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Suit Seeks To Halt Border Town's Education of Mexicans

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COLUMBUS, N.M.--The 651 residents here last week celebrated the 77th anniversary of Pancho Villa's raid on this dusty border town that left 17 U.S. civilians and military personnel dead.

The annual March 9 remembrance seeks not to honor the Mexican revolutionary leader, but rather to recognize the town's historic role in the last incursion by a foreign land force in the continental United States.

But for some here, the invading Villa lives on in the estimated 465 children from Palomas, Mexico, who cross the international boundary each day to attend Columbus Elementary School and schools in nearby Deming free of charge.

It is a situation that is unparalleled anywhere else in the country, for while other border towns educate Mexican children, none other actively encourages their enrollment and provides them bus transportation from the border.

Yet the decades-old practice is threatened by a lawsuit filed in state court calling for the district to charge its nonresident students the per-pupil cost of more than $3,000 a year.

Critics say that the policy is draining state general-fund tax revenues, which pay for nearly all of the operating costs in New Mexico public schools. They also contend that the education of students who live in Mexico drives up local property taxes, which go to pay infrastructure costs.

In addition, they say a $6.2 million bond measure that taxpayers in Luna County, which is served by the Deming public school system, approved in 1991 for the construction of a new middle school would not have been necessary had the district charged Palomas students tuition--in effect reducing the system's enrollment, because few of the students would be able to afford it.

"The state statute spells out how districts should charge for tuition for students who don't live in the district, and [the Deming administration is] not doing it,'' said Harry C. Rhizor, a 15-year Columbus resident who has brought the suit along with another resident, Earl Starcher Jr.

"If people want to do good things for other people and spend their own money, fine.'' he said. "If each taxpayer wants to sponsor a child from wherever, I'll do my part. But don't tell me I have to.''

Other Columbus residents, district officials, and the state--which has intervened in the lawsuit on behalf of the district and its school board--say the matter is much more complex than Mr. Rhizor suggests.

A number of factors complicate the situation, they say, including the strong family, economic, employment, and social ties between Luna County and Palomas, which is three miles from Columbus and about 34 miles from Deming. Many of the Palomas students were born in the United States and, thus, are citizens, and many of them may one day decide to reside in the United States. Then too, defenders of the practice argue, there is the potential social cost of not educating the children.

"If a kid wants to get an education, you don't say, 'You're not an American,' or 'You're not the right color,''' said Mayor Phoebe Watson of Columbus, who as the principal of Columbus School in the late 1940's and early 1950's first actively encouraged children living in Palomas to cross the border to go to school.

"The [suit] is to put these kids out of school,'' she said.

Broad Implications

Motions are just now being filed by the parties in the lawsuit. No matter how the case eventually is resolved, observers and those involved expect a potentially precedent-setting decision.

"It's an international issue and not just a New Mexico issue,'' said Margaret Rutz, the director of school approval for the New Mexico Department of Education. Elected officials in New Mexico and Chihuahua, the Mexican state in which Palomas is located, have already begun talks on cooperation in economic and education matters, she noted.

Other New Mexican border districts are anticipating a flood of students in the coming years. A state education department report notes that "[c]hildren from Palomas who attend school in Deming may be unique today, but the impact of border growth can easily produce similar situations in other districts.''

Border jurisdictions in other states could also be affected.

School districts in California, Arizona, and Texas abide by strict residency and tuition requirements. The Brownsville (Tex.) Independent School District, for example, investigates the residences of all 48,000 students in the district by sending employees to students' stated residences at odd hours.

Past Cases

People on both sides of the issue are quick to cite court decisions that might bear on the lawsuit's outcome.

Among them are the U.S. Supreme Court's 1982 ruling in Plyler v. Doe that school districts cannot deny an education to undocumented foreign-born children residing within their boundaries.

Also cited is the 1983 decision in Martinez v. Bynum, in which the Court said that a state may restrict free public education to its residents.

Should the district lose the suit, about 14 of the 28 teachers and aides at Columbus Elementary would be laid off, according to Carlos Viramontes, the acting superintendent. An additional four or five teachers would lose their jobs at the junior, middle, and high school levels, each of which serves roughly 100 students from Palomas, he said.

