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Crossing the line to learn

Times Staff Writer

ROBERT Villarreal, standing at his post behind the customs officers at the border crossing station, knew he was being watched. A slim teenage boy wearing a green T-shirt was furtively peering at him from behind a pillar on the Mexican side.

“I know who it is before he even comes in,” Villarreal said, ducking into an alcove.

Minutes later, perhaps thinking Villarreal had left, the boy and another teen breezed through customs. Villarreal sprang out of hiding and called the teens by name. “If you hide like that,” he said, “you’re just going to make things worse.” Villarreal is not a border agent. He is a school attendance officer whose assignment is to catch students who live in Mexico but attend public school in the U.S.

Children who are U.S. citizens or legal immigrants but live in Mexico cross every morning to get a better education for free in Arizona, breaking the law that requires them to live within the boundaries of the district. To many of their parents, who have ties in both countries, not living in the district is the educational equivalent of jaywalking.

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“I pay taxes. I work over here,” said a 31-year-old corrections officer who would not give his name as he walked his son from Mexico to elementary school in San Luis. “What’s the difference?”

There are no hard statistics on the number of children who break the residency requirement, but some people opposed to U.S. immigration policy have seized on the issue as another example of how they say migrants exploit the U.S. They contend that most school districts do not enforce the law because they risk losing state funding, which is based on the number of enrolled students.

“The whole thing’s outrageous. We’re not the school district for northern Mexico,” said state Rep. Russell K. Pearce.

Two years ago, the state superintendent, fed up with the practice, hired a private investigator to videotape schoolchildren coming from Mexico. At an Arizona border town with a population of 65, a school bus regularly picked up 85 students at the crossing.

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Amid the resulting publicity, that school district stopped the pickups, but it’s unclear whether any other districts changed their policies.

In nearby Calexico, Calif., taxpayers’ complaints about building schools within walking distance of Mexico led the local district last year to hire someone to watch border crossings and check student addresses.

But in Arizona, no district appears to have taken as aggressive a stance as Yuma Union High School District, which serves San Luis. In the early 1990s, it hired a full-time attendance officer to verify residency for students at its six schools.

Part truant officer, part detective, Villarreal spends his mornings noting names of high school students arriving from Mexico and listening to explanations for why they crossed: They were visiting a sick relative. They were staying with a friend. Their parents divorced and one lives in Mexico, the other in the U.S.

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He lets the children, including the teens he spotted hiding from him, continue to school, then checks their stories.

A soft-spoken man with a full face and the hint of a mustache, Villarreal, 37, is a San Luis native and the son of Mexican immigrant farmworkers. But he has little sympathy for parents who avoid paying the property taxes that support the district by living in Mexico, where the cost of living is lower and houses sell for about $30,000, compared with the median price of $179,000 in San Luis.

“They want the American services,” he said, “but they don’t want to be part of the American system.”

SAN Luis, 20 miles south of Yuma, lies in Arizona’s far southwestern corner, bordered by Mexico to the south and west. For decades it was a sleepy agricultural town where workers in the surrounding lettuce and broccoli fields entered from Mexico and occasionally settled down in mobile homes or modest stucco houses.

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Cesar Chavez was born in this region and sometimes returned to San Luis to support strikes by local agricultural workers. He died in a crumbling apartment complex here with a dirt courtyard a stone’s throw from the border.

In the 1990s, the population began to boom, as migrants from other parts of the U.S. were lured by cheap real estate and persistent sunshine. Illegal immigrants from Mexico began dashing across the border, bringing an influx of border patrol and National Guard posts to town. Now, with 15,000 people and growing, the town is spilling into the desert. New subdivisions abut farmland that exudes the bracing odor of fresh cabbage.

Villarreal keeps a rolled-up map of the town in the trunk of his district-

issued white Ford Escort. After scanning it one recent evening, he cut through a subdivision onto a modest residential street.

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“OK,” Villarreal said, “we’re looking for Manuel and Blanca Carranza.”

An hour earlier, Villarreal had spotted their 16-year-old son walking after school on Main Street, past the bargain clothing stores and toward the crossing. Where are you going? Villarreal asked. Home, the student answered.

Months earlier the family had been added to Villarreal’s list after he spotted the son walking across the border. Villarreal had been unable to find the parents’ home on prior visits to the U.S. address the school had on file.

