Jeremy Roebuck, The Monitor (South Texas), August 30, 2008
Like hundreds of other families just south of the U.S.-Mexico border, they adjust their schedules, idle in bridge traffic every morning and sometimes break the law—all to send their children to U.S. schools.
“It’s a sacrifice,” said Gomez, 36, in Spanish. “But the river is inconsequential. It’s just a problem of geography.”
Some more affluent families—like Gomez’s—attend legally by paying tuition to private schools or even buying homes to establish residency in public school districts. Her son, Ernesto, has his student visas in order and has been preparing to enter U.S. schools since his first English classes in kindergarten.
Plenty of others, though, ignore the rules. They provide fake addresses to enroll at public schools or—like Martinez—enter the country illegally in hopes of staying the whole school year.
While cities in the interior United States have only begun to seriously address this increasing immigrant population at their schools, this daily migration has been a way of life in the Valley for decades.
Nobody knows exactly how many Mexican residents attend schools in the Valley, but some districts estimate they make up as much as 10 percent of their total enrollment.
A 1982 federal court ruling bars public schools from inquiring into the legal residency of students, but those enrolling must prove they live within the district—usually by providing a utility bill.
Some parents are so eager to have their children attend school here they will send them to live with an aunt or grandparent during the week and pick them up to spend their weekends in Mexico.
Others, however, “borrow” the addresses of relatives and friends to enroll their students even though the Mexican family never actually lived there.
The proliferation of maquiladoras in many Mexican border towns in the past decade has brought dozens of families to cities like Reynosa and Matamoros looking for work, but the region’s public school system has not kept up with the growth.
Students in Mexican schools attend half-days in cinderblock buildings and go to class in shifts because of school overcrowding.
Parents must pay for uniforms, bus fare and supplies, and in some cases are expected to supplement the school’s operating budget.
And a lack of secondary schools prompts many students to drop out after the elementary level. Only 66 percent of 15-year-olds south of the border attend classes on a daily basis, according to a 2003 Mexican government survey.
‘IT’S NOT FAIR’
While Alemania and Joseph both know they are breaking the law, small districts like Roma don’t always look at students like them as a problem.
They are often more eager to learn and their parents are more involved because of the effort their families have undertaken to secure their education, district spokesman Ricardo Perez said.
And the higher the school’s enrollment, the more state and federal money the district receives.
But larger, more affluent districts like the McAllen school system can’t afford to allow students who live outside the district to attend its campuses, said John Wilde, director of student support services for the district.
In addition to straining school resources, students with limited English speaking abilities routinely score lower on standardized tests.
Wilde’s office investigates dozens of cases each year of students suspected of lying on their enrollment papers.
Using returned mail, reports from other parents and red flags from campus administrators, his employees drop by the listed addresses in the early morning hours to see who really lives where they say they do.
Lying on a public document is a Class B misdemeanor punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a fine of up to $2,000, but the district rarely seeks prosecution against the parents. Expulsion is a more likely response.
A week into this school year, Wilde has already received 30 to 40 red-flag reports that the district plans to begin investigating in the coming weeks.