Aaron Ortiz holds his 6-year-old’s pink backpack and later her hand. At the border they funnel onto the pedestrian bridge alongside dozens of other children with backpacks holding parents’ hands. Then they are on the other side, saying goodbye at the gates of Vilas Elementary, where breakfast is served free and special classes are offered for English-language learners.
At that school, Rachel has made friends with American students. She writes reports on butterflies and decides she wants to be a doctorfor dogswhen she grows up. And when the school bell rings at the end of the day, her father is waiting outside, ready to walk her back home to Mexico.
This daily cycle is repeated up and down the borderland, where a history of cross-border friendships, families and marriages has eroded the lines between what is Mexican and what is American. In El Paso, the Mexico-to-United-States trek to school is so commonplace that border officials opened a special lane just for students at one of the crossings this month. More than 1,200 passed through that lane from Mexico on a recent morning. Some are college or private school students, but many, including Rachel, attend public schools.
In El Paso, most folks see this as part of the flux inherent to border life. But there has been some grumbling about spending U.S. tax dollars to educate students living in Mexico, especially this spring as the city’s biggest school district prepares for a bond election. The El Paso Independent School District, which expects to take in 10,000 new students in the next five to eight years, will ask voters next month for permission to borrow $230 million for new schools.
School districts from other border towns say they face similar complaints. But each contends that they have few ways to count or control the number of Mexican residents attending their schools. The Supreme Court ruled in 1982 that schools cannot deny an education to students living illegally in the United States. As long as a parent or guardian has proof of residency in that school districta water bill or lease typically will sufficetheir child can attend. And often in places such as El Pasowhere hospitals are just a quick trip across the borderstudents were born in the United States and are legal citizens, even if their parents aren’t.
This is most true in a place such as Ciudad Juarez. Known alternately as a city of hope, because of its proximity to the U.S, and as a city of death, because of its history of violence, the border town is being flooded with newcomers. Droves of inland Mexicans rush there each month seeking work in the maquiladoras, or manufacturing plants, that line the city’s edge.
The growth far outpaces the government’s ability to build schools, forcing many to turn away students, Hampton said. Additionally, Mexican schools can be cost-prohibitive to some parents, often charging fees for books, photocopies and sometimes even the cost of administering a test.
The Mexican public school Rachel could attend is just two blocks from her family’s home in Juarez. Rafael Velarde Elementary School is a white and green structure surrounded by a towering wall laced with barbed wire. Inside, teachers handle classes with upwards of 40 students, who are cycled through in two shifts: one in the morning, one in the afternoon.
In one first-grade classroom a list of ABCs strung up on the wall was missing letters K through N.
Ortiz said he considered sending Rachel there but thinks his daughter deserves an education in the U.S. She, like he, is a U.S. citizen.
He said he owns a vacant house near the elementary school that his daughter attends. That satisfies the residency requirement.
Other cross-border students use the addresses of American friends or relatives. Walking over from Mexico on a recent morning, Laiyin Yee, 14, flashed her Austin High School badge to the border officer at the school lane.
A U.S. citizen, she said she lives in Ciudad Juarez with her parents.
But an aunt has a place in El Paso. She goes there each morning, catching a public bus to class where she is part of a special program for aspiring law enforcement officers.
“It’s better here than in Juarez,” she said, removing her iPod headphones to talk. “The public schools there, there is too much violence.”
The new student lane at the Paso Del Norte crossing, also known as Santa Fe bridge, opens each morning at 6:30 and closes two hours later, just as classes begin. It is supposed to help reduce the logjam at the crossing, which sees 7 million pedestrians each year.
On a recent morning, a border officer named Gilbert Rodriguez manned the student lane.
“American,” many of them told him before even being asked. Others just flashed their public school IDs and walked by. Sometimes, Rodriguez said, he’ll request proof of citizenship or ask students to name their school mascotsjust to check. Mostly he jokes: asking the boys how many girlfriends they have, scolding little ones for eating candy or whistling when he learns a student is studying chemistry.
There are similar, if less formal, spots such as this all along the border. In Columbus, N.M., just across the state line from El Paso, school officials for years have sent buses to the border checkpoint to pick up students.
But in Texas, most schools say they at least try to enforce district residency rules. El Paso ISD has seven officers who check out suspicious addresses, Villalobos said. Still, people complain.