New Westminster schools are now sanctuaries for children of families with precarious immigration status.

The district school board unanimously approved the sanctuary schools policy on Tuesday night, following a year of consultations with community stakeholders. 

The policy aims to give all New Westminster school-aged children access to education without fear of their personal information being shared with immigration authorities, regardless of their immigration status. 

The families targeted with this policy may include anyone with less than full immigration status, such as temporary workers, undocumented entrants, and refugee applicants.

'It shines a light on what's possible in a district.' - Mark Gifford, School board vice-chair

While the B.C. School Act permits all school-age residents to attend a school in their district, school board vice-chair Mark Gifford says some families still keep their children out of school from fear that they will be forced out of the country or lose their children. 

"That message isn't always clear to people with precarious status. It's a little scary," said Gifford.

"I know as a parent, one of the scariest moments in my life was placing my son in school. And that was tough enough, but if I thought that that might have the consequence of creating family separation or not being able to maintain my home, that's a whole other scale." 

Community comes together

Gifford says that while most school board meetings are boring affairs, the positive response from community members in attendance provided real validation for their community.

"It shines a light on what's possible in a district, and it lets our district staff and community partners really understand what fulfilling the promise of public education means," said Gifford. "We're here to support an inclusive, welcoming, safe learning environment and let that thrive, and pretending that we're immigration officers as well kind of runs counter to that."

Sanctuary Health is one of the community groups that has been advocating for the approval of the policy.

Their goal is to make sure that all people have access to essential services regardless of immigration status. 

"This policy will make a huge difference in ensuring children feel welcomed and are supported from day one," said Sarah St John with Sanctuary Health. "We hope that New Westminster will only be the first of many districts around the province to ensure all children have the right to education."

Gifford says that most districts should and can be sanctuary school districts if they're trying to live up to the aspirations of the B.C. School Act, so he is optimistic that New Westminster's policy can be a template for the rest of the province.