CALEXICO, Calif.—California school districts will soon begin implementing a controversial measure meant to prevent nonresidents from attending school in the United States, by deploying district staff to the border to monitor the residency documents of students entering the country.
The Unified School District of Calexico—just across the border from the city of Mexicali—hired two employees whose job will be to strengthen the implementation of the school district residency requirements for the current academic year.
The Mountain Empire School District, just east of San Diego, will also be hiring staff exclusively for this purpose.
The practice of checking student documents to verify where they live, however, has created divisions within the state educational system. Some school districts bordering Mexico have said they will not be allocating additional resources for this type of activity.
“Our mission is to educate, not to become immigration agents,” says Lillian Leopold, spokesperson for the Sweetwater Unified School District, the largest district in California, with more than 43,000 enrolled students.
Leopold cited a similar controversy that erupted recently in Arizona, where the state’s Department of Education demanded that the Ajo Unified School District return $1.2 million in funds officials claimed was invested in more than 100 students who allegedly crossed the border to obtain an education.
“There was a parent who complained that we were educating Mexican children,” Leopold says. “But our current rules are very strict and we are not going to deviate from those rules.”
In the 24 schools that make up the Sweetwater district, parents are required to provide more than one form of identification, at least twice a year.
“This crisis has prompted families to prove they share an address when two or more families are living together, but the district investigates any application that looks suspicious,” Leopold says.
The San Diego Unified School District is also refusing to establish special units to monitor residency, confimed spokesperson Jack Brandais.
According to the anti-immigrant organization Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), the United States invests more than $12 million a year ito educate students who come from Mexico, and almost half of that money is spent in California.
But California’s Department of Education (CDE) cannot confirm these figures.
The phenomenon of students crossing the border to go to school in California is something that “definitely happens all over,” according to Keri Ashley, head of the CDE’s Statistics Department. “We have a situation similar to Nevada, but the Department of Education doesn’t require districts to devote personnel to monitoring students’ residency status.”
Federal law prohibits school districts from asking for proof of immigration status, though state law requires school administrators to ask students for proof that they live in the district.
But for schools in Calexico, the unusual practice of hiring someone to take pictures of children crossing the border, or of the documents they provide as proof of residence, is nothing new.
The measure was implemented in 2005 at the request of parents themselves.
That same year, the district expelled 300 students and lost $2.8 million, since state funding is based on the number of students in classrooms.
In the ’90s, the Mountain Empire School District paid a $300,000 fine to the Department of Education, after a video recorded images of school buses transporting students from Mexico.
Nicolás Wong, a resident of the Mexican border and the father of a ninth-grader at a Calexico school, told La Opinión that he used a cousin’s proof of residence to enroll his son because he wanted him to learn English.
“My wife and I work here [in Calexico], but we don’t make much money, and in Mexico at least we have our own home. I don’t think it’s committing a sin,” Wong said. “This is my son’s country, and they take money from me for his education. I know that schools don’t have enough money and California is in crisis, but it’s not the kids’ fault.”