I.N.S. Tells 125 Students Commuting From Mexico To Get Visas

By Peter Schmidt — July 31, 1991 4 min read

The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service says that about 125 Mexican children who have been crossing the border to attend public schools in a New Mexico town must obtain student visas before returning to class this fall.

The agency’s main office in Washington issued the guidance after some taxpayers in the town of Columbus questioned the schools’ practice of enrolling children who commute daily from neighboring Palomas, Mexico.

The Deming, N.M., school district, which encompasses Columbus, has been allowing children from Polomas to attend its schools for several years.

Officials of the district, many of whose residents have close family ties to the Mexican side of the border, said this month that they expected most or all of the Mexican students to obtain the necessary documents and return to the American schools. The i.n.s. has provided the children with some assistance in obtaining visas.

“I consider this just part of living on the border,” said Donald E. Nielson, a spokesman for the southern region of the i.n.s. He said the presence of Mexican residents in U.S. classrooms “is going to be very common wherever you have a border district.”

“The need for education is not really limited by the existence of borders or boundaries,” said Michael J. Davis, associate superintendent of the New Mexico Department of Education. “If people have a desire for an education, they are going to go after it.”

‘Hellish’ To Enforce

About 350 children from Polomas pay $1 each every day to ride a shuttle bus across the border to Columbus elementary and secondary schools, where they can take English and other classes not offered in their hometown.

Some 225 of the students are native-born U.S. citizens of Mexican background whose families chose to return to Mexico. The visa requirement applies only to the 125 children who are not citizens.

For several years, immigration officials said, local i.n.s. agents turned their attention to more pressing matters and looked the other way while the Mexican children entered the country using border-crossing cards intended for tourists.

Recently, however, Columbus residents who opposed paying taxes to build new schools that would benefit Mexican children brought the situation to the attention of regional immigration officials. The regional office asked for guidance from i.n.s. headquarters, which responded this summer that a longstanding policy required the children to obtain student visas.

The children have since been provided with transportation and other assistance in getting to consulates to obtain their visas.

But Duke Austin, a national spokesman for the i.n.s., said enforcing the visa requirement presents “some hellish problems” because unaccompanied children often misplace their documents and the i.n.s. has to provide care for children stopped at the border while it processes them.

Divergent Policies

Policies on enrolling Mexican pupils vary widely in the states and school districts along the border.

The federal courts have determined that children cannot be denied a public education because they lack U.S. citizenship, but students can be excluded from schools for nonresidency. Many states require students to live with a parent or guardian in the district where they attend school.

Mexican students have been welcomed in New Mexico, which has pursued close ties with Mexico and perceives the development of communities along the border as crucial to the state’s trade and economic development. The state reimburses districts for all students in attendance, regardless of whether they are U.S. residents.

“Our stance has been: If the child is present in our school district, we provide an education. We are not in the business of being i.n.s. agents,” Mr. Davis, the associate state superintendent, said.

Aides to Superintendent of Public Instruction Alan Morgan said the state chief’s position is that Mexican children, especially those living in border towns, will receive a better education in the United States. Because of the large numbers of Mexi4cans coming across the border to live, the United States ultimately benefits by educating these Mexican children, Mr. Morgan has said.

In Texas, by contrast, the state requires students to be residents of their school districts and allots aid to districts accordingly.

Bob Reynolds, a spokesman for the El Paso Independent School District, said his district requires students to prove residency, and it systematically sends attendance officers to check the validity of every student address. Between 600 and 900 students from Mexico, New Mexico, and neighboring Texas districts are expelled from El Paso schools each year, he said.

In the Brownsville (Tex.) Independent School District, according to officials there, attendance officers stand on bridges that cross the Mexican border and follow children who are carrying books to their destination. If the children are seen entering public schools, their residency is checked, said Anacleto Cuellar, the district’s assistant superintendent for student services.

Arizona requires students to reside in the districts in which they attend school. It leaves the enforcement of the policy to districts, which typically ask the children to fill out affidavits certifying residency.

The state does not require districts to prove student residency when submitting attendance figures to the state for reimbursement, said Ray A. Borane, deputy superintendent of the Arizona Department of Education.

California Department of Education officials said there is no statewide policy dealing with children commuting from Mexico.

The Calexico (Calif.) Unified School District, which sits across the border from Mexicali, Mexico, requires students to show they are residents before enrolling in district schools. Calexico does accept about 20 tuition-paying pupils from Mexicali, according to school officials.

A version of this article appeared in the July 31, 1991 edition of Education Week as I.N.S. Tells 125 Students Commuting From Mexico To Get Visas