Schools Call Roll At A Border Crossing

Nicholas Riccardi, Los Angeles Times, June 25, 2007

ROBERT Villarreal, standing at his post behind the customs officers at the border crossing station, knew he was being watched. A slim teenage boy wearing a green T-shirt was furtively peering at him from behind a pillar on the Mexican side.

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Minutes later, perhaps thinking Villarreal had left, the boy and another teen breezed through customs. Villarreal sprang out of hiding and called the teens by name. “If you hide like that,” he said, “you’re just going to make things worse.” Villarreal is not a border agent. He is a school attendance officer whose assignment is to catch students who live in Mexico but attend public school in the U.S.

Children who are U.S. citizens or legal immigrants but live in Mexico cross every morning to get a better education for free in Arizona, breaking the law that requires them to live within the boundaries of the district. To many of their parents, who have ties in both countries, not living in the district is the educational equivalent of jaywalking.

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There are no hard statistics on the number of children who break the residency requirement, but some people opposed to U.S. immigration policy have seized on the issue as another example of how they say migrants exploit the U.S. They contend that most school districts do not enforce the law because they risk losing state funding, which is based on the number of enrolled students.

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Two years ago, the state superintendent, fed up with the practice, hired a private investigator to videotape schoolchildren coming from Mexico. At an Arizona border town with a population of 65, a school bus regularly picked up 85 students at the crossing.

Amid the resulting publicity, that school district stopped the pickups, but it’s unclear whether any other districts changed their policies.

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But in Arizona, no district appears to have taken as aggressive a stance as Yuma Union High School District, which serves San Luis. In the early 1990s, it hired a full-time attendance officer to verify residency for students at its six schools.

Part truant officer, part detective, Villarreal spends his mornings noting names of high school students arriving from Mexico and listening to explanations for why they crossed: They were visiting a sick relative. They were staying with a friend. Their parents divorced and one lives in Mexico, the other in the U.S.

He lets the children, including the teens he spotted hiding from him, continue to school, then checks their stories.

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“They want the American services,” he said, “but they don’t want to be part of the American system.”

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Villarreal keeps a rolled-up map of the town in the trunk of his district-issued white Ford Escort. After scanning it one recent evening, he cut through a subdivision onto a modest residential street.

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San Luis is a small town, and Villarreal has run into uncomfortable situations. Once, an elected official—whom Villarreal wouldn’t identify—covered for a parent from behind a closed door. Other times, employees at nearby school districts were involved in deceptions.

Villarreal tries to keep a low profile because, between early-morning patrols and evening door-knocks, he’s a teacher’s assistant at a middle school in another local district. Mindful of how some in town may view his work, he asks his family not to discuss his attendance officer job with anyone.

The Yuma Union High School District was forced to confront the residency issue after a bond measure to build a high school in San Luis was rejected in 1992. Voters believed the school would serve mostly students who lived in Mexico. The district decided it needed to prove to voters that its students were attending legally, and created the position of attendance officer.

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He stopped another girl, who showed her U.S. passport and said she’d spent the night with an aunt in Mexico while her father, who lives in San Luis, worked late. Villarreal made a note and let her pass. He’d already seen the father at a house in San Luis but would check again. “You never know,” he said.

VILLARREAL usually gathers several dozen cases after a few days of patrolling. He typically finds about 150 students each year who should be withdrawn, out of a district of 10,000. He and his boss, Assistant Supt. Gerrick Monroe, advise those students’ parents to either move across the border or make a U.S. resident the legal guardian for the child. Most make the adjustment.

The district allows parents who live outside its boundaries to pay $5,300 annually for their children to stay in school, but only eight families do so.

Villarreal’s investigation of the two teens who tried to dodge him at the border forced one of them to pay tuition to continue in school; the other withdrew.

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Villarreal said it was also important to follow the law. The people who pay U.S. rents and taxes, he said, are the ones who deserve the benefits of the school system.

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