August 30, 2008

Migrant Minds: The border is no boundary for some Mexican students

August 30, 2008 - 11:06PM
Jeremy Roebuck

Adrianna Gomez wakes her 14-year-old son before dawn every morning, lays out his coat and tie and drives him across an international boundary just to go to school.

With a full day of classes at Pharr's Oratory Academy followed by soccer and tennis afterward, he often won't return to his spacious Reynosa home until nearly 12 hours later.

Angelita Martinez Morales also hoped her children could attend Rio Grande Valley schools. U.S. Border Patrol agents arrested her Aug. 10 as she guided them across the river near Pharr.

She later told a federal magistrate judge she had to get her children - all U.S. citizens - back into the country before the start of the school year.

The two women may be divided by economic status, but ultimately both want the same thing for their children: the best educational opportunities they can provide.

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.

"In so many families, the community is not divided by a border like the land," said Elaine Hampton, a University of Texas-El Paso professor who has studied educational systems on both sides of the border. "It makes it hard to peg exactly where you live. What constitutes a permanent address?"


UNCERTAIN ENROLLMENT

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.

"If they come and register with an address that's in the district, we can't deny them," McAllen schools spokesman Mark May said.

But the signs of illegal enrollment are everywhere.

Minivans with Mexican plates stack the pick-up and drop-off lines at schools in Hidalgo, La Joya and Brownsville.

Each day, students in school uniforms groggily amble away from the Roma-Miguel Alemán international bridge.

In the predawn fog, teenagers loaded down with book bags avoid eye contact with passersby because of past problems they have had with their district residency.

But 16-year-old Alemania was eager to explain why she risks the morning commute.

"My parents thought this was a better option," she said.



LACKING RESOURCES

Alemania, who spoke on the condition that she not be fully identified, attended public schools in Miguel Alemán, Tamps., until three years ago.

Although she says she preferred her friends in Mexico, she recognizes that the schools in Roma have better resources such as high-tech computer labs, extracurricular activities and English-language training.

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.

Fifteen-year-old Joseph has spent time in classrooms on both sides of the river. But as he crossed the Roma-Miguel Alemán bridge last week, he said there is no doubt where he would rather attend.

"Living in Roma is boring," he said. "But the education is much better."


‘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.

"It's not like they're dumping their kids over here," he said. "They're actively seeking out a better education."

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.

"It's a significant issue," he said. "Imagine if you're paying taxes on a half-million-dollar home because you want your child to go to Garcia Elementary, and then we have to transfer you to another school because Garcia's too crowded.

"It's not fair that there may be people that don't live in the district taking your child's spot."

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.


GREATER OPPORTUNITIES

Angelita Martinez, the mother arrested for bringing her children across the river, never even got that far. A federal judge sentenced her to 10 days of confinement in a federal detention center. The fate of her children - all of whom she said were U.S. citizens - remains unknown.

Adrianna Gomez, meanwhile, hopes to send her younger children to Oratory's school in Pharr once they reach seventh grade.

She says she has already seen the payoff for her family's sacrifices in her teenage son, Ernesto.

A confident 14-year-old who can speak eloquently in Spanish and English, he hopes to go to Yale University and become a lawyer after graduation.

"You can see a big difference between my friends here and over there," he said. "The opportunities over here are just greater."

Jeremy Roebuck covers courts and general assignments for The Monitor. You can reach him at (956) 683-4437.ok

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