Welcoming Transfronterizo Students in New Mexico

In the United States, a right to schooling is legally guaranteed for all children regardless of immigration status. For many immigrant students, however, the right to schooling is far from certain. In addition to many other issues, students with U.S. citizenship may have family members with a different citizenship status. Mixed status families face problems such as deportation, often making sustained attendance in schools difficult. One response to these issues can be found in Deming public schools in southern New Mexico. For decades, Deming schools have welcomed students from nearby Palomas, Mexico. These transfronterizo (transborder or border crossing) students, hold U.S. citizenship but come from mixed status families. Each day, hundreds of students travel across the border to attend schools in Deming.bordercrossing

Hoping to learn more about Deming’s powerful work, we recently spoke to friend of IEN and Educational Change SIG Chair, Professor Kristin Kew. Kew is in the first stages of a research project with Deming superintendent Dr. Arsenio Romero about these schools and the experiences of transfronterizo students and their families. Kew notes that since coming to the New Mexico State University, she has been fascinated with the role of the border in education. Of course, as the project begins, the current political climate gives the work entirely new meanings.

2 Places and Everyday Crossings

Kew suggests that Palomas and Deming could be one city. The two places co-exist. Their economies and people are entangled, but they are separated by a border. 20 years ago, this border was simply a chain link fence with a small hut. Border patrol knew all the students crossing for school. In general, though it was still a journey and involved process, crossing the border at this time was relatively informal. Today, a 2-million-dollar border wall welcomes the students as they cross. Kew points out how these checkpoints and walls create a strangeness to the ongoing calls for building a border wall. She notes that for these students, a wall is already an everyday reality.

Each morning, the journey for nearly 1000 students from 4 years old through high school seniors begins in Palomas. Palmoas is a small town in the state of Chihuahua roughly 30 miles from the U.S-Mexico border. In the 1940s and 1950s, when Deming began welcoming students crossing the border, Palomas did not have its own high school. The town has since opened and currently operates several schools that charge fees, but many families in Palomas still prefer to send children to Deming schools.

With the vast majority of transfronterizo students coming from mixed status families, most parents must say goodbye to their children at the border. After navigating through border security, Deming schools take over. Kew points out that “it is important to note the key role that crossing guards, bus drivers, and others play in helping students safely move from home to school and back each day.” After hours of greetings and farewells and moving from one country to another, students finally arrive for the start of the school day.

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Deming’s Approach

Though Deming schools are not alone in welcoming transborder students, with transfronterizo students elsewhere in Mexico attending schools in places such as nearby El Paso or California, Deming is unique in its location. Where many of these other schools are found in larger cities, Luna County, of which Deming is the county seat, is largely rural. Additionally, Deming has one of the highest poverty rates in New Mexico. Deming’s unique positioning creates distinct dynamics and issues as it welcomes students across the border. As parents who do not have documentation are not allowed to cross the border with their children, the schools must resort to alternative methods of communication. Principals have reached out to parents through Skype to discuss school matters. Deming has also stationed buses directly on the U.S. side of the border to pick up and drop off students. Yet, Deming does not have the same resources as other districts providing similar services. Kew says that these issues mixed with parents who continue to send their children to school, educators who find ways to support families, and children who make the journey to attend school every day reveal a key them in the early research. “Resilience within this community is a constant theme here,” she says.

Deming schools also show a unique situation in serving their students. Though the students are citizens, they live outside the district. The decision to welcome students from outside the district dates back to 1948. For the first few decades, Deming schools welcomed students regardless of documentation status. Recently, however, the district policy has shifted so that only citizens can come from outside the district to attend the schools. But, Romero has firmly committed to continuing the practice of welcoming students from across the border. Likewise, many of the teachers are former Deming students themselves. With the majority of students being emergent bilinguals, teachers undertake both language learning and culturally affirmative teaching.

New Directions in Deming

The current political climate has added further adversity for the students and staff in Deming. For instance, when the Trump administration threatened to close to border last spring, Romero and his staff had to consider contingencies. They faced the possibility of students being stuck on one side of the border or the other. Where students in nearby El Paso could attend school virtually, Deming does not have the infrastructure to offer regular distance learning. They did offer 3 contingencies for sheltering or helping students return home, but issues such as these are becoming routine concerns for Deming schools.

Meanwhile, the research project is still in its early stages. Kew plans to move the research toward a critical ethnography. Beyond highlighting the work of the schools, this approach would allow for tracking student and family experiences crossing the border each day. The project hopes to explore the difficulty, uncertain, and further understand the resiliency involved in these educational journeys. Generally speaking, the work provides a powerful counter-story to current narratives about education, immigration, and border crossing.

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