This is the daily ritual of the American schoolchildren of Palomas, Mexico, a phenomenon that dates back six decades and has helped blur the international border here.
The tide of students washing over the border has drawn muted complaints from some local residents over the cost to U.S. taxpayers. But most accept the arrangement as a simple fact of life on the border, which feels like an artificial divide between communities laced together by bloodlines, marriage and commerce.
For all the contentious national debate about immigration reform and stalled efforts in Congress to find consensus, the communities here live cooperatively. Still, coexistence is complicated and more nuanced than the discourse in Washington allows.
Nearly three out of four students at Columbus Elementary, the school closest to the border, live in Palomas and were born to Mexican parents. The Palomas children are American because of a long-standing state and federal policy that allows Mexican women to deliver their babies at the nearest hospital, which happens to be 30 miles north of the border in Deming, N.M., the seat of Luna County.
“All this hysteria about migrants and immigrants, throwing the undocumented out and all these bills being passed — well, we live in this area and have a very different take on humanity,” said Paul Dulin, director of the New Mexico Office of Border Health in Las Cruces. “We just know we have to work together.”
For generations, the people of dusty Palomas have been toiling in the New Mexican fields, filling trucks with sweet onions and chili peppers bound for markets throughout the United States and elsewhere. At one point, the two communities shared a fire department. More than 60 percent of Luna County’s 25,000 residents are Hispanic, many of whom were once schoolchildren from Palomas.
In the 1950s, the Palomas children didn’t even have to be Americans to attend the Deming Public Schools. The principal of the elementary school simply admitted the children of one persistent Mexican father and the tradition began. Twenty years later, the county began requiring U.S. citizenship, but students don’t need to live in Luna County, said Harvielee Moore, the school superintendent.
“We’re here to teach children,” Moore said. “They’re American citizens, and we want them to be literate. If they’re literate, they get jobs. And they pay taxes.”
Children cross the border to attend school elsewhere along the sprawling U.S.-Mexico boundary, most notably in El Paso, across the Rio Grande from Ciudad Juárez. But Luna County is rural and far smaller, and the daily influx of children has a greater impact on the schools.