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This New Mexico school welcomes families who live across the border

February 28, 2017 at 6:25 PM EDT
As anxiety increases within the immigrant community over stepped-up enforcement along the U.S.-Mexican border, one small bi-national community in New Mexico is working hard to keep families connected through education and schooling. Special correspondent Simon Thompson reports from public media’s Fronteras Desk and PBS station KRWG.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: But first: With stepped-up enforcement along the U.S.-Mexican border, there is more anxiety among immigrant communities that families members with different status might be separated.

In New Mexico, one small bi-national community along the border is working hard to keep families connected through schools.

From Public Media’s Fronteras desk and PBS station KRWG, Simon Thompson, originally from Australia, brings us this report.

SIMON THOMPSON: Daylight hasn’t even broken, but 500 children who live in Palomas, Mexico, are up and on their way to school. Their commute is not typical.

They must first cross the international border into the U.S. They show their U.S. passports and birth certificates. Customs and Immigration officials inspect their school bags. Then they’re bussed to school in Luna County, New Mexico.

Lizett Preciado is a senior at Deming High School in Luna County. A U.S. citizen, she’s lived in Palomas with her parents for seven years.

LIZETT PRECIADO, Student, Deming High School: It was good to be able to go to school there. And, like, there’s more opportunities to study and to have a better job in the future.

SIMON THOMPSON: Lizett and her family moved to Palomas from Colorado, after her mother, Rosa Marie, was deported for being in the United States illegally.

ROSA MARIA PRECIADO, Mother (through interpreter): I felt really bad, really badly, because I have four children who are citizens of the United States, and my husband is a resident. I didn’t want to go back to live in Mexico. I know it is my country, but life in Mexico in really hard.

SIMON THOMPSON: Preciado and her husband, Ramon, makes their living in Palomas raising goats. Ramon still crosses occasionally back into the U.S. to work.

Preciado says having her children educated in the U.S. was important to her, and that’s why they settled in Palomas.

ROSA MARIA PRECIADO (through interpreter): I came to Palomas because of a friend who said Palomas would be a good option to live with my children. It is easy to cross into the United States, and there is a bus to take them to school.

SIMON THOMPSON: Armando Chavez is the principal of Columbus Elementary in Luna County. He says the school district usually sees an influx of students when states enact strict immigration laws, as Arizona did in 2010.

ARMANDO CHAVEZ, Principal, Columbus Elementary: We are sometimes the holding spot for them, for them to fix the papers correctly. We are dealing with children that come from South Dakota, Missouri. It can be any state that they come, but we embrace our children that come to our door every day.

SIMON THOMPSON: School districts in Texas and California also allow students living in Mexico to come to school. But they often charge out-of-district fees or are private. For the U.S. citizen-students coming from Palomas to school in Luna County, the education is free.

Many teachers in the Luna County schools crossed the border as students. Ricardo Gutierrez teaches the fifth grade at Columbus Elementary, the school he attended as a child.

RICARDO GUTIERREZ, Teacher, Columbus Elementary: So now it’s my turn to give back to the community.

SIMON THOMPSON: Gutierrez says keeping parents engaged in their children’s education is the biggest challenge. He opens his restaurant in Palomas for parent-teacher conferences via Skype. And for this year’s graduation ceremony, he hosted a live watch party for parents that can’t cross.

But not everybody living in the Luna County area thinks that state money should be used to educate students who don’t live in the United States.

RUSS HOWELL, Chair, Republican Party of Luna County: They are getting a free education.

SIMON THOMPSON: Luna County Republican Party chair Russ Howell says allowances like the one being made by the school district motivate people to exploit birthright citizenship.

RUSS HOWELL: They don’t live in the United States, so that forces the state of New Mexico to pay for their education, as well as those of us that are taxed to pay for them too.

SIMON THOMPSON: The New Mexico State Constitution requires public schools to be open to all the children of school age, regardless of residence.

Principal Chavez says, if there are concerns about students not paying their fair share, that is more reason to make sure they’re getting a good education.

ARMANDO CHAVEZ: They are going to more than likely live in the United States. We want to educate them. We want to get them to the highest level of education possible, so they can be successful, and so they can become productive members and contribute back.

SIMON THOMPSON: Rosa Maria Preciado says her three oldest children are already making their contributions. Her oldest daughter serves in the U.S. military and her two sons have careers in engineering and manufacturing.

ROSA MARIA PRECIADO (through interpreter): I am very proud, because I have a lot of family, and almost none of their children graduated from anything, not even high school. And I have two that graduated. And they have their careers. That has made me really proud and it has given me a lot of happiness.

SIMON THOMPSON: Lizett is scheduled to graduate next spring, and plans to study engineering at Colorado State. Preciado hopes an immigration pardon waiver she is eligible for in two years will allow the whole family to reunite in the U.S. But there are no guarantees.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Simon Thompson in Luna County, New Mexico.

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