The Right to Learn: Access to Public Education for Non-Status Immigrants

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Executive Summary


While attending schools in the Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) in April of 2006, four non-status children were apprehended by immigration officials over a period of 48 hours. These children and their families were subsequently deported. These incidents led to considerable anxiety among non-status immigrant families with school-aged children – fears still in evidence today.

This study examines the challenges, fear, and safety concerns non-status immigrant families face in regards to accessing the public school system, and is to our knowledge the first Canadian study of its kind.

Access to public education for all children and youth under 18 in Ontario is both a right and a requirement under provincial law. The Ontario Education Act explicitly states that no child can be denied access to schools because they, or their parent(s), lack immigration status in Canada.

While the law is clear, this study suggests that there are inconsistencies regarding enrollment procedures and other protocols in Toronto schools. Many of the non-status immigrant families that we interviewed experienced difficulties with and expressed deep-seated concerns about accessing schools in Toronto, up to and including the denial of enrollment of children and youth in some local schools.

This report provides a snapshot of the experiences of those families with the Toronto public education system, identifies barriers that families are facing, and puts forward recommendations aimed at ensuring access to public education for all children and youth regardless of immigration status.

Seventeen participants (15 parents/guardian and two youths) were interviewed for this study. This small sample size is attributed to both the limited funding available for the project, as well as the challenge of recruiting families that live with the risk of deportation. Many non-status immigrants are reluctant to come forward and share their stories for fear of being reported to authorities.

Despite its small sample size, this study raises some important questions regarding the accessibility of Toronto public schools for non-status students and students whose parents lack legal immigration status.


Participants identified several barriers to accessing Toronto schools:

  • Enrollment Denied on Basis of Immigration Status: Four of the adult respondents reported that their children had been denied enrollment into a Toronto District School Board (TDSB) school based on immigration status; one of these parents was refused access by four different schools.
  • Documentation Requirements: Of the 17 respondents, 15 stated that immigration status came up during the enrollment process. Participants were asked by the school to provide proof of immigration status, such as passports, refugee papers, visas, or an application pending an immigration decision. Two families experienced difficulties enrolling their children in a Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) school due to religious affiliation.
  • Lack of Information Regarding the Right to Education: Eight out of the 15 adult respondents indicated that they were unaware that their children had the legal right to attend school in Ontario. The study also shows that not all Toronto school staff are aware of the legal rights of non-status students.
  • Fear: Six out of 15 adult respondents indicated that they were hesitant to try to enroll their children in school for fear of being reported to immigration officials by school administrators. Parents also commented on the fear of being reported to officials if their child was not enrolled in school.

In addition to enrollment problems, participants expressed concerns regarding their safety, security and involvement in school activities.

  • Staying Under the Radar: Many parents needed to explain what having no status in Canada meant, and instructed their children to be extra careful for fear their status would be revealed. This need for secrecy greatly affected parent and child involvement in school events and activities.
  • OHIP Requirements: Schools require students to possess OHIP cards in order to take part in activities off school premises. For this reason, many children could not participate in school field trips.


In order to eliminate enrollment barriers and create a safe, inclusive environment for non-status families in all Ontario schools, we have developed a series of recommendations directed at the provincial government, school boards, teachers’ unions, and community organizations. We recommend that:

1. Enforce the Education Act

The Ontario Ministry of Education take steps to ensure that all Ontario schools are adhering to the Ontario Education Act which ensures access to public education to all children under 18 regardless of immigration status. Steps may include staff training, public education, further policy development, and evaluation and monitoring of school practices to ensure compliance with provincial legislation.

2. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

The Ontario Ministry of Education explore the development of a province-wide “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” immigration policy for all Ontario schools whereby school officials would not be allowed to “ask” about a student, parent or guardian’s immigration status, and if s/he learned that a student, parent or guardian was without status, the staff, administrator or educator would not share this information with others, particularly law enforcement or immigration officials.

3. Create a Safe Environment

TDSB and TCDSB critically examine their policies and make any necessary changes to ensure that they promote the full inclusion of children and youth in Toronto schools regardless of immigration status, and create a safe and inclusive environment for families without status. This work should include an exploration of alternatives to health card requirements for off-school class activities.

4. Action by School Boards

TDSB and TCDSB take immediate action to implement their policies with respect to non-status students by:

  • Developing and providing regular training for school administrators, staff and educators regarding issues faced by non-status families, children’s right to education under provincial law and international conventions, and board policy with respect to non-status students. Training material should be created in collaboration with agencies and organizations who are experienced in non-status issues.
  • Launching a multilingual public education campaign in collaboration with community agencies, early years drop-in centres, faith-based groups, immigrant- and refugee-serving organizations and advocates to ensure that families without status are aware of their children’s right to attend public schools, privacy and confidentiality issues with respect to immigration status, registration process details and documentation requirements. The use of ethno-specific media outlets (i.e. community newspapers and radio) would help to facilitate this process and effectively reach a larger audience.
  • Evaluating and monitoring the effectiveness of non-status student policies annually, in collaboration with relevant stakeholders, to ensure that policies are updated, as needed, to improve the safety and inclusiveness of school environments for non-status families.

5. Don’t Require Immigration Documentation for Enrollment

TDSB and TCDSB examine their policies with respect to documentation requirements to ensure that immigration documents are not a requirement for enrollment, and ensure that this policy is adhered to in all schools. This would also include reviewing their enrollment procedures and admission forms and developing methods that effectively differentiate international students from non-status residents seeking admittance.

6. Teachers Play an Active Role

Teachers’ unions and associations, such as the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association and the Ontario Teachers’ Federation, play an active role in the education of their members regarding access to public education for students without status.

7. Make Inclusion a Priority

Community organizations, faith-based groups, immigrant and refugee-serving agencies and advocates work with local school boards to promote the full inclusion of non-status students in Ontario schools. This work may include assisting school boards in their outreach efforts to ensure that students without status have access to public schools and their monitoring and evaluation activities to assess the effectiveness of non-status student policies.

8. Access to Post-Secondary Education

The Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities work in collaboration with post-secondary institutions on examining their admissions and enrollment policies to include students who lack immigration status. This can include reviewing current admission policies and practices that exist in the U.S. in which several state colleges and universities accept undocumented students. States such as Texas, California and New York have implemented policies in which undocumented students need only pay in-state tuition rates, rather than out-of-state rates (which are often six times the cost). Texas has also gone a step further in allowing undocumented students to be eligible for state financial aid (Biswas, 2005).

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