Students living in northern Mexico have skirted residency requirements to attend U.S. public schools for generations, but when the superintendent in one Texas border town got word that about 400 school-age children were crossing the international bridge each day with backpacks but no student visas, he figured he had to do something.
The community is connected by a bridge to Ciudad Acuna, Mexico, and like most border cities, the towns operate in tandem, with U.S. citizens and legal residents living, working and shopping on both sides. All of it is legal, but public school attendance by children living in Mexico is another issue.
"We had several van loads (with Mexican license plates) pulling up at the schools and kids getting out. It's like 'C'mon, it's obvious what's going on,'" said Kelt Cooper, superintendent of the San Felipe Del Rio Consolidated Independent School District.
Complaints from civil rights groups
He directed district officials to stake out the bridge and warn students they could face expulsion if they don't prove they live in the district — a move that's brought complaints from civil rights groups and support from anti-immigrant proponents.
"We have a law. We have a policy. We follow it," said Cooper, whose spent most of his life near the border and is uncomfortable with attempts to make him a cause celebre for either side of the immigration debate. "I'm just doing my job."
Like parents elsewhere who send their children to a better school across town, some parents living in northern Mexico send their children to American public schools believing they are safer and offer better education. Many also hope a U.S. education will provide better access to American colleges and universities.
Immigration status isn't an issue in these cases. A decades-old Supreme Court ruling prevents school officials from even asking about citizenship. Regardless, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials, students who use the bridge enter the U.S. legally because they are U.S. citizens, permanent residents with green cards or Mexicans with student visas. Those visas are used by Mexican students who pay tuition, primarily at parochial schools.
But for tuition-free public school attendance, state law requires students to live in the district — a rule that many officials don't rigidly enforce. Some are uncomfortable with following the letter of the law because doing so could deny U.S. citizen children access to public schools. Also, turning away students cost the districts money.
Schools get funding per student
Texas schools get funding for each student. Statewide, it works out to about $9,400 per student, primarily from local property taxes and state supplements designed to balance rich and poor school districts. Additional grants from the federal government for low-income and special education students account for about $920 per student. Cooper estimates his district of 10,000 students would lose $2.7 million if 400 students were expelled.
At the start of this school year, Cooper's district asked that Border Patrol agents count students crossing the bridge one weekday. Agency spokesman Rick Pauza said 550 students crossed, about 150 of them had student visas. The rest, Cooper said, are probably attending one of his schools.
School officials staking out the bridge handed out letters that warned parents they would be required to show proof they lived in the district. Within a few days, most parents offered documentation, meaning their children won't be expelled.
Cesar Casillas, who was picking up his 9-year-old nephew at Lamar Elementary School last week, said some parents were scrambling to find apartments in Del Rio, about 130 miles (210 kilometers) west of San Antonio. He disagrees with what the district is doing.
"These kids have all the rights to an American school," said Casillas, a 49-year-old who grew up in Del Rio.
It's a common argument, though legally, it has little weight.
"Citizenship doesn't give you the right to attend school. Residency does," said Elena Castro, assistant superintendent at California's Calexico Unified School District.
Several years ago, her district strictly enforced requirements that every student annually document residency. The district tried posting a photographer to snap students at the crossing but has since stopped that because it was difficult to identify the students, Castro said.
‘Cheating the system’
David Hinojosa, an attorney for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said he's concerned about students being singled out because they were on an international bridge before school.
Cooper, who conducted similar port-of-entry checks several years ago when he led the district in Nogales, Arizona, said no Del Rio students have been expelled so far.
Bob Dane, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said Cooper's bridge stakeout prevented parents from taking advantage of a "duty-free education."
"It's very obvious the parents are cheating the system. The kids are getting quality education without contributing," he said.
Texas Education Agency officials know that most border communities have some students surreptitiously commuting from homes in Mexico, but there's been no recent effort to count them, said spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe.
"It does cost us to educate these children, but we also get a benefit because we know they are likely to impact our economy in some way," said Ratcliffe, noting that many will work in the U.S. as adults.
‘I'm not going now’
One of Texas' largest school districts, which is in El Paso, checks residency when students enroll, but spokeswoman Berenice Zubia said officials don't look for students at the international crossings that come from nearby Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
Some parents in Del Rio say they're not taking any chances their children could be expelled.
Minerva Garcia, 50, hoped to move to her family's home in Ciudad Acuna to save money.
"If the students are willing to get up early to get across, it shouldn't be held against them," said Garcia, as she waited to pick up her 5-year-old and 8-year-old from school. "But I'm not going now."