Karina Acosta's senior year at Roswell High came to an abrupt end after she was ticketed for blocking a fire lane outside a school and driving without a license.
The officer who stopped her — a Roswell policeman assigned to the school — asked her for proof of legal U.S. residency. Acosta, an illegal immigrant, had none. The officer telephoned immigration authorities, and Acosta, 18 and pregnant, was sent back to Mexico.
The episode has caused a furor in town, with teachers and others complaining that Acosta's treatment violated the spirit, if not the letter, of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that has all but made the nation's public schools safe havens for illegal immigrants.
"The school was considered a place you could come and not have to worry," said Coreta Justus, a teacher at 1,300-student Roswell High. She added: "My job is to educate whoever walks in my classroom."
Complaining of racism and unfair treatment, students demonstrated on Main Street and drew adult counter-protesters. Irate parents confronted school officials. The police officer was taken off the school beat, and the program that put him on the high school campus was suspended. At least one teacher reported a few students stayed away for weeks after the incident, afraid they would meet the same fate as Acosta.
Three months later, Acosta's case is still dividing people in Roswell, a town 200 miles north of the Mexican border that has built a tourism industry around a rumored UFO crash in 1947 that was supposedly covered up by the government. Roswell, population 45,000, is at least 44 percent Hispanic.
Officer Charlie Corn reported that he spotted Acosta blocking a fire lane in late November while she was dropping off a youngster at a middle school. Corn, who was on traffic duty at the school, followed Acosta to the high school nearby, discovered she had no license and ticketed her.
He gave her several days to produce proof of legal residency, after which he called her into his campus office and contacted immigration authorities. They immediately took her to a juvenile detention center, and she agreed to be sent back to the Mexican state of Chihuahua rather than fight deportation.
Issue focuses on school grounds
A 1982 Supreme Court ruling guarantees children who are in the U.S. illegally the right to a public education, and says schools cannot inquire about their immigration status. Federal authorities have a policy of not enforcing immigration laws on school grounds.
But the question of whether police may do so is murkier.
Marisol Perez of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund said Corn's actions were "certainly questionable and problematic." She said the case was "just as egregious" as that of three students who were arrested at an Albuquerque high school in 2004 on immigration charges. The students sued the police, who later settled.
Jennifer Moore, who teaches international, human rights and refugee law at the University of New Mexico, said making students vulnerable to deportation at school is "making a mockery" of their right to public education.
And it is occurring "in the very place where they have the greatest chance at getting the skills they need to participate in this society that they are living in," she said.
Roswell's interim police chief, Scott Douglass, defended Corn, saying that the 10-year veteran was investigating a crime and that officers may ask people in the course of a criminal investigation about their immigration status.
But the chief said that in the future, "Enforcement action like that would probably be taken after school hours and off of campus."
Assistant School Superintendent Mike Kakuska told parents immediately after the incident that the school system didn't support the officer's actions and had protested Acosta's arrest to immigration authorities.
The legal question aside, some of Acosta's former teachers said she was wronged.
Dolores Fresquez said her former student was well-behaved, had good grades and held down a job. Fresquez, who teaches Spanish and English as a second language, estimated that up to 90 percent of the students in the old, yellow brick high school are Hispanic, and perhaps 40 percent of those are illegal.
"The thing that made me angry is that schools are supposed to be safe for any student, regardless of what nationality, what age they may be," the teacher said.
But others in Roswell resent the influx of Mexicans who are in the U.S. illegally and complain the newcomers are using resources such as hospital emergency rooms without paying enough in taxes.
"They're here freeloading, and that's exactly the reason I think they should not be allowed in the school system," said Gene Warren, a retired telephone repairman.
An Acosta family friend, Rosie Delgado, said that Acosta's mother, who has also been living in Roswell, was terrified after the incident and that the girl's two younger sisters were afraid to return to school for a week or so. Delgado said family members don't want to talk to reporters, and she would not disclose their whereabouts.
The Rev. Juan Montoya of St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church said many in his congregation live in fear of being picked up by police in Roswell.
"It's not just about Karina. Karina is just one of many," said Montoya, a Mexican-American. "I know people who have been picked up — didn't break a law, they didn't pass a stop sign, they didn't do anything."