Shutting the Door
December 18, 1997
The impact of immigration reform on school children along the U.S.-Mexico border. Joe Day of KNME-Albuquerque narrates this report.
JOE DAY: One year ago Laura Villasana began the eighth grade at Deming Middle School. She rode the bus from Palomas, Mexico, where she lived, to Deming, New Mexico, where she went to school. Laura and her Mexican friends were part of a longstanding tradition of cross-border education in this part of New Mexico. But this school year that tradition has been broken because of a new immigration law and because of a growing resentment at providing services for non-citizens. The change has left the border towns and the schools uneasy. Mary Helen Chavez is principal of Deming Middle School.
MARY HELEN CHAVEZ, Principal, Deming Middle School: As an educator our primary focus is on students. Our primary focus is on giving them what they need, so that they can succeed in the future, and basically the rug has been pulled out from under us, and they have said this particular group of children you cannot do this with.
JOE DAY: The year has not only been difficult for educators; it also has been difficult for all residents in this border town of 14,000 as it tries to come to grips with the increasing resistance locally and in Washington, D.C., to providing non-citizens with government services. For more than 40 years the towns of Deming and Palomas, 34 miles apart, have carried on a symbiotic relationship. The Americans have educated many of the Mexican children. The Mexican workers have picked the American crops. Carlos Ogden is an attorney in Deming.
CARLOS OGDEN: We're tied through business ties; we're tied through other ties; and it's not just blood and ethnicity; it's true friendship.
JOE DAY: Other communities along the U.S.-Mexico border also have periodically educated Mexican students. But only the Deming Public Schools have done so openly, tuition free, and with the blessing of state government in Mexico.
CARLOS OGDEN: The state board of education has not only voiced approval; they have voiced an enthusiastic approval. They consider the few pennies a year it costs each resident state wise is a very good investment.
JOE DAY: But last year there were signs that the ties between Deming and Palomas were about to unravel. Just as Congress was debating the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, the people of Deming started taking a harder look at their own relationship to the border. Like many southwestern cities, Deming has experienced rapid growth in recent years. Many of the newcomers did not support the education of Mexican children. And when the schools complained about being overcrowded, they weren't sympathetic. In fact, local residents repeatedly turned down bond measures to build new classrooms. Merle Struhs, like many new residents, came to Deming when he retired.
MERLE STRUHS: You know, you can't be that generous if you're taking money out of your own family's grocery bill. There's a limit to what you can spend on taxes and bond issues, et cetera, and so on.
JOE DAY: Struhs thought there was an easy solution to the school's problems.
MERLE STRUHS: If we've got room to educate the children from Mexico for nothing, then take them out and we have room.
JOE DAY: Others thought the more kids who were educated, the better.
MARY HELEN CHAVEZ: Many, many of these children will still be in the United States in the future, and if they don't have an education, or they have a poor education, that's going to impact our federal government a lot more than giving them a free education ever will.
JOE DAY: But when the bond measure failed, the schools had no choice but to throw out some of the Mexican students to make space in the classrooms. Principal Chavez pulled the individual students out of class to tell them they no longer could come to school.
MARY HELEN CHAVEZ COMFORTING CHILD: I don't want you guys to go.
JOE DAY: News of the dis-enrollments galvanized a group of previously uncommitted local residents who represented a middle ground in the polarized debate. Larry Schultz is a local business owner.
LARRY SCHULTZ, Businessman: Well, when the school board meeting after the dis-enrollments was going to be held, we started getting together and talking about what we could do to find a solution and see if there wasn't some way to get these kids back in school.
JOE DAY: The strong voice from the center convinced the school board to accept a compromise solution. The dis-enrolled students would be invited back into the schools, but new students from Mexico would be enrolled only a space-available basis.
MARY HELEN CHAVEZ: Then I think the community thought, wait a minute, we are dealing with human beings here; it's not just numbers on a piece of paper that says this school is overcrowded. They are kids who value what they're getting from us, and so let's give it to them.
JOE DAY: But the story in the Deming Public Schools was not over because it turned out that a little known provision of the sweeping immigration law, which passed last fall, would undo the compromise. The provision, which the people in Deming didn't learn about until this summer, requires foreign students attending public schools with F-1 visas to pay full, unsubsidized tuition. It originally was aimed at wealthy Asian parents. We're sending their children to public schools in California. But it hit home in Deming. Mexican students wanting to go to school in New Mexico will be charged $3400 per year, a figure far outside the reach of the average Palomas family. Laura no longer will be able to attend school in Deming.
ARMANDO VILLASANA: (speaking through interpreter) Laura has always had big plans and big dreams. She dreamt about college. This dream seems to be cut off with the new law. The dream has crumbled.
JOE DAY: Because there is no high school in Palomas, Laura now attends school in Casas Grandes, Mexico, 130 miles away from home.
LAURA VILLASANA, Student: It was sad, but I know that I have to go to school. If I want to be something or somebody, I have to study, and it has to be here in Mexico.
JOE DAY: She spends weekends at home with her family, but each Sunday afternoon her father must drive her back to Casas Grandes.
LAURA VILLASANA: When I go to Casas Grandes, I have to go. And when I went to Deming, I knew that I will come back. But it is not the same now.
JOE DAY: Neither Laura nor her father will complain about the way things have turned out, but many Deming residents say they feel cheated.
CARLOS OGDEN: We were an example of local people working out their local problems. And then we were ambushed by the federal government. And the Immigration Reform Act--with no preview, no hearings held locally, nothing in the newspaper--slammed the door on a good number of people we think ought to be going to school here.
JOE DAY: Other residents are glad to see the federal government taking more control over the border. Martin and Theresa Nelson have three children in the Deming schools.
MARTIN NELSON, Parent: The local authorities here couldn't get together. There was too much conflict on both sides of the border, and so it had to come from a higher power.
SHARON MAXWELL: We can't jump back and forth across the borders without paying a tuition. If we desire to send our children to a different area, we pay for it, and basically, maybe that should be the same; if they want to do it, then they should pay for a tuition.
JOE DAY: Today, many Deming residents remain divided on whether to provide services to non-citizens. Recently, school officials received several anonymous donations to pay for scholarships for the Mexican students. As a result, at least three high school seniors from Mexico will pay their tuition and will graduate from Deming High this coming spring.