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As American kids pour across the border, Mexican schools struggle to keep up

Sep 6, 2017 by

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Kristen Hwang –

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — Elizabeth Rossil, 11, looks just like her classmates. She wears a neatly pressed red polo shirt and a pleated plaid skirt with Mary Jane shoes — the school uniform that all the girls wear — and pulls her long hair back into a tight ponytail.

Giggling shyly with her classmates as they work on a grammar assignment, Elizabeth is indistinguishable from the 400 other children at her school.

But Elizabeth is different. She speaks English with a Southern California accent and for the past two years has been the only English-speaking kid in her class. She’s in sixth grade.

“I’m supposed to be in already seventh grade,” she says cheerfully. “I didn’t flunk or anything, but they made me go again … because I didn’t know anything in Spanish.”

Elizabeth is from Santa Clarita, Calif., but she goes to school in Tecate, Mexico, a picturesque mountain town on the border of Mexico and California. In August, she started her third year of school at Escuela Primaria Memorial Morse, one of the local elementary schools.

Like an increasing number of children in Southern California, Elizabeth and her older sister, Stephanie, moved to Mexico because their parents had been deported, and educators on both sides of the border worry that even more American kids will leave the U.S. since President Trump has made strict immigration policy a cornerstone of his agenda.More and more families are hedging their bets, preferring to stay united in Mexico rather than be separated by international borders.

Already, researchers and authorities estimate that between half a million and 800,000 American children have moved to Mexico since 2008 and most come from California.

It’s creating an education conundrum that strains the resources of the Mexican and U.S. governments.

In Mexico, American-citizen children face an education system that isn’t fully prepared for the influx of students, especially students who don’t speak Spanish. And children who choose to stay in the U.S., separated from their parents who return to Mexico, are more likely to suffer from early-onset mental illness and behavioral problems. Both groups are likely to drop out of school altogether.

“With the new government in the U.S. there is a lot of speculation that there is going to be a massive exodus so that the Mexicans are going to get back to Mexico,” said Mario Benitez Reyes, superintendent of schools in Tecate.

More: What is DACA and why might Trump end it?

More: GOP lawmakers urge Trump to leave DACA alone

On the U.S. side of the border, the fear is almost palpable in Hispanic communities. Latino students make up about 97% of the population in the eastern Coachella Valley, a rural area that stretches from Indio to the shores of the Salton Sea. No one knows for sure how many students or parents are undocumented, but the common sentiment is that everyone knows someone who is there illegally.

Many families in the area have worked in the surrounding fields for generations. They want their children to stay in school and get better jobs.

“If something occurs, it’s going to impact our schools,” said Maria Machuca, a longtime board member in Coachella Valley Unified School District. “If it means that individuals are going to start leaving or start being removed or even self-deporting … that’s going to remove children from our schools.”

Since January, the Baja California Education Department, which encompasses Tecate, has enrolled about 2,000 American students. They attribute the enrollment, in part, to Trump’s stance on reining in illegal immigration. Trump has tried to make good on campaign promises, signing executive orders committing to build a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, cracking down on “sanctuary cities” that don’t cooperate with federal immigration agents, and broadening the criteria for deportation.

Tecate officials say they aren’t blind to the possibility that many more could be on their way.

“We don’t want to think about that, but it could happen,” Benitez Reyes said. “That’s the reality. We’re not closing our eyes.”

Invisible Students

Children like Elizabeth are called “los invisibles,” or the invisible ones. These students can slip through the Mexican education system largely unnoticed — just one more Latino face in a sea of others staring back at the teacher — but they face a steep learning curve when they arrive. Many speak little to no Spanish and feel isolated in school.

The Mexican Education Department has an immersion program called identify primarily American students and help them assimilate to Mexican schools, but it’s expensive to hire teachers for the program, Benitez Reyes said, and resources are unevenly distributed across the country.

Elizabeth and her 16-year-old sister, Stephanie, reunited with their mother in Tecate after four years of separation. Their step-father had been deported in 2009 and their mother, Berenice Aguilar, who was also undocumented, followed her husband shortly thereafter. Aguilar left her three U.S.-born children with their grandmother in Santa Clarita. Although the Rossil girls eventually moved to Mexico to be with their parents, their 14-year-old brother, Hector, stayed in the U.S.

“It still breaks my heart not being able to see them … and it’s still hard because I can’t see my kid. He’s growing up and I can’t be there,” Aguilar said.

Adjusting has been difficult for the girls. While Elizabeth picked up Spanish relatively quickly, Stephanie still struggles.

“You can tell that she doesn’t know Spanish,” Aguilar said. “She cries sometimes in school. She has a hard time understanding the teacher or the teacher understanding her.”

