Esmeralda wakes up every weekday at 5 a.m. at her home in Tijuana to take her son to school in National City.
After they cross the border on foot around 6 a.m., they take the trolley, then a public bus, to get to his elementary school. While her son is in class, Esmeralda works at a McDonald’s in National City. They end up back home in Tijuana around 5 p.m.
Esmeralda’s last name is being withheld from this story because nonresidents are not supposed to take advantage of free public education for California residents. But to Esmeralda, there’s nothing unnatural about going to school and work in the U.S.
Esmeralda grew up in National City. Both she and her son are U.S. citizens. Esmeralda moved to Tijuana about five years ago because she couldn’t afford rent anymore in California. But she’s determined to continue taking her son to school in the U.S.
“I want him to learn English and be able to succeed in this country,” Esmeralda said. “I just want him to grow up in a better place.”
Of the more than 90,000 people who cross the San Ysidro border daily, many are students. They live in Mexico and attend schools — both public and private — in San Diego County. Last month’s sudden border closure amid unrest stemming from a caravan of Central American migrants was a jolting reminder to these students that, if the border were to be closed again, they could be cut off from their education.
Many of these children cross the border as early as 5 or 6 a.m. At a McDonald’s in the trolley station that sits a few hundred feet from the border, middle school girls can be seen working on homework, brushing their hair and curling their eyelashes. Mothers sip hot coffee while their young children, bundled in jackets and wearing backpacks half their size, nibble on hash brown patties or granola bars. Some students are alone and stare at their phones or rest their heads on a table.
Cross-border students attend school all over south San Diego County. One day last week, students at this McDonald’s wore sweatshirts from San Ysidro Middle School and Southwestern College, while one boy wore a backpack from a San Diego Unified school. On that morning, there were children who had crossed the border to attend schools in at least the Sweetwater Union High, South Bay Union and National school districts, as well as Catholic schools.
Parents living in Mexico find ways for their children to attend school in the U.S. because they believe it is their kids’ best chance at a good education and a good future.
Despite all the fears and anxiety that many may have about crossing the border, despite actions by President Donald Trump to keep certain people out of the country, America still remains in the hearts and minds of many Mexican residents as the land of opportunity.
“Opportunities are better here than everywhere,” said Natalie, a mother of two girls living in Tijuana who attend school in the South Bay Union School District. “Honestly, we want to come over here.”
Many of these cross-border students are U.S. citizens who have moved to Mexico recently. Many belong to families who have been driven to Mexico by San Diego’s high cost of living.
But families like Natalie’s didn’t want to leave behind the lives they built in San Diego. Her girls have attended the same South Bay Union school since they were in kindergarten.
“Their friends, their teachers, everybody knows them over there,” Natalie said.
Some parents have their children cross the border because they believe San Diego schools are better than Tijuana schools.
Esmeralda, for example, tried taking her son to a Tijuana public school for kindergarten. She found several problems at that particular school.
She said the school closed so frequently — it would close if it simply rained — that she feared her son wasn’t learning enough, so she started teaching him at home. What’s more, the school asked her and other parents to help pay the utilities and buy crayons, notebooks, even gallons of water because the school didn’t have enough.
Esmeralda couldn’t afford to keep doing that. She is raising not just her son, but a 1-year-old daughter too.
Her son’s school in National City is different. There, he gets free breakfast and lunch, provided by the school through a federal meal program. Esmeralda knows he is learning a lot because he can count up to 100 and he knows his ABCs. He loves school here, she said.
Even when Mexican parents choose U.S. schools that might not be of better quality than Mexican schools, American schools have the universal advantage of teaching students in English. Meanwhile, only about 5 percent of Mexican teachers are proficient in English, researchers estimated in 2016.
“The parents do understand that that is a huge advantage for their children. That’s a trade-off that many parents would be willing to make,” said Patricia Gándara, a research professor and co-director of the UCLA Civil Rights Project. “Being bilingual is the big advantage, whether you’re here in the U.S. or in Mexico.”
Some Mexican resident students may also be attending school in the U.S. because it’s hard to get into a Mexican public school, Gándara said. Last year, thousands of students living in Baja could not get into a public school because of a lack of space, Gándara said.
“Parents have made decisions around their kids getting the best possible education,” Gándara said.
* * *
Some families living in Mexico get around the residency requirement by using a relative’s address. Natalie said she enrolled her daughters at their school while they still lived in the district, so their old address still remains on file. Esmeralda said she told her son’s school that they family is homeless.
“We gotta do what we gotta do,” Esmeralda said.
State law also allows for a number of exceptions to the residency rule. For example, children of deported parents are allowed to continue attending their old school in California. Children can also enroll in a school district if their parent or guardian works within the district’s boundaries at least 10 hours a week, and if their district allows them to enroll.
Under state law, school districts can investigate residency if they reasonably believe a family has provided false or unreliable evidence of residency. But some districts said they aren’t looking to investigate as long as families can provide a required document showing residency, such as a pay stub or utility bill.
Southwestern Community College, which enrolls several students who live in Mexico, said it doesn’t require proof from students who say they are residents on their admission applications, which are submitted under penalty of perjury, spokeswoman Lillian Leopold said.
“We’re not residency verifiers,” Leopold said. “We take people at their word on what their residency is.”
Local schools don’t track or count the number of students who live in Mexico, so there is no official data about how many students cross the border for school.
Officials of some school districts, including South Bay Union and National School District, said they are not aware of any students who are enrolled and live in Mexico. Officials of other schools say they have heard that some of their students come from Mexico.
“We all kind of anecdotally know that there are students out there coming and going, but we don’t have an official count,” said Manny Rubio, spokesman for the Sweetwater Union High School District.
Rubio said the phenomenon of students living in Mexico and attending school in the U.S. is a “touchy” issue.
On one hand, there may be parents who live in the school district who aren’t happy that their taxes are paying for nonresident students. But most school districts in the area are also facing declining enrollment, and every student who attends their schools brings the district additional state funding, regardless of where they come from.
“This is a tough one,” Rubio said. “We do have to prove residency for students. We verify the residency when they register. I think beyond that, that’s not really our scope. Obviously, our scope is to educate students, and if they can show residency, we’re going to educate them.”
* * *
The five-hour closure of the border on Nov. 25 scared many Mexican residents who rely on crossing the border for school and work. What if the border was closed again, during the week, for a much longer period of time?
Roberto Hernández, an associate professor in Chicano and Chicana studies at San Diego State University, said he believes closing the border ignores the reality that, for thousands of people, the border is not a wall where life in one country stops.
“Their lives have always been back and forth on both sides. It’s just part of their daily existence to have a transborder life instead of two separate lives,” Hernández said. “To close the border is to interfere with the daily life of people on both sides that are dependent on each other.”
After the border closed, some Southwestern College students have become so worried that they could be cut off from school that they are temporarily staying with friends or family in San Diego County until the semester ends, Leopold said. Within the last two weeks, the college has told its faculty to be patient and flexible with students who may be late to class because of holdups at the border crossing, Leopold added.
“There’s a finish line and we want to make sure they get across the finish line,” Leopold said. “We really believe in open access, equal opportunity for education for all students.”
For Esmeralda, last Sunday’s incident was a reminder of how suddenly her son could be cut off from his education, and herself from her job, if the border were to close again.
“It was so scary. I don’t care about my job, but I care about him missing his everyday classes,” Esmeralda said. “It was scary thinking we might not be able to come back again.”