Crossing the Border for School

Some children commute from Mexico to the U.S. on a daily basis, a process that Donald Trump’s candidacy complicates.

People walk toward a border crossing near El Paso, Texas. (Eric Thayer / Reuters )

Born in the United States, Mayra Kahori Vidaña Sanchez spent most of her childhood in Juárez, Mexico. When she was around 12, Vidaña Sanchez moved a few miles north of the border to El Paso, Texas, for school. Although technically a U.S. citizen, she spoke little English and carried a pocket dictionary to class. She spent hours listening to pop music and watching American television, trying to absorb not only a language but a culture that felt undeniably unfamiliar.

Despite her efforts, a few kids at school made fun of Vidaña Sanchez and her brother for their accents and supposed foreignness. Yet once, during elementary school back in Mexico, she’d had to give back a scholarship after the mother of a classmate complained that it shouldn’t have gone to a kid born in the United States. Not quite Mexican, not quite American.

These days, she brushes off such slights. But the 19-year-old is still navigating a life bisected by a border crossing. A sophomore studying industrial engineering at the University of Texas at El Paso, Vidaña Sanchez has technically lived and studied in the U.S. for years. Yet many days, she can still be found guiding her car out of her family’s home in Juárez toward the border—and school—before dawn, a sometimes-international commuter if not technically an international student.

Vidaña Sanchez’s story is not unusual. All along the U.S.-Mexico border, hundreds of children from kindergarten on up make their way through checkpoints and guard stations each day to study. This has been happening for decades. Many, like Vidaña Sanchez, are Americans born to Mexican parents who desperately want to create a better life for their offspring and see education as the path forward. But in recent months, as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has spewed divisive rhetoric—vowing to build a wall along the border, accusing Mexicans of being rapists—and emboldened his anti-immigrant supporters, crossing the border has become a more fraught process for some of these students. (Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton has expressed support for comprehensive immigration reform, including creating a path to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants, which is in line with President Obama’s views on the topic.)

Vidaña Sanchez said during a phone conversation that she has encountered a few people in El Paso recently who think a border wall is a good idea and that immigrants are stealing jobs. I hear what you’re saying and I respect you, she replies, but I just don’t agree. Once, she was so scared an encounter was about to turn violent that she sprinted away. Vidaña Sanchez recounted the incident with laughter, joking that her friends teased her for putting her athletic prowess to good use.

Vidaña Sanchez is an avid athlete.
(Courtesy of Mayra Kahori Vidaña Sanchez)

But she quickly turned serious. “I have no idea,” she replied to a question about whether things might improve after the election. “I hope it gets better after the election, because if it doesn’t…” She trailed off a little. She’d like to help her father, an engineer educated in Mexico, and mother, a cashier, come to the United States, and to see her younger cousin, born in America but spending the early years with family in Mexico, have an easier time fitting in north of the border. But she’s worried. “I’m trying to encourage as much voting as possible,” she said.

The tension at the border isn’t all new. Lines to cross are long and wait times can run several hours, delaying students and workers alike. As if relaying a minor annoyance like being cut off in traffic, Vidaña Sanchez said that sometimes “random people” on both sides of the border create “a little wall” to prevent students and others who are occasionally able to use a shorter line for regular commuters from moving forward. Their motivation isn’t necessarily racial. Often, it’s self-interest. “They just don’t think it’s fair for you to go first,” she said. “I try not to let it stop me or bother me.”

Vidaña Sanchez’s commute (Courtesy
of Mayra Kahori Vidaña Sanchez)

While the politics aren’t nearly as contentious on the northern border with Canada, even students there wonder what the impact of a Trump election would be. Ken Lambert, an American who recently spent time studying at Brock University just across the border from Niagara Falls, New York, says he’s experienced unpleasant interactions with border guards, although he acknowledges that they’re minor—comments about America being inferior to Canada, for instance. “These small jabs at each other can make living on the border uncomfortable at times,” he said. “I think that sense of bond is gone.” Lambert now lives in Philadelphia, but says friends who still live near the border say the election has intensified some of the negative rhetoric.

At border crossings that aren’t jammed with cars and pedestrians, students cross with relative ease. Several years ago, then-Education Secretary Arne Duncan visited Columbus Elementary School in New Mexico, just a few miles from the border. Nearly three-quarters of the children at the school commuted from Mexico at the time. (Many are American because the nearest hospital to their homes is actually in the United States and some Mexican women have been allowed to give birth there before returning to Mexico.) According to the Washington Post, children have been crossing the border for school there for more than six decades. These days, they are required to be U.S. citizens, but back in the 1950s, that wasn’t a requirement. And while there have been lawsuits over the years and not all residents think the children should be allowed to attend school in New Mexico, there has traditionally been broad support for allowing these children to obtain an education north of the border.

Despite some of the campaign rhetoric, not much seems to have changed this election cycle, according to Border Partners, a group working in the area. It’s hard to say, said a spokesman for the group, whether a Trump presidency would make it more difficult for children to cross because the situation is so unique.