Despite the concerns of some Columbus residents, Mr. Viramontes said that the Columbus Elementary School would remain open if the district loses the suit, even though about half of the roughly 350 students there come from Palomas.

A Rich History

The current state and local policy on the education and transportation of students from Palomas has a long and varied history.

Ms. Watson began recruiting students from Palomas when slots at the elementary school here were going unfilled. Many of the children were U.S. citizens, she reasoned, and they often had relatives in Columbus.

"If we had enough room for 10, we took 10; if there was enough room for 40, we took 40,'' she recalled.

Soon the Palomas students' siblings began asking to attend the school, and the parents of other Palomas children began to seek slots for their children.

While Ms. Watson's efforts disgruntled some town residents, dissent remained a murmur.

In 1960, Thelma Inmon, a Columbus resident, became a member of the first elected state school board. Unhappy with district policy regarding the Palomas students, Ms. Inmon said that during her 12-year tenure she raised the issue with both the state and local school boards but received little sympathy.

"I didn't get any help here locally, because they wanted to keep the money that they were getting from the state department of education,'' Ms. Inmon said recently.

The state formally acknowledged the education of Palomas residents in 1965, according to the state education department report. In 1970, the Deming superintendent spelled out the district's position by saying that although nonresident students would not be allowed to attend the schools, the district would not investigate residential status.

Because many Palomas students had relatives in Columbus, they could choose to use that residence to meet the requirement.

Busing Begins

In 1976, Palomas students began riding Mexican buses to Columbus and Deming on a space-available basis. Fifteen years later, the state determined that the Mexican buses that were carrying Palomas students from the border to Columbus Elementary School, where the older students would board a district bus for their schools in Deming, were unsafe and that the district should pick up students at the border.

Because the students do not have U.S. addresses and many come from poor and migratory families, it is difficult to know how many Palomas students now attend schools in Luna County. Most estimates, however, suggest that the number doubled after the busing decision.

Meanwhile, in 1978, the state board altered its regulation on the right to an education to state that "any school-age person shall have a right to attend public school within the school district in which he resides or is present.''

The regulation says that districts may charge nonresidents the per-pupil cost to educate them.

According to Norma Cantu, the regional counsel for the San Antonio-based Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, what the state board did was to "imitate what U.S. colleges and universities have been doing for years.'' In Texas, she said, Mexicans who cross the border can attend some institutions at the in-state tuition cost.

But also in 1978, then-Attorney General Toney Anaya, who later became the Governor, issued an opinion stating that "although the language ... appears permissive, the interest of public policy requires that [tuition payments for out-of-district students] be taken as mandatory.''

The district has not charged tuition, Mr. Viramontes said, on the direction of the state.

"We have been told by the state department of education that if [pupils from Mexico] show up at the doorstep, we educate them and don't worry about charging tuition,'' he said.

Susan Brown, the deputy state superintendent for school-management accountability, said that the state supports the local policy. In the department's report to the border task force, however, she wrote, "Resolving these issues should be carried out consistently and guided by state rather than local policies.''

Crossing the Border

Every school-day morning, the border crossing at Palomas is alive with a procession of neatly groomed students from the poor, agrarian Mexican town and its outlying areas. Laden with backpacks and basketballs, the students make their way through the Mexican border station and onto U.S. soil.

There they proceed through the new, $2.6 million U.S. station, sometimes greeting the immigration and customs agents, who rarely question their purpose. The children are already registered, and the agents make only random checks to insure that the children who are not U.S. citizens have their student visas.

The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service began requiring the student visas two years ago after complaints from some Columbus residents. (See Education Week, July 31, 1991.)

"We do occasionally find some of them trying to cross without the proper documents, so we send them home and we'll see them two or three weeks later with the documents,'' said John Wilhelm, the station's director.

After passing a handful of men waiting to find work, the children board buses for Columbus.

A 'Taxpayer' Issue

Mr. Rhizor, an Army retiree, became troubled about the schooling of Palomas students in 1988 when he worked as a janitor at the crossing.

After complaining to state and local officials and making little headway, he placed an advertisement in a local paper to raise money for a lawsuit. After receiving more than $6,000 from about 200 sources, Mr. Rhizor paid a lawyer a $4,000 retainer and filed suit, he said.

