A 14-year-old girl and her aunt are suing the Bisbee Unified School District for temporarily denying the seventh-grader a free education because her mother lives in Mexico.

Neeila Borquez and her aunt and legal guardian, Isabel Borquez, last week filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Tucson that also names district Superintendent Paul McDonald.

The suit states the girl missed school for about a month after she was pulled out of class in September and informed she no longer could attend Lowell Junior High School in Bisbee without paying about $6,500 in annual tuition. The girl, who was born in Bisbee, lived with her aunt and had attended district schools since August 2003.
Susan Kolb, a Southern Arizona Legal Aid attorney representing the Borquezes, said the girl moved in with her aunt because her mother, a recent widow, was struggling to support Neeila Borquez and her three younger siblings.
The girl was allowed to return to school in late October, after her aunt sought an amendment of her legal guardianship order to fulfill district residency requirements.
Tom Berning, Legal Aid's executive director, said the girl was denied the right to an education without due process. "She had no opportunity to contest her exclusion," he noted.
Her school absence hurt her grades and left her upset, added Berning, who is seeking an unspecified amount for the girl and her aunt.
In excluding the student from school, Berning said, district leaders had overreacted, probably because of recent pressure on border schools to crack down on children suspected of living in Mexico and attending Arizona schools. Although his young client often visited her mother in Naco, Sonora, she is a U.S. citizen who lives within district boundaries, he said.
Superintendent McDonald said the district was just following state law.
"We had a meeting with the family and explained why we had to charge tuition," he said. "This is a good student; we were working with the family."
Being a citizen does not guarantee admission to district schools, he said. "We don't look at citizenship, we only look at where your guardian lives."
McDonald said the girl came to the attention of school officials when, in the midst of revamping district enrollment requirements, they noticed that her mother lived in Mexico and that she had no legal guardian in this country. Still, he said, the girl was allowed to start the 2005-2006 school year.
A Cochise County Superior Court judge on Aug. 23 before the girl was ordered out of school appointed Isabel Borquez as her niece's legal guardian, according to the suit.
But McDonald said the district sent the girl home Sept. 15 because the guardianship documents stated the aunt had taken in her niece so the girl could obtain an education in the county. For that reason, the law required that she pay tuition.
The aunt later was granted an amended guardianship order that included no reference to education, which satisfied the district and allowed the girl to go back to school.
Earlier this year, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne raised questions over students who live in Mexico and attend Ajo schools at the expense of Arizona taxpayers. While federal law mandates a public education for all students regardless of legal status, school districts require evidence they live within district boundaries.
But some border school officials say the students include those who pay tuition to attend the schools, as well as others who have legitimate reasons for going back and forth across the border.
Complaints of discrimination against Hispanic border-crossers who live with a legal guardian within the Naco Elementary School District also have prompted an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education's Denver Office for Civil Rights.
"She had no opportunity to contest her exclusion."
Tom Berning
Legal Aid's executive director
● Contact reporter Lourdes Medrano at 573-4347 or