Elliot Spagat, AP, Dec. 31, 2007
With too many students and too few classrooms, Calexico school officials took the unusual step of hiring someone to photograph children and document the offenders. Santillan snaps pictures at the city’s downtown border crossing and shares the images with school principals, who use them as evidence to kick out those living in Mexico.
Since he started the job two years ago, the number of students in the Calexico school system has fallen 5 percent, from 9,600 to 9,100, while the city’s population grew about 3 percent.
“The community asked us to do this, and we responded,” school board President Enrique Alvarado said. “Once it starts to affect you personally, when your daughter gets bumped to another school, then our residents start complaining.”
Every day along the 1,952-mile border, children from Mexico cross into the United States and attend public schools. No one keeps statistics on how many.
Citizenship isn’t the issue for school officials; district residency is.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled illegal immigrants have a right to an education, so schools don’t ask about immigration status. But citizens and illegal immigrants alike can’t falsely claim residency in a school district.
Enforcement of residency requirements varies widely along the border. Some schools do little to verify where children live beyond checking leases or utility bills, while others dispatch officials to homes when suspicions are raised.
Jesus Gandara, superintendent of the Sweetwater district, with 44,000 students along San Diego’s border with Mexico, said tracking children at the border goes too far. “If you do that, you’re playing immigration agent,” he said.
The El Paso Independent School District in Texas sends employees to homes when suspicions are raised. But spokesman Luis Villalobos said photographing students at the border would be a monumental, unproductive effort.
That’s not the thinking in Calexico, a city 120 miles east of San Diego that has seen its population double to 38,000 since 1990. A steel fence along the border separates Calexico from Mexicali, an industrial city of about 750,000 that sends shoppers and farm laborers to California.
Calexico’s rapid growth outstripped school resources, resulting in overcrowding and prompting demands that Mexican interlopers be ousted. Taxpayers complained their children were bused across town because neighborhood schools were full, even after Calexico voters approved a $30 million construction measure in 2004. Portable classrooms proliferated.
Many Calexico residents support the crackdown.
Fernando Torres, a former mayor, was upset when the district said his grandchildren would have to transfer because there was no room in their neighborhood school. “It’s not right” for U.S. taxpayers to build classrooms for Mexican residents, he said. The district eventually relented.
School board member Eduardo Rivera estimates there are still 250 to 400 students from Mexico attending Calexico’s schools.
“It’s a continual struggle,” Rivera said. “You have people who are determined to continue sending their kids over here.”