For Mr. Rhizor and his supporters, the matter is a taxpayer issue.

"To me it's very simple: We don't have the excess funds anymore to educate people from other countries,'' el18lsaid Leo Gallegos, a 36-year-old Deming businessman who arrived from Mexico 30 years ago as a permanent resident and is now a U.S. citizen.

Mr. Rhizor noted that the recent bond issue raised property taxes in Columbus from $23.19 per $1,000 of valuation in 1990 to $29.90 per $1,000 of valuation in 1991. The school to be built with the money, he said, would not have been needed without recent increases in students coming from Mexico, although district officials disagree.

"Everybody says the taxes are so low here,'' Mr. Rhizor said. "Just give it time and it'll get up there.''

Mr. Viramontes said he is unsure exactly where the enrollment growth is coming from, but that an increase in students from Palomas is not the sole source.

Chili and onion farming has taken off in recent years, he said, and people may be relocating to the area in anticipation of the ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which is expected to stimulate economic relationships between the United States and Mexico.
Charges of Racism

Critics of the district policy also complain about the increasingly bilingual nature of some district schools. Columbus Elementary for example, is bilingual, and teaches native Spanish-speakers in their own language until the 3rd grade.

"If anyone wants ramifications [of the district policy] it's going to happen 20 years from now. It's going to be when we're a bilingual country and not a monolingual country, and that's not right,'' said Mr. Rhizor. "The bilingual program is keeping [English-speakers] from progressing through high school properly.''

Some Palomas residents are beginning to feel that the lawsuit is based on predjudice and not money.

"This is racism,'' one Palomas mother of two small children charged. "I wouldn't send my children there because there is too much racism.''

Mayor Julieta Avina of Palomas, who recently finished a term as the president of the Columbus Elementary School parent-teacher group, said it is important for Palomas children to go to U.S. schools so that they can learn English. That asset, she said in halting English, will prove even more important once the free-trade agreement is in effect and new businesses develop along both sides of the border.

Palomas has only a kindergarten, an elementary school, and a junior high school. English is not taught, and while instruction is good--Mr. Viramontes says that Palomas students who attend Deming High often do better in mathematics than their peers in the Deming system--the schools suffer from poor lighting, lack of heat, and few supplies. The elementary school has only enough funding for half days of instruction.

Moreover, supporters note, many of the Palomas students are U.S. citizens.

Hortencia Apodaca Dozal sells flour tortillas. She has been raising her 17-year-old granddaughter, Cristina, for the last eight years. Until her mother died, Cristina lived in Deming as a U.S. citizen and attended schools there.

Asked if she and others would be able to pay tuition to Deming schools, Ms. Apodaca Dozal replied in Spanish, "I don't think so.''

Mayor Avina, pointing out that all of the goods in her office except for the Mexican flag were purchased in Deming, added that the majority of Palomas residents do most of their shopping in Deming and pay sales taxes that go to the state's general fund.

One Columbus businessman, Jack Long, estimated in 1983 that Luna County businesses take in about $26.7 million from Mexican citizens annually.

Community Spirit

Columbus is a laid-back town where time passes slowly. Community news travels by word of mouth, through a small monthly news bulletin, or through announcements on the blackboard outside the town hall.

And the lawsuit of Mr. Rhizor and Mr. Starcher, who declined to be interviewed, has not shaken up the town. Life goes on.

The plaintiffs and their supporters "come into the businesses and you serve them like anyone else, but you just don't get into a discussion about it with them,'' said Diane Moore, who owns a restaurant in Columbus and supports the education of children from Palomas. "You don't want that to disrupt your business.''

Said Mr. Rhizor: "I'm an agitator. I raise Cain when Cain needs to be raised.''

For her part, Mayor Watson sees the suit as more detrimental to relations between Palomas and Columbus--which share ambulance and fire services and where friends and relatives consider the international boundary just an arbitrary line--than within Columbus itself.

"It's caused a rift and the people in Palomas are cognizant of the fact that there are people here who do not like them and who do not want them,'' Ms. Watson said. "I feel very bad about the ugly relations it has created with our neighbors.''

"I've lived here for 54 years,'' she said, "and I feel the people across the border are my relatives, and they feel the same about me and my friends.''

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