Yet it isn’t entirely unheard of. Although it seems to have less red tape, New Mexico isn’t the only border state where schools accept U.S.-born children from across the border. As the Huffington Post noted, U.S.-born students living in Mexico who want to go to school in places like California and Texas are often required to either prove they live in the district or pay tuition, which many can’t afford. A spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency told the site that it was up to each district to enforce those requirements. However, in Arizona, where support for curbing illegal immigration has been particularly widespread in recent years, the state has acted as the enforcer and “cracked down on border-crossing students.” For a variety of reasons, some families opt to put their children in Mexican schools instead. The country estimates that it has several hundred thousand U.S.-born students enrolled in its schools.

That crackdown hasn’t happened in New Mexico so far, although it’s unclear what a Trump win would mean for these families. The principal of the Columbus Elementary School told KRWG, a local television station, that he’d even seen an influx of kids from states like South Dakota after those children experienced the deportation of a parent. The families realized, he said, that they could reunite in Puerto Palomas, Mexico, just over the border, and that their children, born in the United States, would still be able to attend American schools like Columbus. That’s happened in part because officials there don’t enforce the same restrictions as their counterparts in places like Arizona.

It’s not just kids who live across the border who are negatively affected by the potential for a Trump presidency. Teachers across the country have reported an increase in stress this year among children, particularly those from immigrant families, who say they are scared of what might happen if Trump wins the election. For Latino kids, the worries often center around parents being deported or a wall going up along the border. Teachers also say they’re hearing more anti-immigrant rhetoric in class. While there isn’t data specifically on the perceptions of kids who cross from Mexico to the United States for school, it’s not unreasonable to expect that these children who stand to be the most affected by changes at the border are also among the most concerned.

College students express similar fears. A 2010 dissertation by a UTEP health-psychology doctoral student named Thomas J. Taylor suggested that some 40 percent of the 130 college students he surveyed who commuted to and from Juárez on a regular basis showed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. Taylor could not immediately be reached for comment, but while violence has declined significantly in Juárez over the last six years, it hasn’t gone away entirely, and the border continues to present a physical and psychological barrier for students.

“It’s like I’m divided,” Vidaña Sanchez said. But instead of seeing the border as a barrier, she said, she tries to see the crossing—a bridge over the Rio Grande—“as a pathway to more opportunity.”

Ricardo Cagigal Perez is a 23-year-old Mexican student finishing up a degree in biology at Texas A&M International University in the border town of Laredo, Texas. Born and raised in central Mexico, he spent his high-school years in Italy before landing in Texas for college. While he doesn’t cross the border daily, he travels to Mexico frequently on the weekends and during school vacations to visit friends and family. Recently, he said, border checks have seemed a little more thorough on both sides and wait times have been longer. He’s been hearing more comments from people on campus about how students without documents should “go back,” too. They seem “to have a sense of having political backup,” Cagigal Perez said, choosing his words carefully, “in the sense of, oh, it’s being said on TV more than usual, it’s being said on radio more than usual, so they believe that it might be acceptable to say it in private.”

While he thinks the school is a generally inclusive place, he said he’s heard students who feel “discouraged” about coming to the states. Friends from Italy who might have considered a move to America now second guess that idea. Last weekend, his family came to visit and they went to Dallas. When people there realized his mother did not speak English, sometimes they asked why she was there. “It gets to you, you know?” he said.

Now, some students who grew up south of the border are electing to bypass border universities altogether. A 2010 report by the Texas Tribune showed a decline in the number of Mexican students studying at border schools like UTEP and Texas A&M International, but an increase at places like the University of Texas at Austin. State data suggests those trends have largely continued in the intervening years. Armando Martinez, a Mexican-born student who moved to Austin for school, told the Tribune that in that city, “there’s a lot of other ways things flow: different cultures and values and customs and morals that really do influence you and grant you other opportunities.”

Some universities close to the border have seen those trends and worked actively to recruit Mexican students. New Mexico State University recently said it would begin a program to offer discounted tuition to Mexican students. The school’s enrollment has been declining, and officials see the new outreach as mutually beneficial. Whether this campaign season has made the school’s recruitment efforts more difficult is unclear. “NMSU has a lot to offer students from Mexico, and we know these students have a lot to offer us in terms of their backgrounds, experiences, and diversity,” the NMSU chancellor, Garrey Carruthers, said in a statement.

Vidaña Sanchez agrees and likes being near the communities and culture that have shaped her. “I’m glad I did it,” she said of her decision to enroll at UTEP. She regularly takes her grandmother, who lives in Juárez, to the doctor, she said, and she tries to support her family, buying school supplies for her cousins. Although she does not yet have a degree, she already earns more working several part-time jobs than her family in Mexico. And regardless of who wins the presidential election, she will continue to see the border not as a boundary, but as “a connection between two countries.” “We all come together in this one pathway,” she said of the border crossing. “We cross; we are part of two cultures. It shouldn’t be seen as an obstacle.”

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