For more than a decade, as the immigration debate has swelled on both sides of the border, the Mexican government has been quietly providing money, materials and even teachers to American schools, colleges and nonprofit organizations.
The programs aren’t substitutes for U.S. curricula, but educators familiar with them say they provide a lifeline for adult students with little formal education by helping them become literate in Spanish—and by extension, English.
Yet many educators are wary of even talking about the programs, fearing they might stoke an anti-immigrant backlash.
The Mexican government, which spends more than $1 million annually on the programs, has many reasons to provide the aid to the immigrants and their children. The programs allow it to give back to the growing number of Mexicans living legally and illegally in the U.S. Behind oil, remittances from these individuals are the second-largest source of foreign income for the Mexican economy—almost $24 billion last year.
Mexicans abroad need an education to represent the country well, he said.
“The image and prestige of Mexico is inextricably linked to the image and prestige of these communities in the U.S.,” Gonzalez said.
He also acknowledged that many of the adult participants are likely illegal immigrants, a group the U.S. government doesn’t want to allow to stay, let alone have to support.
“Mexican involvement in American public education is another symptom of how things are different than the Ellis Island era,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which seeks to limit immigration. “With technology, distance doesn’t really matter. You never really leave the old country behind.”
Plaza Comunitaria is the Mexican government’s biggest educational export program. It began in 2002 in San Diego and now operates at 370 sites in 35 states from Oregon to Florida, providing $1 million in grants. But it’s not the only one. Mexico also donates nearly 10,000 Spanish-language school books a year to U.S. academic institutions and community centers, sends more than 100 teachers to the U.S. to teach summer classes and has a pilot program with the University of Texas to help immigrant students receive U.S. credit for classes they took in Mexico, among other programs. Gonzalez said the costs of most of those programs were mostly in-kind and did not have the numbers.
In eastern Oregon, the Estacada School District is using the online classes not just for adults but to help immigrant teens keep up with other subjects as they learn English.
In St. Lucie County, along Florida’s eastern coast, public school superintendent Michael Landon said the district was thrilled to receive crates of free textbooks from Mexico. They aren’t part of the curriculum, but students can use them while they learn English or Spanish.
Across the state in Clearwater, near Tampa, the Mexican government has paid for several teachers to offer the young children of immigrants summer enrichment classes at a community center. On a hot summer day, the students skipped to the tune of traditional Mexican jigs before learning Spanish stories.
The Mexican government is not the only foreign government to provide educational assistance in the U.S. France, for instance, has provided resources for years, and Japan offers books and other materials through the Japanese Foundation.
But neither country supplies anywhere near the number of immigrants Mexico sends to the U.S. each year, and their target populations tend to be more affluent and better educated, making them far less likely targets for anti-immigration sentiment.