Border schools use photographs to try
to stem illegal attendance
Dec. 30, 2007
Tucson, Arizona | Published: http://www.azstarnet.com/allheadlines/218454
CALEXICO, Calif. — Children are more apt to shield their faces than to
smile when Daniel Santillan points his camera.
Santillan's photos aren't for any picture album or yearbook — they help
prove that Mexicans are illegally attending public schools in this
California border community.
With too many students and too few classrooms, Calexico school officials
took the unusual step of hiring someone to photograph children and document
Santillan snaps pictures at the city's downtown border crossing and shares
the images with school principals, who use them as evidence to kick out
those living in Mexico.
Since he started the job two years ago, the number of students in the
Calexico school system has fallen by 5 percent, from 9,600 to 9,100, while
the city's population has grown by about 3 percent.
"The community asked us to do this, and we responded," said board President
Enrique Alvarado of the Calexico Unified School District. "Once it starts to
affect you personally, when your daughter gets bumped to another school,
then our residents start complaining."
Every day along the 1,952-mile border, children from Mexico cross into the
United States and attend public schools. No one keeps statistics on how many
children make the trek.
Citizenship isn't the issue for school officials; district residency is.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that illegal immigrants have a right to an
education, so schools don't ask about immigration status. But citizens and
illegal immigrants alike can't falsely claim residency in a school district.
Enforcement of residency requirements varies widely along the border. Some
schools do little to verify where children live beyond checking leases or
utility bills, while others dispatch officials to homes when suspicions are
Jesus Gandara, superintendent of the Sweetwater Union High School District,
with 44,000 students along San Diego's border with Mexico, said tracking
children at the border goes too far. "If you do that, you're playing
immigration agent," he said.
The El Paso Independent School District in Texas sends employees to homes
when suspicions are raised. But spokesman Luis Villalobos said photographing
students at the border would be a monumental, unproductive effort.
That's not the thinking in Calexico, a city 120 miles east of San Diego that
has seen its population double to 38,000 since 1990. A steel fence along the
border separates Calexico from Mexicali, an industrial city of about 750,000
that sends shoppers and farm laborers to California.
Calexico's rapid growth outstripped school resources, resulting in
overcrowding and prompting demands that Mexican interlopers be ousted.
Taxpayers complained that their children were being bused across town
because neighborhood schools were full, even after Calexico voters approved
a $30 million construction measure in 2004. Portable classrooms
The 62-year-old Santillan was hired in 2005. He is an unlikely enforcer. The
Vietnam War veteran and labor activist is an outspoken advocate of amnesty
for illegal immigrants and fills water jugs in the desert for Mexicans who
trek across the border illegally.
Some students taunt him. Friends have called him a hypocrite. Santillan
reminds them that he is only enforcing school residency rules, not
immigration laws. Still, he says, "you've got to have hell of a tough skin."
Find extensive coverage of immigration issues at azstarnet.com/border.