Crossing the Line

For years, Mexican students have attended school in a New Mexico border town. Now, some residents want it to stop

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Every school-day morning, the border crossing just south of Columbus, N.M., is alive with a procession of neatly groomed students from the poor, agrarian Mexican town of Palomas and its outlying areas. Laden with backpacks and basketballs, an estimated 465 students make their way through the Mexican border station and onto U.S. soil. After passing a handful of men waiting to find work, the children board buses for Columbus and nearby Deming, where they attend schools free of charge.

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

But this decades-old practice is now under attack. Two local citizens, with the support of others, have filed a lawsuit in state court calling for the district to charge its nonresident students the per-pupil cost of more than $3,000 a year. These critics say the policy is draining state 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 help pay infrastructure costs.

In addition, they say a $6.2million 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 enrollment, since 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,” says Harry 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. 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 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,’ “ says Columbus Mayor Phoebe Watson, who as principal of Columbus Elementary School in the late 1940s and early 1950s 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.”

Motions are just now being filed by the parties in the lawsuit. No matter how the case eventually is resolved, observers expect a potentially precedent-setting decision. “It’s an international issue and not just a New Mexico issue,” says Margaret Rutz, 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.

Other New Mexican border districts are anticipating a flood of students in the coming years. A state education department report notes that “children 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.” Several other states could also be affected by the lawsuit. Currently, school districts in California, Arizona, and Texas abide by strict residency and tuition requirements.

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 vs. Doe that school districts cannot deny an education to undocumented foreign-born children residing within their boundaries. Also cited is the 1983 decision in Mar- tinez vs. Bynum, in which the High Court said 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, 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. Viramontes says Columbus Elementary School will remain open if the school system loses the lawsuit, even though about half of the roughly 350 students there come from Palomas.

The situation in Columbus has a long and varied history. Watson began recruiting students from Palomas when slots at the elementary school in Columbus 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,” she recalls. “If there was enough room for 40, we took 40.” While 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, Inmon raised the issue with both the state and local school boards but received little sympathy. “I didn’t get any help here locally,” she says, “because they wanted to keep the money that they were getting from the state department of education.”

The state formally acknowledged the education of Palomas residents in 1965. 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 living in Columbus, they could choose to use that residence to meet the requirement.

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. Estimates suggest that the number of Mexican students making the trip across the border doubled after the busing decision.

Meanwhile, in 1978, the state board altered its regulation on the right to an education to say 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 districts may charge nonresidents the per-pupil cost to educate them.

But also in 1978, then-Attorney General Toney Anaya, who later became governor of New Mexico, 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, Viramontes says, 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 says. Susan Brown, deputy state superintendent for school-management accountability, says 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.”

Harry Rhizor, an Army retiree, became troubled about the schooling of Palomas students in 1988 when he worked as a janitor at the border crossing. He complained to state and local officials but made little headway, so he placed an advertisement in a local paper to raise money for a lawsuit. After receiving more than $6,000 from about 200 sources, Rhizor paid a lawyer a $4,000 retainer and filed suit. He and his supporters say 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,” says 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.

Some Palomas residents believe there is a darker side to the lawsuit. They say it is based on prejudice, not money. “This is racism,” charges one Palomas mother.

Palomas Mayor Julieta Avina, who recently finished a term as the president of the Columbus Elementary School parent-teacher group, says it is important for Palomas children to go to U.S. schools so that they can learn English. That asset, she says in halting English, will prove even more important after the anticipated ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which is expected to stimulate economic relationships between the United States and Mexico.

Palomas has only a kindergarten, an elementary school, and a junior high school. English is not taught, and while instruction is good—Viramontes says 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.

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, Apodaca Dozal replies in Spanish, “I don’t think so.”

Avina, pointing out that all of the goods in her office except for the Mexican flag were purchased in Deming, adds 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 back in 1983 that Luna County businesses take in about $26.7 million from Mexican citizens annually.

Columbus is a laid-back town where time passes slowly. Community news travels by word of mouth, through a small monthly news bulletin or announcements on the blackboard outside the town hall. The lawsuit has not shaken up the town. Life goes on.

Phoebe 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,” she says, “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. I feel very bad about the ugly relations it has created with our neighbors.

“I’ve lived here for 54 years,” she adds, “and I feel the people across the border are my relatives, and they feel the same about me and my friends.”

Vol. 04, Issue 08, Pages 13-15

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