In fall 2008, U of T student Saad Alam and his family lost their second appeal to remain in Canada and were deported back to Bangladesh.
Alam’s father attempted to secure a study permit to help his son complete a degree — but immigration laws required him to make the application from Bangladesh. Despite university-wide protests and the involvement of advocacy group No One is Illegal, Alams’s studies were derailed and his family was forced to leave Canada in 2008.
Alam’s case is representative of a growing debate surrounding the nature of immigration and education policy in Canada. Currently, students over the age of 18 who do not have legal status in Canada are unable to study at the post-secondary level, a policy that critics argue is both inequitable and outdated.
Undocumented minors can receive a Canadian education as outlined in Memorandum No. 136 of Section 49.1 of the Education Act.
However, these provisions don’t apply to the same individuals once they reach the age of 18.
Older Ontario high school graduates without legal status must obtain a study permit from their home countries to attend post-secondary school and must also pay international student fees. The policy equally applies to refugee claimants who lose their status like Alam.
U of T alumnus Derik Chica, a math and science teacher in a Toronto public high school with a large immigrant population. He is currently collaborating with the Ontario Secondary School Teacher’s Federation District 12 to request the Human Rights Committee’s extension of education access to undocumented post-secondary students.
Francisco Villegas, a PhD candidate at the Department of Sociology and Equity Studies in Education at OISE, explained that the current policy represents a “discursive gap” in the way that undocumented individuals are perceived:
“The current policy affecting K–12 happens because of the liberal ideology of childhood as innocence, and an understanding that the child cannot be at fault for the parent’s sins,” said Villegas. “Once students hit 18 they are no longer these cute kids. They are adults and they are blamed for their status, without taking into consideration the many different barriers and inequities present within the immigration system.”
Chica believes that the current system presents a significant barrier to many of his students.
“It’s an unfair policy,” he said. “It limits intelligent kids with enormous potential, many of whom have grown up in Canada and in the public school system.”
“If the idea is to educate and prepare newcomers for the Canadian economy through programs like the Canadian Experience Class, then it just makes sense to allow students to attend Canadian universities and colleges,” said Chica. “It would do the same thing: prepare them for a life in Canada.”
Furthermore, Villegas argued that universities and society as a whole could benefit from a more inclusive policy.
“These are individuals who come with a very different world view and understanding, and who create different discussions and different pedagogical interventions within a classroom as well,” he said.”
Very little advocacy or research has been conducted on the issue of access to education for undocumented individuals.
In 2008, Parkdale Community Legal Services produced the only legal analysis to date.
The analysis concluded that a change in policy would benefit Canadian society by: ensuring equal educational opportunities, preventing a permanent underclass of residents in the country and creating a more equitable Canada.
Reform on education policy for undocumented students is not a new phenomenon in North America. Thirteen states in the US have already introduced laws allowing undocumented students to receive undergraduate and graduate education, and financial aid.
“It’s interesting that we always think of Canada as being this progressive space, and always in relation to the US, but when it comes to this dynamic, the US is so much farther ahead,” said Villegas.