Children are more likely to shield their faces than to smile when Daniel Santillan points his camera.
Santillan's photos aren't for any picture album or yearbook — they help prove that Mexican youngsters are illegally attending public schools in this California border community.
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.
Not all districts on board
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.
The 62-year-old Santillan was hired in 2005. He is an unlikely enforcer. Posters of Cesar Chavez and Che Guevara adorn the walls of his ranch-style home. The Vietnam War veteran and labor activist is an outspoken advocate of amnesty for illegal immigrants and fills water jugs in the desert for Mexicans who trek across the border illegally.
He parks his old Toyota Echo at the border two or three mornings a week, often in a handicapped spot that his bad knees allow him to occupy. He photographs some of the hundreds of students who exit the inspection building and walk to class.
Some hide their faces when they see his 6-foot-5, 310-pound frame. Sometimes he follows students to school.
Many of the students know him. Others in town are not always sure what he is up to. A new police officer once ran his name through a database of sex offenders. A talk-radio host warned listeners that an odd-looking man at the border might be looking for children to kidnap.
Enforcer has 'tough skin'
Some students taunt him. Friends have called him a hypocrite. Santillan reminds them that he is only enforcing school residency rules, not immigration laws. Still, he says, "You've got to have hell of a tough skin."
The California native also visits addresses listed on student enrollment forms, knocking on doors as late as 9 p.m. and introducing himself in Spanish.
One crisp December morning, he went to three homes before dawn, carrying a clipboard with several pages of students suspected of living in Mexico. A woman who opened her door at 6:30 a.m. said her niece no longer lives with her. At another home, a woman said her niece moved last month.
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."