Hinesburg school tries to help student over immigration status

Hinesburg Community School

A hallway with a painted mural at Hinesburg Community School. Courtesy photo by Jim Westphalen

HINESBURG — A Hinesburg eighth-grader from the Republic of Congo is the focus of efforts by local school officials to help obtain the immigration documentation he needs for an annual school trip to Montreal.

“Fabien is here as a refugee,” said Hinesburg Community School Co-Principal Jeff O’Hara. The student’s case was mentioned publicly during the April 18 Hinesburg Community School Board meeting. O’Hara identified the youth only as Fabien during the meeting and declined later to reveal his last name, citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

The trip to Montreal is May 19, and O’Hara indicated he is “pessimistic” the documentation will be issued in time.

“We sat down and talked to him about the unfortunate experience,” O’Hara said. “It’s hard being about 13 years old and being responsible for every aspect of your life.”

Because Fabien’s passport expired he applied for a green card to become a permanent resident.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has said the youth would also have to apply for and receive a refugee travel document along with a green card to be able to travel temporarily outside the country. Timelines vary for the issuing of the documents after a request is logged.

Because it’s doubtful Fabien will be able to go on the Montreal trip, school officials organized an additional eighth-grade trip May 18 to go bowling. Fabien will also be able to participate in the annual sleepover at the school after students return from Montreal.

Chittenden South Supervisory Union Superintendent Elaine Pinckney didn’t comment on the case, referring questions to O’Hara.

Hinesburg Community School Board Chairman Keith Roberts said school commissioners didn’t get involved, adding that board members are “very sensitive to student privacy issues.”

“No, the school board isn’t doing anything because our administration is taking steps to obtain the necessary documents,” Roberts said.

O’Hara said the school at first “made the wrong assumption” that Fabien had the correct documentation to be able to cross the border into Canada. After learning he didn’t, O’Hara turned to a Hinesburg legislator, Rep. William Lippert, to see if he could help.

Patrick Leahy

U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. File photo by Mike Faher/VTDigger

Lippert said school administrators told him the student was a refugee and from a refugee family. Lippert said he reached out to U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy’s state director, John Tracy, for help.

Tracy declined to talk about any role he or the office has in the effort to secure a green card.

Leahy’s communications director and press secretary, David Carle, said the senator wasn’t involved in this situation but had aided the family when they sought to come to this country. “Sen. Leahy’s office helped bring the family here to join their father,” Carle said. “He has not been contacted to help this child, so we don’t know anything about his current situation or immigration case.”

A caseworker in the senator’s office, Susan Sussman, said she spoke with school administrators about the issue. She didn’t go into detail about the nature of those discussions.

A staffer for Sen. Bernie Sanders, Daniel McLean, said Sanders’ office also didn’t log a request to help the Hinesburg youth.

Although Fabien’s native country, the Republic of Congo, isn’t among the countries named in President Donald Trump’s executive orders restricting travel to the U.S., the school’s O’Hara said the boy’s family is still concerned.

Leahy and Sanders have been vocal opponents of the travel bans. The president issued a second, revised order that wouldn’t apply to green card holders. The order is on hold pending court review.

Gail Callahan

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