The Rossil girls were lucky enough to be enrolled in schools that have immersion programs, however fledgling. During her first year, Elizabeth was purposefully placed with a teacher who knew some English, and this year she participated in an eight-week support group to meet other students like herself. Stephanie, on the other hand, hasn’t received enough help, Aguilar said. Teachers can’t dedicate as much individual time to a student as they do in the U.S. and kids bully her for being different.

“She’s like … ‘I don’t want to be here anymore,'” Aguilar said, tears running down her face. “But she would also say, ‘I don’t want to leave you.’ So it breaks my heart because I can’t do anything.”

Research shows that fewer than 5% of Mexican teachers are fluent enough in English to assess how much a student has already learned in the U.S., said Patricia Gandara, a researcher at the University of California Los Angeles and co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA.

The language barrier can make school frustrating for students and teachers alike.

“They know how to make subtraction or division, the problem is they don’t know the language,” Benitez Reyes said. “Our teachers think they have a knowledge problem, but the problem is how to communicate with them.”

Although the state of Baja California has one of the strongest immersion programs in the country, it is still overwhelmed by the influx of American kids, Gandara said. About 40,000 to 50,000 American kids now live in Baja California, she estimates, and other Mexican states along the border are similarly impacted.

“Historically it’s been uncommon for students to show up at a Mexican school who weren’t Mexican … so this is a phenomenon that is taking many areas by storm in Mexico, and schools are just reeling,” she said. “They don’t know what to do.”

The governor of Baja, Francisco Vega, has committed to improving the immersion program, but there is only so much strain the system can handle, Benitez said. Already 60% of the state’s budget goes toward education.

“Can you imagine what happens with the other 40 percent? The state doesn’t have all the resources we want to for education,” Benitez Reyes said.

In areas further from the border, resources are few for American kids — if they exist at all. Few teachers are trained to recognize American children in their classrooms, said Bryant Jensen, a professor at Brigham Young University who researches migrant children in Mexican schools.

During a research trip to Morelia, a city deep in the heart of Mexico, Jensen asked administrators for assistance in identifying U.S. citizens at the school.

“They said they didn’t have any,” he recalled. “We asked them to check, and within 10 minutes I had a room full of 15 kids. The principal had no idea. Some of the kids started talking to me in English and the principal’s jaw dropped.”

Attempts are being made to shore up programs to assist these students, but researchers agree the country as a whole is woefully unprepared to handle an influx of U.S. citizens in its public schools.

“We have a lot of work to do and, I would argue, bilateral work,” Jensen said. “The incentive for U.S. partners is clear. These are U.S. kids in Mexican schools.”

Lives thwarted on both sides of the border

North of the border, the lives of American children with undocumented parents have already been upturned.

In March, Amanda, an undocumented mother, visited TODEC, a legal aid clinic in Coachella, to do something no parent wants to think about: Amanda was giving power of attorney over her children to a cousin who is a U.S. citizen just in case she is deported.

Amanda’s three kids are U.S. citizens and go to schools in Desert Sands Unified School District. She and her husband came here illegally 17 years ago to escape cartels and gang violence, raising a family in Indio.

They have a better life here than they would have had in Mexico, Amanda said. Her children are involved in school and sports. The family lives together in relative comfort, and she was taking English classes at College of the Desert. But since November, Amanda has been afraid to leave the house.

“You know, when my children are at school, I stay in the house. My opinion is it’s more fear,” Amanda said in broken English.

Amanda’s name has been changed to protect her identity because she is undocumented.

Living in the shadows and dodging immigration raids has always been a reality in communities like the Coachella Valley, where Latino families have long put down roots. But locals say the timbre of fear has changed.

Teachers talk about young children not wanting to come to school anymore. High school students with legal status through Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival have lost hope and aren’t applying to college, they say. Many undocumented parents no longer leave the house to go to church or the store, and other families are simply packing up and leaving.

Luz Gallegos, community programs director at TODEC, said the phones haven’t stopped ringing since Election Day, with families desperate for assistance or some good news. In the past 30 years of working as an immigration activist, Gallegos said she has never seen the anxiety reach these levels — even those with permanent legal residency believe their green cards will be taken away.

“We have kids that come to the centers or come into the workshops and they start crying,” Gallegos said, choking up. “It becomes personal when you see … families fearing for their safety.”

The Migration Policy Institute estimates there are 5.1 million children in the United States with at least one undocumented parent — about 4.1 million of those kids are U.S. citizens. In a one year period between July 2015 and June 2016, Immigration and Customs Enforcement data indicated the agency deported 30,121 immigrants claiming to have at least one American child.

It’s an issue that’s not as cut and dry as Republican versus Democrat. Most of the American children that are already in Mexico are there because their parents were deported under President Obama, said Armando Vazquez-Ramos, a Cal State Long Beach professor and president of the California-Mexico Studies Center.

