Natalie Guerrero Hernández wants to be a nurse when she grows up. Possibly.
“Medicine. Or also architecture or graphic design. Those are the things I like the most,” she said.
Natalie is a soft-spoken, hard-working 14-year-old who gets good grades and has big dreams for her future. She’s thinking about college and the importance of a good education.
And that’s why she’s worried. Natalie is a U.S. citizen, but she lives and goes to school in Mexico. She’s concerned that the education she is getting in Nogales, Sonora, won’t give her the same opportunities as her peers living minutes away across the border.
“I think here you can’t achieve anything, anything in life. I mean, professionally,” Natalie said in Spanish during an interview in her home in Nogales, Sonora. “That’s what weighs on me the most.”
Natalie is one of thousands of U.S. citizens attending schools in Mexico. During the 2013-2014 school year, 289,727 children from the U.S. enrolled in Mexican public schools according to the Secretary of Public Education (SEP) in Mexico. However, other estimates suggest that there are at least 600,000 school-aged U.S. citizens living in Mexico, many of whom are not accounted for because they are not in school.
Migration from the U.S. to Mexico has increased over the past 10 years. Between 2005-2014, more people migrated from the U.S. to Mexico than the other way around, according to the Pew Research Center. That means children and schools face many of the same challenges as U.S. schools in educating immigrant children.
Getting to the other side
In border communities like Nogales, many students with U.S. citizenship want to go to school in their country of birth. However, residency requirements make that challenging.
Students must prove that they live within the school district to attend Arizona public schools. Nogales Unified asks families to provide documents demonstrating residency each year because of concerns that some students might provide a false address.
“We have open enrollment, so you don’t have to live within the district to attend school here, but you have to be a resident of the United States,” said Judith Mendoza-Jimenez, student services director for Nogales Unified school district.
She emphasized that citizenship was not a requirement to register at an Arizona school. Proof of residency, however, was. Paying property taxes is what makes you eligible for public education, Jimenez said.
Despite living outside of the district, Natalie’s family wants send her to Nogales High School, just across border. In some cases, that might be possible. As a U.S. citizen, Natalie qualifies to go to school in the Nogales Unified school district. But only under certain conditions.
“Students who live in Mexico with a U.S. birth certificate can register to go to school here from kindergarten to high school. But they must pay tuition,” Jimenez said. “Students who aren’t U.S. nationals can pay tuition also, but only for one year.”
To register, a parent or legal guardian must show up at district offices, she added
In Natalie’s case, the first barrier to attending school in the U.S. is the registration process. Neither of her parents has a visa to cross into Nogales, Ariz.
Even if Juana Hernández Galaviz or her husband are able to obtain a visa and meet with Jimenez, Natalie’s family would still be unable to send her to Nogales High School.
Tuition for students living in Mexico—whether citizens of the U.S. or Mexico—costs $5,700 per year. Even with her entire family contributing, they could not afford the $570 monthly payments, Hernández Galaviz said.
Currently, only 13 of the 5,800 students registered in the Nogales school district live in Mexico paying the non-resident tuition. All of those are U.S. citizens, according to Jimenez.
Neither here nor there
Students who attended school in the United States before returning to Mexico often face additional barriers. Children born in the U.S. often do not have the right documents to be enrolled in Mexican schools.
These include birth certificates and school records with an Apostille, or official certification, from the Secretary of State where the child was living previously. The documents must also be translated into Spanish. Tracking down that paperwork, or even figuring out exactly what is needed, can be a long, expensive and confusing process, according to the Institute for Women in Migration.
Some students are out of school for a year or more waiting for the documents. These students are not counted among the nearly 300,000 U.S. citizens enrolled in Mexican schools. Some parents are concerned that their children have become “invisible” in this education system, according to the Institute for Women in Migration.
Culture and quality
Even when admitted to schools in Mexico, U.S. children sometimes struggle to adjust to the new system. Older children in particular face language or cultural barriers.
Priscilla Ochoa, a graduate student studying education in the U.S. and Mexico at the University of Sonora in Hermosillo, Mexico, went through that transition 14 years ago, when she was 8 . She and her older sister, both U.S. citizens, moved to Hermosillo halfway through the school year after their mother was deported.
At school, Ochoa struggled with Spanish. As a second grader, she had only spoken English in an academic setting. She also said there were fewer resources, like meals for low-income students, and larger class sizes.
There is a concern about the quality of education. Ochoa said she had some great teachers, but they were exceptions. “Over there, they teach you what you need to learn and that’s it. If you need something else, they don’t do it,” Ochoa said.
Natalie’s father, Juan Francisco Guerrero Zuniga, said schools in Mexico are less advanced and leave the students behind their peers in the United States. He and Hernández Galaviz are most worried, though, that Natalie won’t fit in when she is able to go to the U.S someday.
“In reality she’s from over there [in the United States],” he said. “But they’ll see her as a foreigner, as a Mexican. She won’t know English. She won’t have the same academic advantages as everyone else.”
Natalie’s motivations to attend high school in the U.S. are similar. She wants to understand the culture and the language. She wants to prepare for a career and maybe even a chance to go to an American university. But without a U.S. education, she worries that won’t be an option.
“I feel hopeless because I want to be there because that’s where I’m from,” she said.
The children left behind
Some schools that are trying to bridge this gap, catering to U.S. children on the Mexican side of the border. But they are limited, leaving the majority of U.S. citizens in Mexico unable to take advantage of these programs.
Natalie’s family said they believe more should be done for the U.S. citizens who are living on the Mexico side of the border. They said it is their right to get a U.S. education as citizens of the country.
“Now that she’s an adolescent, she begs me to go to school over there,” Hernández Galaviz said.
There are millions of children around the world who want a U.S. public education, said John Utne, the former student services director for Nogales Unified. They can’t provide for that for everyone.
“It’s just that these are, from where I sit right now, less than a mile away,” Utne said of the students in Nogales, Sonora. “That makes it tough. I can walk out the door of my office and see the fence. That makes a difference.”
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Kendal Blust is a reporter for the Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.