When it turned out that we would be able to stay in Canada while the court considered our application on humanitarian grounds, things immediately got much better. With the same effort, I started getting 80s; my average mark went up by 15 per cent. But we still had no status. That meant that if I wanted a post-secondary education, I would need to pay the international fee for my program—but with no work permit I would never be able save money for it. The government doesn’t even allow a student loan if you aren’t a permanent resident.

As a refugee, even when things get better, you are still so far behind everyone else. The constant name-calling and accusations from the media were not helping either.

Throughout the years I’ve met people who have had it worse than I did, and I can’t imagine how they handled it. People without status who were taken advantage of, older siblings taking care of their younger siblings all by themselves, the list could go on. Knowing that many others have it worse than I did, and are still not getting anywhere after waiting even longer than I have, how can anyone stand by this system and pretend it’s all right? How can we leave people in such situations stranded, waiting for as long as a decade with nothing they can do about it?

About Derik Chica
Derik Chica is a teacher in District 12, Toronto. The Emancipating Writer and After the Storm are two students who are/have been undocumented, and are living in Toronto.

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