The boy’s offhand remark on his way to Mexico wasn’t enough to take official action -- Villarreal had to find his parents. He drove to a rundown, single-story, white clapboard house. Children’s clothes dangled from a clothesline stretched along the rutted driveway, and cardboard covered a cracked front window. He knocked on the door three times before a male voice answered.

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Villarreal asked for the Carranzas. They’re not in, the voice said. When are they coming back? “Later.” After 8 p.m.? “Later.”

Shaking his head, Villarreal returned to his car. “This is the same person I’ve talked to before and the same answer,” he said. (The district later sent a letter to expel the teenager; families have the right to appeal.)

San Luis is a small town, and Villarreal has run into uncomfortable situations. Once, an elected official -- whom Villarreal wouldn’t identify -- covered for a parent from behind a closed door. Other times, employees at nearby school districts were involved in deceptions.

Villarreal tries to keep a low profile because, between early-morning patrols and evening door-knocks, he’s a teacher’s assistant at a middle school in another local district. Mindful of how some in town may view his work, he asks his family not to discuss his attendance officer job with anyone.

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The Yuma Union High School District was forced to confront the residency issue after a bond measure to build a high school in San Luis was rejected in 1992. Voters believed the school would serve mostly students who lived in Mexico. The district decided it needed to prove to voters that its students were attending legally, and created the position of attendance officer.

Villarreal is the second person to hold the job. When he started eight years ago, he intercepted hundreds of high school students entering every day from Mexico. Parents were accustomed to sending their children to U.S. schools without a hassle. Now word is out that the six Yuma Union high schools check residency, and the numbers crossing have dropped significantly.

In contrast, about 100 younger children were seen one recent day coming from Mexico to attend elementary and middle schools. Villarreal does not check on these students. Some were going to Catholic schools that can educate students from any locale, but dozens were headed to the eight elementary and middle schools run by the Gadsden Elementary School District. That district does not patrol the border. Instead, it requests utility bills to prove residency and sends staffers to check if a student’s parents don’t return calls on routine school issues such as repeated absences, said spokeswoman Rosy Ballesteros.

Villarreal prides himself on knowing the names and histories of the high school students who cross; most attend the high school in San Luis.

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“This kid is OK; his legal guardian lives here,” Villarreal said as one boy trudged past him. “That girl’s up for withdrawal,” he said, nodding at one who passed a moment later.

He stopped another girl, who showed her U.S. passport and said she’d spent the night with an aunt in Mexico while her father, who lives in San Luis, worked late. Villarreal made a note and let her pass. He’d already seen the father at a house in San Luis but would check again. “You never know,” he said.

VILLARREAL usually gathers several dozen cases after a few days of patrolling. He typically finds about 150 students each year who should be withdrawn, out of a district of 10,000. He and his boss, Assistant Supt. Gerrick Monroe, advise those students’ parents to either move across the border or make a U.S. resident the legal guardian for the child. Most make the adjustment.

The district allows parents who live outside its boundaries to pay $5,300 annually for their children to stay in school, but only eight families do so.

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Villarreal’s investigation of the two teens who tried to dodge him at the

border forced one of them to pay tuition to continue in school; the other withdrew.

By enforcing the law, Monroe said, the district loses money -- it receives $5,000 in state funds for every pupil enrolled. He said he understood why parents thought they could send their children to U.S. schools. “To people who live along the international border, it’s similar to a county line,” he said. “People don’t think much about [crossing] it.”

Certainly not Carla Molina, who walked her two children, 11 and 8,

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to school in San Luis one recent morning.

“We’re planning to move back here anyway,” Molina said. She lived in San Luis years ago, and her children, born in Yuma, are U.S. citizens. She wants them to learn English. “It’s important they learn it when they’re young,” Molina said.

Villarreal said it was also important to follow the law. The people who pay U.S. rents and taxes, he said, are the ones who deserve the benefits of the school system.

A couple of nights earlier, he had knocked on the door of the address one student crossing from Mexico had given him. The child’s mother, Marta Andrade, answered, confirmed her residency and told Villarreal she was glad he had checked.

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“I like that you do this,” she told him.

Andrade, 47, described how she rose at 3 a.m. to take the two-hour trip to a remote field, where she worked all day to pay rent and ensure a legal education for her 16-year-old daughter. It would have been easier to stay in Mexico,

work less and cheat, but Andrade

only has contempt for people who do that.

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“Coming here is a sacrifice,” she said. “They should have to do what I do.”

nicholas.riccardi@latimes.com


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