Kids crossing border for school scrutinized
Republic Nogales Bureau
Mar. 7, 2004
Horne seeks Ajo inquiry; some districts crack down

Susan Carroll

12:00 AM


LUKEVILLE - Just before dawn, a steady line of cars passes through this
remote outpost on the U.S.-Mexico border, pausing at a bus stop to drop off
children bundled in heavy coats to protect against the chilling rain.

It is 6:20 a.m. in Lukeville, a tiny town on the north side of the border.
The town itself is little more than a strip mall with a gas station, an RV
park and a general store, all clustered within sight of the international
line.

In a community this small, there are few secrets. Nearly everyone knows the
kids are coming across from Sonoyta, Mexico, to go to school in the United
States. Lukeville's official population is 65, but according to Ajo Unified
School District records, 97 students board the buses here.

"The school district is looking the other way out of convenience because
they get (an allotment) from the state," said Grant Peterson, 54, a resident
of Ajo, a town some 40 miles north where the children are bused to school.
"I hate to see kids deprived of an education, but I also hate that it's on
taxpayers' backs. Their parents aren't paying property taxes, goddarnit."



Related
Read more about border and immigration issues

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne said Friday that he
plans to ask Attorney General Terry Goddard to investigate how students who
cross the border are allowed to attend school in Ajo. The estimated annual
cost to the state, at roughly $4,500 to $5,000 per child, is about $500,000,
including transportation.

"These students should be educated, but they should be educated in Mexican
schools because they live in Mexico," Horne said.

Ajo Unified School District Superintendent Robert Dooley did not dispute
that the students are costing Arizona taxpayers. But, he said, "I could not
exclude those kids even if I wanted to. My moral and legal obligation is to
educate every child that comes to my door and meets the residency
requirement."


Common situation


Educators said the problem affects all school districts along the
U.S.-Mexico border.

Estimating the number of students who cross the Arizona-Sonora line each day
for school is impossible, officials say, because some parents provide
fraudulent documents to establish residency or find a relative on the U.S.
side to assume legal guardianship of a child.

So far this year, investigations have turned up roughly 100 students in Yuma
and Nogales classrooms who were falsely claiming residency.

"There is no real way to know for certain how widespread the problem is,"
said Kelt Cooper, superintendent of the Nogales Unified School District.

"I'm sure we have kids who cross the line every day," Cooper said. "On the
border, you're always going to have that."

When it comes to checking students' residency, school district officials are
"kind of between a rock and a hard place," said Scott Little, chief deputy
superintendent of Pima County schools.

Children are required to prove that they reside within school district
boundaries to attend schools there, but since a Supreme Court decision in
1982, officials have been prohibited from asking their citizenship.

The county is responsible for providing transportation from Lukeville, which
has no school, to Ajo. So the duty of checking students' documents falls to
Little, who said he requires documentation, such as a legal guardian's voter
registration or rental receipts, before students are allowed to board the
bus.

"Trust me, those people don't like me because I am out there . . . enforcing
the requirements," he said. "Ultimately, we aren't empowered to do more than
we're doing."

The students are not crossing the border illegally, Little stressed. At the
very least, each student has some sort of legal documentation, such as a
visa, that allows him or her to pass through the U.S. port of entry each
morning.

U.S. immigration officials at the Lukeville port said most of the students
were born in the United States and have citizenship, even though their
parents are from Mexico.

Horne said new legislation may be necessary to keep students from Mexico off
Arizona school rosters. He plans to review the results of any investigation
by the attorney general before making any decisions.

"If they're using guardianships that are not real, there could be a scam
going on," Horne said.


'A better career'


Anna Esparza, a shy seventh-grader who wears wire-rim glasses, was among
about two-dozen upper-grade students dropped off Tuesday at the port of
entry by a school bus. The students made their way south of the border,
where parents and friends waited to pick them up and then head south into
Sonoyta, Mexico.

As Anna waited for her father, the 13-year-old Phoenix native said that
although she lives with her family in Sonoyta, her parents wanted her to
attend school in the United States "because I was born over there and they
want me to have a better career."

Her name was on a list of honor roll students printed in the local paper.
She hopes to become a dolphin trainer or maybe a teacher.

Dooley, the Ajo superintendent, said three of the five top students last
year rode the border bus. They are all university-bound, he added.

"They are going to be international students," he said. "They are going to
be contributing no matter where they live."

Even critics, like Peterson, who object to paying for the education of
children who live in Mexico, had only praise for the children who cross.

"I like this community and I like these kids," he said. "We have really
wonderful kids coming over. But I'm worried we're going to end up just like
California, paying out and paying out and paying out."


Districts crack down


Some districts are taking extra steps to ensure that students live within
district boundaries.

Yuma Union High School District board members invested in a full-time
attendance monitor, at a cost of about $33,000, including benefits, to stand
at the San Luis border each morning, jotting down the names of students who
cross. So far this school year, 40 to 50 students who claimed to live in the
United States have been turned away.

Gerrick Monroe, assistant superintendent for the district, said School Board
officials offer Mexican students the opportunity to pay tuition. For $5,300
a year, roughly the cost to the local, state and federal governments,
students from San Luis are welcome to attend school, Monroe said.

This year, the families of nine students decided to pay the tuition, he
said. But "no one this year that we have caught has come back and said, 'We
want to stay at your high school. Here's the money.' "

In a crackdown during the 1999-2000 school year, Nogales school officials
found about 100 children who lived in Mexico on attendance rolls.

Fraud was rampant, Cooper said. About 30 students all claimed to live in the
same house. Others had submitted rental receipts for lots that were
undeveloped.

Now, the school district checks enrollment rosters against a database to see
if students are providing fraudulent information about their home addresses.

So far this year, the Nogales Unified School District has turned away about
50 students after discovering they lived south of the border.

"I think anyone who facilitates picking up kids (from Mexico) knowingly
should be prosecuted for defrauding taxpayers," Cooper said. "At the local
level, at the state level, everyone in one way or another subsidizes this
illegal activity."

Reach the reporter at susan.carroll@arizonarepublic.com or 1-(520)-281-5752.
 

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