Commentary | Reading, writing, and rights

How undocumented children struggle to access education

When I was six years old, my teacher approached me on the playground with a question. “Are you a citizen?” “Yes!” I answered automatically and enthusiastically. I knew the right answer even if I wasn’t sure it was true. Later, in fourth grade, kids teased me for what they assumed was a hickey – a reddish, palm-sized stain extending from my neck to my jaw. It was actually a bruise from where my father had smacked me hard across the face when I’d spilled some milk. My biggest fear was not his temper, but that someone would understand what happened and call social services. I was scared that the truth would come out: not that I was being abused, but that we were undocumented immigrants. We would have been deported over spilt milk.

As I got older, my fears receded into the background. That is, until graduation. I had the right grades to get into university but not the right paperwork. Perhaps I could’ve checked ‘citizen’ on the application form and hoped that I would never be asked for proof. I could have, except that post-9/11, people of colour were asked for their papers at every turn. I couldn’t live like that, never knowing what day was going to be my last in the U.S., never knowing when the life I’d spent years building would tumble like a house of cards. I saw only one option: to leave the U.S., the only country I had known since the age of two, and begin again somewhere else. Ultimately, I was able to enter Canada because I had a hard-won high school diploma and a letter of acceptance from McGill; and only because I was allowed to go to school without my parents being asked to ‘prove their status.’

This is my story. But, unlike me, there are thousands of children in Quebec who are denied the right to go to school due to their precarious immigration status, or their lack of any status at all. This is because Quebec requires families to prove their child’s legal immigration status in order to register for school. Many families won’t even try to register their children because the climate of suspicion on the one side, and fear on the other, leads to a life lived in terror of deportation. It’s the same reason I never bothered to try to get a driver’s license. With every attempt at accessing the most basic entitlements, you ask yourself whether today is the day your life as you know it will end.

 I was scared that the truth would come out: not that I was being abused, but that we were undocumented immigrants. We would have been deported over spilt milk.

Undocumented families are only allowed to register their children for school if they pay a ‘financial contribution’ (read: exorbitant fee) of five to six thousand dollars per year. What’s so unfair about this is that many non-status parents receive exploitative wages and barely make rent. The consequences of this discrimination hardly need enumeration: social isolation, impeded academic and personal progress, and – worst of all – hopelessness.

What would I have done at 18 years old if I had never been allowed to go to school? I graduated with honours, served on student council, and volunteered with ‘at-risk’ youth (never mind that my undocumented status made me one). All those opportunities, and all the dreams these experiences inspired wouldn’t have happened without my public school education. My admission to McGill and study permit to Canada was nothing less than a golden ticket to status, freedom, and a chance at life. Where are the golden tickets for Quebec’s undocumented children?

My friend Max is one such child. He is a 13-year-old whose mother immigrated to Canada four years ago and applied for refugee status upon arrival. As the child of a refugee claimant, Max was allowed to go to school for free, but once his mom’s refugee application was denied, they were asked to pay the astronomical fees demanded of the undocumented. There was no way that Max’s mom, who at the time was cleaning houses to make rent, could afford to pay. As a result, Max stayed out of school and spent most of his days at home. By the time their status was regularized and he could finally go to school for free, Max was two years behind. Stories like Max’s are as numerous as they are heartbreaking, and as shocking as they are unnecessary.

In some nightmare scenarios, children have been told that they would be reported to the Department of Citizenship and Immigration Canada if their parents did not pay the fees demanded. Doesn’t it make you long for the days when after-school detention – not deportation – was all kids had to worry about when they were called into the principal’s office?

The Quebec Ministry of Education claims they’ve ‘solved the problem’ by allowing fee exemptions for certain categories of immigrants, such as those who’ve been refused asylum but whose deportation is delayed because their countries of origin are deemed too dangerous (think Iraq). In reality, the cases covered by these exemptions are miniscule and leave out most undocumented families. The Ministry claims they allow school boards ‘flexibility,’ but the only thing they’ve allowed is the flourishing of an ad-hoc system where information remains murky. Families must depend on the goodwill of local school officials whom they hope will be well-informed about the nuances of our Kafkaesque and constantly changing immigration laws.

And if they’re not? In some nightmare scenarios, children have been told that they would be reported to the Department of Citizenship and Immigration Canada if their parents did not pay the fees demanded. Doesn’t it make you long for the days when after-school detention – not deportation – was all kids had to worry about when they were called into the principal’s office?

Lest we forget, education is a right. Why is this concept so difficult for the Quebec government to grasp? It’s not just a slogan – it’s a fact long enshrined in international law. Numerous international conventions declare education an inalienable human right, and Canada is a signatory to all of these. Not to mention the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, which state that children everywhere should be able to access primary school. These goals are aimed at ‘developing’ countries but, one has to wonder, will Quebec measure up? The bottom line is simple: the right to education must be given without any thought to a child’s country of birth.

Quebec remains the only jurisdiction in North America that systematically excludes non-status children from free access to primary and secondary school.

It isn’t such a controversy in other places. In the U.S., where I grew up, schools cannot refuse access to children on the basis of their immigration status thanks to Plyler v. Doe, a 1982 case in which the Supreme Court struck down a municipal school district’s attempt to charge undocumented students an annual $1,000 tuition fee. The court ruled that barring a child’s right to free education violated “equal protection under the law.” Today, Texan schools not only allow non-status students in, but they grant them access to financial assistance programs and reduced tuition once in college. These programs are supported by unapologetically right-wing politicians like Rick Perry, Chris Christie, and Mike Huckabee. European states, to varying degrees, have all taken a similar position, and many do not require any documents to enroll children in school.

What will it take for Quebec to meet the most basic standards of international law and human decency? It’s hard to say. I work with the Collectif Éducation Sans Frontières (CESF) and, since 2011, we’ve been demanding that Quebec amend the law to allow all children to attend school for free. We’ve used numerous tactics, even going so far as to occupy the education minister’s office. None of it has worked. Quebec remains the only jurisdiction in North America that systematically excludes non-status children from free access to primary and secondary school.

Today, many students are engrossed in the trivialities of back-to-school: what outfit to wear for the first day, or what courses to sign up for. Sadly, there are many children whose only thought is how great it would be to get to go to school at all, who sit behind windows watching other kids board the bus while the TV, their only companion for the day, drones on in the background. Enough. It’s time that Quebec allow every child go to school. Otherwise, what our children are really learning are lessons in discrimination.

Education Without Borders is a group of Quebec parents, students, researchers, activists concerned with (horrified by, angry because of) the exclusion of children from public education because of their immigration status. The collective organizes on the basis of two demands: that all migrants have access to public schooling regardless of their immigration status and that everyone, regardless of their immigration status, have access to free public schooling, from kindergarten to university. If this is a cause you care about, visit collectifeducation.org to learn more and get involved.


Amtullah Reage is a pseudonym. To contact them, please email massderision@gmail.com.


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