In Calexico, Calif., schools crack down on students who live across the border

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sun May 25 14:35:45 UTC 2008

Border schools get tough on Mexican students
In Calexico, Calif., schools crack down on students who live across the

By Randy Dotinga | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor
and Mary Knox Merrill | staff
from the May 23, 2008 edition

CALEXICO and SAN DIEGO, Calif. - If you cross the US-Mexican border at the
town of Calexico you might run into a photographer named Daniel Santillan.
But he's not likely to be shooting pictures of tourists. He only has eyes
for Mexican schoolchildren who want an American education. Mr. Santillan
is a residency enforcer, assigned by local education officials to make
sure students live in the US, not Mexico. When he's not tracking students
on weekday mornings at the border crossing, he visits local homes to make
sure children live where their parents say they do.

Santillan isn't thrilled about busting youngsters for living south of the
border, but he accepts his job. "The bottom line is that these kids are
taking up room," he says. It's impossible to know how many Mexican
students cross the border daily to attend school in the US, sent by
parents who think they'll get a better education. Still, border
communities have fretted over their presence for more than a decade. Some
schools are now doing more to enforce residency requirements under
pressure from politicians and activists concerned about wasted taxpayer

Calexico's schools, however, have gone further than others by sending
Santillan to photograph students at the border and requiring parents to
provide proof of residency twice a year. The school district, which serves
9,000 students in a poor southwestern California border town, wasn't
overly concerned about Mexican students until about three years ago. After
all, Calexico schools didn't lose any money by accepting the students,
since the state of California reimburses the district for each student it
accepts. Also, Mexican students didn't necessarily stand out, since 95
percent of Calexico residents are Latino. And close relationships with
Calexico's sister city in Mexico the sprawling metropolis Mexicali made
cross-border trips easy.

District officials say they only began to take action because of
complaints about overcrowding some students had to be bused across town to
schools that had room for them and low test scores under the federal No
Child Left Behind program. Mexican students tend to produce lower test
scores because their English skills are poor, says Gilbert Barraza,
principal of Calexico High School. "The elephant in the room is the
[test-score] liability these kids bring to the table," he says. Partly as
a result of its crackdown, the Calexico district has lost 300 students and
nearly $2 million in state funding that is based on the number of students
in its schools. But Mr. Barraza says this has helped the overcrowded

"Enrollment was getting out of control and we had to address it," Barraza
says. Elsewhere along the border, schools pay varying levels of attention
to Mexican students. In San Diego County, officials have had to tread
carefully since the mid-1990s, when a video clip showing schoolchildren
crossing the border in a rural area created a stir. The small school
district serving the region ultimately had to expel a reported 325 of its
students because they didn't live within its boundaries. Under federal
law, schools cannot ask students about their citizenship status. Even if
they could ask, many Mexican children have American citizenship because
they were born here. But schools can verify where students live.

The Sweetwater Union High School District, which serves 42,000 students in
several San Diego-area border cities, requires parents to show proof of
residency each year in person. The proof can come in the form of documents
such as water bills or mortgage papers. In addition, the district now
requires documentation if a relative who lives in the district claims to
be a child's guardian and a new computer system will allow school
officials to immediately identify addresses that don't exist.

"We've really tried to close a lot of the loopholes," says spokeswoman
Lillian Leopold. "We think we're pretty strict, but we're not a police
agency." The district does allow Mexican students to attend its schools if
they pay annual tuition of $7,435, Ms. Leopold says. No one does that at
the moment, however. Students living across the border can attend some US
colleges and universities if they pay tuition. An estimated 10 percent of
the students at the University of Texas-El Paso are Mexican citizens, says
linguistics professor Jon Amastae, former director of the university's
department of inter-American and border studies. According to news
reports, some of these students cross the border to attend school.

Meanwhile, so many schoolchildren come through the El Paso border that
officials created a special pedestrian lane for them. The Houston
Chronicle reported that about 1,200 used the lane during a single morning
in 2007. Some El Paso residents have complained about the influx of
Mexican students. But Mr. Amastae thinks most residents are on his side.
"Here along the border, most people share the idea that we all have an
interest in raising education levels," in both countries, he says. "Doing
so benefits all of us."

 Randy Dotinga reported from San Diego and Mary Knox Merrill reported from


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