Deported Students Find Challenges At School In Tijuana

Apr 3, 2017
Originally published on April 4, 2017 3:13 pm

As President Trump moves to fulfill his campaign promise to deport millions of immigrants who are in the country illegally, they'll most likely include Mexicans whose children were born in the U.S.. Over half a million of these kids are already in Mexico.

Researchers call them "los invisibles", the invisible ones, because they often end up in an educational limbo of sorts. Most don't read or write in Spanish, so they're held back. Many get discouraged and stop going to school. In some cases schools even refuse to enroll them.

In the border city of Tijuana, however, there's a model program designed to help these children.

At 20 de Noviembre Elementary, for example, roughly one-tenth of the school's 700 students were born in the U.S. Administrators and teachers here have embraced kids like Anthony David Martinez, a skinny 9-year-old who recently arrived from Barstow, Calif. That's where he was born.

Anthony could have stayed in California because he's a U.S. citizen, but his parents are not. They were forced to return to Mexico and didn't want to split up the family.

"I was like, 'Oh no, I'm going to have to make new friends, new school, new everything,' " says Anthony. "But now I'm happy here."

Anthony's fourth-grade teacher says his Spanish is "a work in progress," but he has learned how to read and write in Spanish fairly quickly. It wasn't easy switching from English to Spanish in class or when doing his homework, says Anthony. He's still not used to saying the name of his school in English — 20 November. "It's kind of weird," he chuckles.

At 20 de Noviembre, children like Anthony are not segregated or put in some corner of the school. They're paired with native Spanish-speakers and they get lots of one-on-one tutoring to build their vocabulary and grammar in Spanish. To keep them from feeling frustrated or isolated, they're allowed to mingle with other English-speaking kids during the day so it's not uncommon to hear English at recess or lunch. There's no stigma to speaking English because it's a highly prized skill in Mexican schools.

Researchers say this is the model for how schools should treat and teach the half million U.S.-born students who've enrolled throughout Mexico. It has become more urgent because their numbers are growing, says Amparo Lopez, a state coordinator with Baja California's Department of Education.

This school year alone, she says, more than 12,000 students from all parts of the U.S. enrolled in schools across the state. That's on top of the 58,000 who were already here. Only the border state of Chihuahua has received more.

Lopez says the surge began in 2006 with a sharp increase in deportations, followed by even bigger increases during the Obama administration. And it wasn't just because people were being deported. Many Mexican immigrants working illegally in the U.S. returned on their own because they lost their job during the recession.

Today, many of these families are struggling in Mexico, and their kids are feeling the stress in school. In Tijuana, school officials have been quick to identify those who need the most help. Recent arrivals are invited to meet with tutors and counselors at the school district's offices at least once a week.

It has been especially helpful for kids like 13-year-old Julian Sanchez. He's a U.S. citizen born in Los Angeles. His mom and dad had crossed into the U.S. illegally before he was born. They were recently deported and Julian had no choice but to come to Tijuana with them. He does not speak Spanish.

"I don't know, like, how to read it or write it," says Julian. His mother, Araceli Sanchez, says she tries to help him with his schoolwork in Spanish, but he's still struggling to learn the language.

"At least here," she says, "with the help of tutors he's learning more words and proper grammar."

But counselors say these kids need a lot more than that. Their self-esteem is really low when they arrive. Most are deeply sad about leaving their homes in the U.S. and schools don't always know how to help them.

Which brings us back to 9-year-old Anthony and 20 de Noviembre Elementary in Tijuana. Anthony is thriving because he gets so much academic and emotional support. It's the reason his Spanish has improved so quickly.

But there's something else about Anthony. He seems to be learning a lot about himself and the world he left behind in California.

"I was never white when I was in Barstow," he says. "I was always brown."

Now, he adds, "I see myself more Mexican. I belong in Mexico. This is my home."

Anthony isn't sure when he'll return to the U.S., but says he wants to, some day, because it's home, too. He is, after all, a U.S. citizen by birth.

