Border Tradition on the Line

Community Rallies Behind Mexican Students

By Melissa Heinz Bennett and David Bennett

Students of Columbus Elementary School in New Mexico cross the international boundary into their home city of Palomas, Mexico, after a day of class.

COLUMBUS, New Mexico — Sunlight is glowing over the tops of the Potrillo Mountains on a cold winter morning as four empty school buses roll up the road, grinding from one gear down to another and finally jolting to a halt at the immigration checkpoint.

Nearly 400 school children are milling around at the bus stop, having just walked across the border from Las Palomas, Mexico into Columbus, N.M. Several armed agents of the United States government greet the students, as they do each day. Meanwhile, a steady stream of cars passes through the border checkpoint, traveling in both directions for commerce, jobs, and general morning errands.

The students, who live in Mexico but attend school in the United States, are carrying on a 45-year tradition of shared schooling that has paid no attention to the international border. To the majority of residents of these communities on both sides of the border, the border has been and always will be nothing more than a stop sign with guards.

As they approach the check point, each student must declare his or her citizenship. The overwhelming majority of them are U.S. citizens because they were born in the area’s only hospital, on the U.S. side of the border. The children board the buses and the gears grind once again as the buses move out, the exhaust forming dark plumes in the crisp dawn air. The first stop is just up the road at the Columbus Elementary School. The youngest children are dropped off. The rest of the children settle in for the 38-mile, 50-minute trip north to the middle, junior, and high schools in Deming.

The communities on both sides of the border have shared this unique custom of shared schooling since the early 1950s. But it was jeopardized last fall when nearly two dozen students from Mexico were, for the first time, briefly barred from attending school in the Deming School District, which encompasses both Columbus and Deming. Those who supported the move said 22 of the students from Mexico had to be kicked out — what school administrators preferred to call “disenrolled” — because of overcrowding. Opponents of the “disenrollments” believe it was a direct attack on the tradition of shared schooling.

“It was a disgraceful, stupid thing,” said Phoebe Watson, a former principal of Columbus Elementary who 45 years ago began the tradition of accepting students from across the border to attend her school.

In a reflection of the tight-knit relationship among many communities along both sides of the border, controversy exploded when the media reported the “disenrollments.” The school board was flooded with calls of complaint and forced to reinstate the children.

Background of the Dispute

The stage was set for the disenrollments when the Deming School Board unanimously adopted an enrollment policy in June 1996 that banned the new enrollment of “out of district” children, referring somewhat euphemistically to the children who come from Las Palomas, Mexico. For children enrolled before the 1995-96 school year, enrollment would be offered only on a “space available” basis.

The new policy was in part the result of increasing polarization in the U.S. towns of Deming and Columbus over the issue of providing education to children who live in Mexico. Many newcomers to the region, primarily retirees from faraway states such as Wisconsin and New York, have openly challenged the school district’s previously unquestioned policy of open enrollment. Furthermore, a few longtime Anglo residents still carry a grudge from a 1916 attack on the village of Columbus, allegedly led by Mexican revolutionary Francisco (Pancho) Villa. Eighteen Columbus residents were killed in the surprise raid, now legendary as the last invasion of U.S. soil by a foreign army.

Opponents of “disenrollment” argue that the Mexican children are conveniently being used as pawns in a larger problem that the district’s enrollment is growing and taxpayers, especially retirees, are reluctant to put the resources necessary into the public school system. They note that of the 5,400 students in the district, only 380, or 7%, come from Las Palomas, Mexico.

The arrangement of shared schooling reflects a historic relationship between New Mexico and Mexico which sets it apart from other U.S. border states.