Part of Obama’s legacy may be the temporary reprieve he granted young undocumented adults in the form of DACA, Vazquez-Ramos said, but his administration harmed even more children by deporting a record 3 million adults, many of whom had American children.

“They’re minors, and they have no voice. … It’s like, ‘We’re going. Mom got deported, we’re all going back,’” Vazquez-Ramos said. “That has forced the de facto deportation of U.S. citizen children, which in my opinion, it’s a violation not only of the Constitution and rights of citizenship, but it’s also a violation of human life and children’s rights.”

This is an issue, experts say, that must be dealt with, no matter political affiliation.

“We shouldn’t be kidding ourselves. This is going to affect not only the children involved – these are U.S.-born children — but it’s going to impact the communities where they come from,” said Sergio Aguilar-Gaxiola, who researches the intersection of ethnicity and mental health, particularly among Latinos, at the University of California Davis.

A recent study co-authored by him and colleagues from the University of Texas and the Instituto Nacional de Psiquiatría in Mexico found that children affected by deportation — whether they were separated from their parents in the U.S. or moved with them to Mexico — suffered from greater rates of depression, anxiety and behavioral problems than children whose parents were not under deportation orders.

“This is going to impact the kind of work that they do, the kind of people that they meet, whether they marry or not, the school achievement that they are going to have,” he said. “Their futures are at risk.”

Norma Herrera, 22, is exactly the type of student Aguilar-Gaxiola envisions. She and her family moved to Thermal illegally when she was 9 years old. In elementary and middle school, Norma was an honors student with visions of becoming a doctor, but she grew increasingly worried about what would happen if her father in particular was deported.

“Who is going to pay the rent?” Norma recalled thinking. “My mom can’t do that. She’s working but she always says that my dad’s money is important he’s the one who maintains us.”

In 2007, her father was deported while picking crops in Arizona. His removal sent the family spiraling into poverty. Sometimes the family shared just one plate of food for dinner.

Norma tried to focus on her studies, but in high school everything changed. Her classmates started talking about college. She was “really interested in going to university,” but the application asked her for a Social Security number.

“I gave up. I told myself that this doesn’t matter because I don’t have papers,” Norma said. “I won’t be able to get a license, I won’t be able to go to college so what’s the point?”

Her grades plummeted. She started working in the fields. In 2012 she got married and pregnant, putting her academic goals on hold. Her husband was detained in 2014 and is currently fighting a deportation charge.

Although Norma has DACA status, which allows her to work and study in the U.S., she is still crippled by anxiety. She suffers regularly from panic attacks and has been hospitalized enough times that the nurses recognize her.

Their stories are emblematic of what Aguilar-Gaxiola fears will happen to millions of children in the U.S.

“Generations of children and their families … are going to be affected for a long, long time,” he said. “These are lives that are thwarted in their developmental trajectories.”

Even children who follow their parents south of the border aren’t immune to these effects. Yara Amparo Lopez, coordinator for the immersion program in Tijuana, said her department started registering U.S.-born children to see how they were doing. The kids felt isolated and lost.

“They were feeling frustration, anger, desperation. They were afraid and lacked confidence,” Amparo Lopez said. “We realized that we needed to work with them on that.”

Although there are many Americans in Mexicans schools, they are spread throughout hundreds of schools and may be the only ones in their class. Amparo Lopez said if these students are not identified and do not receive extra support, they simply drop out.

High school is not compulsory in Mexico, and thousands of American kids are unable to enroll because the schools are already overcrowded, UCLA researcher Gandara said. On top of that, getting dual-Mexican citizenship for kids, which is required to enroll in school, can be difficult and expensive.

Elizabeth and Stephanie’s mother, Berenice Aguilar, said it took her four months, a trip to Mexico City and 5,000 pesos to get her daughters dual citizenship. It was frustrating, but she wants her daughters to be able to return to school in America. They would get a better education there, she says.

Berenice said legislators need to open their eyes and realize that deporting parents hurts kids.

“They separate families, and the kids, what do they do? They find themselves without mom and dad, and it’s easy for them to go out in the streets,” Berenice said. “That’s where they find themselves getting in trouble, getting in gangs and all that. It’s not nice. It’s not nice separating families.”

Gandara said eventually kids like Elizabeth and Stephanie will end up back in the U.S. and legislators need to start thinking about the economic and social implications.

“Since they are U.S.-born and American citizen kids, they have the right to return and there’s a very good likelihood that many, if not most of these young people will return at some point,” she said. “We have to be thinking about how we re-accommodate these young people who may have had an impossible time accessing a decent education in Mexico.”

Contributing: Gustavo Solis of The (Palm Springs, Calif.) Desert Sun

Source: As American kids pour across the border, Mexican schools struggle to keep up

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