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

President Trump has promised to deport millions of people who are in the U.S. illegally, and some of those most likely will be Mexican parents of American citizens - more than half a million children who were born in the U.S. and are now living in Mexico because when the parents are kicked out, the kids go, too. Researchers call these children the invisible ones. In the border city of Tijuana, however, they are no longer invisible. NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports on a program that was designed for them.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCHOOL BELL RINGING)

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Of the thousands of children who've arrived in Tijuana from the U.S., some have enrolled here at 20 de Noviembre Elementary. In this fourth grade classroom, the teacher singles out a skinny 9-year-old.

ANTHONY DAVID MARTINEZ: My name is Anthony David Martinez. My school is 20 de Noviembre. It's kind of weird when you say it in English. That's like 20 November (laughter).

SANCHEZ: Anthony's Spanish, according to his teacher, is a work in progress. He's fluent in English because until recently, he lived and went to school in Barstow, Calif.

ANTHONY: When I was going to go to Mexico, I was like, oh, no, I'm going to make new friends, new school, everything, but now I'm happy here.

SANCHEZ: Veinte de Noviembre Elementary has embraced kids like Anthony, all 88 of them. They get lots of extra help building vocabulary, working on their grammar, pairing them off with native Spanish speakers, not segregating them. There's no stigma to speaking English because it's a highly prized skill here. Learning proper Spanish, on the other hand...

ANTHONY: It was hard. Like, the homework was in Spanish, and that time, we didn't have a computer. So then that's when we got a computer, and then that's when I started to fit in 'cause I was doing good.

SANCHEZ: Veinte de Noviembre's considered a model for how schools should treat and teach the half-million U.S.-born students who've enrolled throughout Mexico.

AMPARO LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

SANCHEZ: Amparo Lopez is with Baja California's Department of Education. She says in the last school year alone, 12,092 foreign-born children and teenagers enrolled in schools throughout the state. Ninety-eight percent were from the U.S.

LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

SANCHEZ: That was on top of the nearly 58,000 children who had arrived from the U.S. in previous years.

LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

SANCHEZ: Lopez says the surge began in 2006 with a sharp increase in deportations. That grew even more under President Obama and kept growing as more and more immigrants working illegally in the U.S. lost their jobs during the recession. Down the hallway from Lopez's office, the most recent arrivals meet once a week with tutors and counselors. It's been especially helpful for kids like Julian, 13. He's a U.S. citizen, born in Los Angeles. His mom and dad crossed into the U.S. illegally and were recently deported. Julian doesn't speak a word of Spanish.

JULIAN SANCHEZ: I don't know how to, like - to read it or write it.

ARACELI SANCHEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

SANCHEZ: Julian's mom, Araceli Sanchez, says she tries to help him with his schoolwork, but what he puts down on paper is not really Spanish. At least here, she says, tutors are teaching him more words and helping him with his grammar. Counselors say these kids need a lot more than that.

SIBONEY MIRANDA ARGUETTA: (Speaking Spanish).

SANCHEZ: Siboney Miranda Arguetta says these children have very low self-esteem. Most are deeply sad about leaving their homes in the U.S., and schools often don't know how to help them. One study of 1,500 U.S.-born children in Mexican schools found that with very few exceptions, like the model program in Tijuana, these kids get little or no support. Many are held back in grade.

Some stop going to school - invisibles - the invisible ones. That's what researchers call them - which brings us back to 9-year-old Anthony. He's thriving because he gets so much academic and emotional support, but there's something else about Anthony. He seems to be learning a lot about himself and the world he left behind in Barstow, Calif.

ANTHONY: I was never white when I was at Barstow. I was brown, you know? I see myself more Mexican, yeah. Like, my color - I belong in Mexico. This is my home (laughter), yeah.

SANCHEZ: Anthony says he'll return to the U.S. someday. He is, after all, a U.S. citizen by birth. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS SONG, "TOO MUCH BIRTHDAY" Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.