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Crossing The Border For A U.S. Education

Ebony Bailey |
February 18, 2013 | 1:03 p.m. PST

Staff Reporter

(Tijuana Border/Ebony Bailey, Neon Tommy)
(Tijuana Border/Ebony Bailey, Neon Tommy)
For nearly four years, Juan Rodriguez lived in two worlds. He lived with his family in Tijuana, and he went to high school across the border, in the United States.

Every day, he woke up at 4 a.m., eating a plate of eggs for breakfast, to embark on a three hour journey to get to school by public transportation. He played football in high school and graduated with honors, and today he’s a sophomore at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

But he didn’t go without obstacles. He is a U.S. citizen, but had to use his aunt’s address to attend school, since the school district does not legally permit students living across the border to attend unless they pay tuition.  For this reason, Rodriguez requested that his name be changed for this story.

Though the exact number is unknown, Rodriguez is not alone in his pursuit of a U.S. education. Students living in Mexico attend schools dispersed throughout the San Diego area. Some are Mexican citizens and some are American, he said. Rodriguez thinks about 100 students at his high school were living in Mexico.

After living in both the United State and Mexico, a U.S. education was the obvious choice for him.

“Everything in the United States is better,” said Rodriguez.

“I didn’t want to be stuck in Mexico. I wanted to move forward,” he said. “I knew I could only reach my full potential by going to school in the U.S, something I couldn’t do in Mexico.”

The lack of resources is greater in Mexican public schools than in schools in the U.S., according to Paul Ganster, a San Diego State professor who focuses on trans-border research. Classes tend to be larger and high school students are required to buy their own textbooks. Teachers will often teach in different schools, which affects teaching quality, Ganster said.

“As bad as things as they are in San Diego, they are probably not as good in Tijuana in terms of public education,” Ganster said. “I think that's probably the perception that parents in Mexico share.”

Rodriguez was born in National City, California, though his parents still lived in Mexico when he was born. They crossed the border so that his mother could give birth to him in the United States.

“After I was born I went back to Mexico within hours,” he said.

But Rodriquez was able to attend U.S. schools most of his life, only attending a Mexican school until second grade.

Rodriguez and his family lived in San Diego for seven years before moving back to Tijuana. His father worked as an accountant in Tijuana, crossing the border from San Diego every day. But as U.S. bills caught up with a Mexican salary, the family decided it was time to move back to Mexico after his freshman year of high school.

“It was incredibly cheaper,” he said.

His father owned an empty lot in Tijuana and began construction on a home in that lot. Today, the family’s house in Tijuana has five rooms, which is more than three times larger than the apartment they rented in San Diego. That apartment was the size of a classroom.

For Rodriguez and his parents, a U.S. education did not only mean more future job opportunities, it also meant becoming fluent in English.

“If you know English, it’s like you own a key to anything you possibly want, because all the money is in the United States,” Rodriguez said.

His father worked at an international accounting firm in Tijuana for several years, but was often hindered by a language barrier when he worked with colleagues from other countries. They all knew English, and he didn’t.

“He knew all the stuff he needed to know, but he couldn’t communicate,” Rodriguez said.

His father began to learn English at the age of 33 to get by in the workplace. But at that age, he could never fully grasp the language -- he understood more than he spoke and often translated words back and forth from Spanish to English.

Because of this roadblock in his career, Rodriguez’s father and his mother encouraged him to learn English as a young child.

“My dad would always say, ‘if you want to be successful, you have to learn English,’” Rodriguez recounted.

On a normal school day, the 5 foot 9 inches teenager boarded a bus or drove with his mother from his house in Tijuana to the border, where he arrived at around 5:45 a.m. He waited in a line of hundreds of people for an hour, sometimes two, to cross the border to the United States.

“Waiting in line at the border was honestly the longest part of the commute,” he said. “Once you got past that, it was all good.”

If the line at the border was too long, Rodriguez would be one to two hours late to school.

To get to school on time, he had to be on the red trolley at the border at 6:29 a.m. He rode the crowded trolley for two miles and stopped near the bus station. He then took the bus at 6:51 a.m., which dropped him off on a hill about half-a-mile away from school. He walked down the hill to get to campus by 7:30 a.m. when class started.

He then repeated this after school when returning home to Tijuana. Because he played after-school sports, he normally did not get home until after 7 p.m. After showering, eating dinner and bearing with the the rigors of Advanced Placement classes, he often did not go to bed until midnight, getting about four hours of sleep every night.

“My weekends were glorious,” he said. “I would wake up at 1 in the afternoon.”

For fear of getting dropped, Rodriguez kept a low profile while going to school, only disclosing his living situation to his close friends.

“Not everyone knew, but sometimes after hanging out with me a few times, they figured it out,” he said. “Nobody ever went to my ‘house.’”

At San Ysidro High School, a school located about three miles north of the border, assistant principals and student counselors make home visits if a student has low attendance. From time to time, they will find that the student does not live at the address that he or she gives the school, said principal Hector Espinoza.

Students must provide proof of residency through an address and a utility bill or bank statement. If a student fails to provide this information, or provides false information, then he or she is dropped.

"I hate to do it, but nevertheless it's the law and we have a legal responsibility," Espinoza said. "Its just one of those unfortunate situations where the ones who suffer are the kids.”

At Rodriguez’s school, most of the news about someone’s living status was spread by word of mouth. Rodriguez was not particularly close to any of the other students living in Mexico, but they shared an honors system in which they were discreet about each other’s residency. If a student knew that the district suspected another student of living outside district boundaries, he or she would often tell that student.

“We pretty much helped each other out,” said Rodriguez.

During his junior year, Rodriguez received an anonymous notice that the school district may have caught on to his living situation.

“I had to live with my aunt for a month,” he said. “I had to live on the floor, but whatever. It was worth it.”

Cynthia Alvarez, administrative assistant at the Sweetwater Union High School District in San Diego County, says that about three percent of the district's student population use false residency documents while living in Mexico. However, that number could be much higher.

“We have no control of verifying that they're giving us false information,” Alvarez said.  “As long as their providing the proof, there's no way that we can question them.”

Students who do not live in the United States pay tuition of $758 a month, Alvarez said. The only way students are permitted to attend a public school for free is they can prove to the district that they lost their home in the U.S. and were forced to move to Mexico.

What this issue ultimately comes down to is fairness, says David North, a research fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies. He argues that students should be going to schools in their own school districts, whether they live across the street or across the border.

"People living in Mexico should be going to school in Mexico," he said. “You really need to have borders, between school districts, between nations, otherwise people are going to start to take advantage of the system.”

The tax burden falls on those who are paying to educate someone who lives on the wrong side of the border, North said.

But for Rodriguez, making the trek across the border every day was necessary for him accomplish his goals. It was a lifelong dream of his to attend a top-tier university in the United States, and he always knew that his American citizenship would allow him to do that with minimal financial barriers.

Now that he is at USC, he has no regrets.

“I mean, it was hard, but it never really defeated me,” he said. “It was never too much in comparison to what I gained.



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