NEW WESTMINSTER, B.C. –
Dozens of people gathered outside a New Westminster elementary school Saturday morning to denounce the recent actions of Canada Border Services Agency officers.
The rally was organized by Sanctuary Health, a grassroots organization that advocates for the rights of migrants.
Organizer Omar Chu said on Nov. 30, a mother dropping off her child for kindergarten at Lord Tweedsmuir Elementary School was followed by CBSA officers and detained a short distance away.
“It’s extremely troubling,” said Chu. “Students are afraid that if they go to school, their parents might not be home when they get back.”
Chu said the parents are Mexican refugee claimants who have been living in Canada for a decade, and their daughter is Canadian.
They did not have their lawyer at a refugee hearing and did not understand the appeal process at the time, according to Chu, who said they have since applied for permanent residency on humanitarian grounds.
“(They) came here fleeing violence,” Chu said. “It is a failure of the system, in terms that every refugee claimant should have the right to representation at the refugee hearing.”
Since the arrest, the mother has been released from detention, but the incident has shaken the school community.
Maya Russell, a trustee with the school district, said there are other families also facing deportation who are afraid they will also be targeted by the CBSA.
“They are now terrified. They thought it was safe to bring their child to school. CBSA’s actions have told them that in fact, their child’s school attendance can be a way that CBSA is using to track them,” she said.
In 2017, New Westminster schools introduced a Sanctuary Schools Policy, which ensures all children have access to education regardless of their immigration status.
Many at the rally criticized the CBSA for undermining the policy.
“All schools in New Westminster are open to children regardless of the immigration status of their parents,” Russell said. “The problem here is that we need the federal government, we need CBSA, to back off from tracking families with precarious status, to have anything to do with the school.”
In response, CBSA spokesperson Judith Gadbois-St-Cyr confirmed that officers were in New Westminster on Nov. 30 carrying out an Immigration and Refugee Protection Act investigation.
“It is important to note that at no time did CBSA officers enter the property of any schools in the area,” she wrote in an email statement.
She said the CBSA cannot comment on the specifics of the case, citing privacy reasons.
“The decision to remove someone from Canada is not taken lightly,” she wrote. “Everyone ordered to be removed from Canada is entitled to due process before the law and all removal orders are subject to various levels of appeal … Once individuals have exhausted all legal avenues of appeal and due process, however, they are expected to respect our laws and leave Canada or be removed.”
Peter Julian, the NDP Member of Parliament for New Westminster-Burnaby, said the actions of the CBSA are “mean-spirited” since the family are legitimate refugee claimants.
“I don’t see – I don’t think Canadians would see – any distinction between border police waiting at the entrance to the school and waiting on the street. I mean, it’s just not the way we work in Canada. This is not Donald Trump’s America,” Julian said.
“In Canada, we should respect the process and the federal government should make the investments so that the refugee system works and when you have legitimate refugees fleeing violence and almost certain death, they should be treated with respect – their applications should be treated promptly and effectively,” he added.
Chu said Saturday’s demonstration shows people are taking a stand against deportation, and called on the province to implement the sanctuary schools policy for districts across B.C.
“We need to stand up as a community and fight against deportations and welcome refugees here,” he said.
In an email response, the Ministry of Education said: “Every child and youth in British Columbia must have safe access to education.”
It added that Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside has met with Sanctuary Health and many districts have already implemented such policies. The ministry’s statement did not commit to implementing such a policy province-wide.
The family was not present at the rally, but attendees said they hope the family can see they are being supported by the community.