Many of the oldest New Mexican families trace their bloodlines, cultural identity, and ownership of land to the Spanish conquistadors and settlers who first came to the region in 1539. What is now New Mexico, for instance, was colonized by the Europeans nearly a quarter century before the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock. In the 1600s, a vital trade link between Mexico City and Santa Fe was established; for hundreds of years, residents of Mexico thought of the Rio Bravo (as the Rio Grande is known in Mexico) not as a boundary or a border, but a simple river crossing. The land that is now New Mexico was made a Mexican province in 1821 and was seized by the United States during the War with Mexico in 1848. New Mexico did not become a state until 1912. The state constitution explicitly guaranteed educational equality to all Spanish-speaking students.

As Phoebe Watson commented, “I grew up in the boot-heel of New Mexico” using a common term to refer to the southwest corner of the state which borders Mexico. “All my playmates were Mexican children. We grew up together, respected each other.” Watson notes that the cross-border relationship of southern, rural New Mexico stands in contrast to the contentious border politics in California, where the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 was passed by a majority of voting state residents.

But even in New Mexico, times are changing. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service has almost completed erecting a fence west of El Paso that will stretch 1.3 miles between Sunland Park, New Mexico, and its neighboring community of Anapra, an impoverished suburb of Ciudad Juarez. The 10-foot-high chain link fence is not unlike the one built along the border between San Diego and Tijuana.

What adds to the possible confusion and certain irony of the story surrounding the Palomas children’s attendance at Deming schools is that unlike tensions in California the controversy does not revolve around whether the children are legal or illegal immigrants.

The state of New Mexico has not questioned the importance of the U.S. Supreme Court decision that public schools must educate all children regardless of their legal immigration status. Many Columbus residents support both the letter and the spirit of the Supreme Court finding that denying undocumented children an education “imposes a lifetime hardship on a discrete class of children not accountable for their disabling status,” and that denying an education to children in the community tears at that community’s social fabric.

Jack Long, a community activist in Columbus, commented on the irony in that “you can be a non-citizen, but a resident of Columbus and the (school) district can’t question your right to attend our school. But you can be a citizen, and non-resident in terms of home address and be denied access.”

Expanding Populations

The populations of Deming and Columbus/Las Palomas have been expanding in the past decade, but on opposite ends of the demographic spectrum. To the north in Deming, increasing numbers of Anglo retirees from northern states have arrived to take advantage of a lower cost of living, spectacular geography, and a mild, dry climate where the sun shines 350 days a year. The populations of Columbus and Las Palomas, on the other hand, have been growing with young families who have babies, toddlers, and, ultimately, school-age children. The Deming population and voting block increasingly reflects those who historically have shown less interest in paying for an expanded public school system.

In this way, the problem in the Deming district is typical. There is an expanding population of students and a reluctance among taxpayers to put more money into the schools. But the problem is also unique in that the parents of the approximately 380 children from Las Palomas cannot take an active part in the political process that determines the future of their children’s education.

Deming schools have averaged 4.7% growth over the past seven school years. The growth is districtwide and not due to higher numbers of children from Las Palomas. In fact, the number of students from Las Palomas has actually decreased in the past three years, from a high of 600 to the current 380. The Deming Middle School, built in 1942, has been coping with overcrowding for several years. A series of bond issues to build new classrooms divided the community, and each bond proposition failed.

Because some of the children receiving an education in the district come from across the border, this intensifies the controversy and triggers a particularly mean-spirited spin by supporters of “disenrollment,” according to Watson.

“It’s a combination of selfishness and racism,” she said. “It’s selfishness because many of these new people, the retirees, don’t want to pay $2.50 a year more in property taxes to build a new classroom. And many people just don’t want the Mexican people over here. They don’t like people with skin color other than white.”

Carmen Carreon Sanchez, a restaurant owner from Las Palomas whose four children attend the public schools across the border in Columbus and Deming, believes the school district’s “disenrollment” was based on prejudice.

“As far as I’m concerned all they were saying is, `Another Mexican bites the dust,'” she said. “They think that Mexicans are only good for picking their chiles and cleaning their houses, not for receiving an education. It’s always been that way and always will.”

Columbus Mayor Carlos Ogden, who works as a lawyer in private practice, also differs with the Deming school district’s explanation for the “disenrollments.”

“What [the district] is suffering from is under-building, not over-crowding,” he said. “These kids belong to our community to all of us. They have every right to grow up and spend their lives here, every right to be educated and become productive members of our community.”

Ogden argues that most of the retirees who come to the area “are looking for a cheap Palm Springs and they don’t want to share their money with the community.”

Students vs. Taxpayers

The Deming School District, based on the board’s “disenrollment” policy adopted in June 1996, barred 22 Mexican students from the Deming Middle School last September, arguing there was not enough space. The students were chosen based on a complicated point system determined by grades, attendance, and other factors.

On a Friday morning shortly after school started, one by one the students all from Las Palomas were called to the principal’s office. Most were close to tears as they entered and collapsed in sobs as the news was delivered: their names appeared on the list of “disenrolled” and they would not be welcomed back to the school.

Principal Mary Helen Chavez attempted to explain, often tenderly drawing the student close in her arms, that the decision had nothing to do with them. The schools were just too crowded and some children had to be cut from the rolls.

A powerful videotape of the “disenrollment” was broadcast across New Mexico’s television stations. Word spread quickly across the state that the Deming school board had booted out children from Las Palomas. Residents in Columbus felt particularly betrayed. Watson led the effort to flood the school board members’ homes and offices with calls of outrage. Three days later, the school board backed down and re-enrolled the students.

“The news of the school board’s original decision to disenroll those students galvanized all of southern New Mexico behind our children,” Watson recalled. “The television footage was potent and that’s what caused the board to rescind its decision.”

That a school district is forced to make difficult fiscal decisions regarding the acceptance of children who live outside the district is nothing unusual. Nor is it unique that a demographic shift to an increasingly older, retired population might signal doom for school mill levies and other taxation to support the public schools. What makes the Deming School District’s decision a particular tragedy is the fact that the school district line, the U.S. border, is drawn across an otherwise cohesive community, where family, social, religious, and economic ties span both sides of the border. Aunts and uncles and cousins and brothers and sisters live in what they consider a single, cohesive community, albeit one that spans borders.

In Las Palomas, school facilities are limited. The elementary school has been operating on two shifts because of overcrowding. A secondary school recently opened but students must pay for tuition, books, and all supplies which puts the school out of the reach of most of the town’s residents.

While the disenrolled students were readmitted, the new district policy still stands: no new “out-of-district” enrollees and those who remain are on a “space available” basis. Janet Barney, principal of Columbus Elementary School, said she was forced, for the first time in her 10 years with the school, to turn down some of the Mexican parents last fall who were coming to enroll their children. “We just don’t have enough room,” she said. She doesn’t anticipate that the school district will build additional space.

Roberto Gutierrez, who as a child crossed from Las Palomas to attend school in Columbus and Deming, currently works at the Deming Junior High School in the bilingual education program. He is not particularly optimistic about the controversy’s final outcome. “We’ve been telling the [Las Palomas] kids, if they’re missing school, or not doing especially well with their grades, `You better watch this, because they’re disenrolling now,'” he said. “We don’t tell them this to scare them into better behavior, we tell them to be realistic, to try to help them understand and prepare them for what might happen.”

Given the divided politics in the region, it’s unclear what the future holds for the tradition of shared schooling in this border community. But former Columbus Elementary Principal Watson is betting on those who have the interests of children at heart.

“The parents of these Mexican children are very astute and very aware of these new rules and they prepare for them and avoid them,” Watson said. “Between now and the beginning of the next school year, they may move all their kids over here to live with relatives, or whatever it takes. They will find a way to get their kids the best education they can. It’s up to us to find a way.”

Melissa Heinz Bennett works in public health in Las Cruces, N.M. Her husband, David, is a freelance journalist.