AT THE U.S. BORDER, Columbus, N.M. — The mothers, holding the small hands of their children, can go only as far as the glass door, where Mexico ends and America begins. They lean down and send off their little ones with a kiss and a silent prayer.
The children file into the U.S. port of entry, chatting in Spanish as they pull U.S. birth certificates covered in protective plastic from Barbie and SpongeBob backpacks. Armed U.S. border officers wave them onto American soil and the yellow buses waiting to take them to school in Luna County, N.M.
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.
“This is absolutely unique — I’ve never seen anything like it,” said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who visited Columbus Elementary School last week and joined the children in the afternoon on their three-mile bus ride along Route 11 to the border.
About 94 percent of the children at the school are living in poverty, and nearly all 570 students are considered English-language learners — classifications that entitle the school to extra federal dollars but create intense challenges in the classroom.
This school year, 421 students live in Palomas and cross the border to attend the elementary, middle and high schools in Luna County, Moore said. In many cases, their parents have no legal way to enter the United States and are stuck on the Palomas side, unable to step inside their children’s schools, let alone attend Back to School Night, parent-teacher conferences or graduation ceremonies.
Inside American Legion Post 1916 in Columbus, the regulars gathered one morning last week, draining 25-cent cups of coffee as they considered their relationship with their neighbors to the south.
“They drop a kid and we’re paying for schools, medical, Social Security,” said Mark Reshel, 64, a retired Marine with short-cropped hair, referring to the fact that Mexican women have been giving birth at his county hospital.
“Anchor babies,” said Reshel, as others nodded.
June Riddle looked up from her blue wool knitting and tried to put it more diplomatically.
“The Mexican people are taking advantage of U.S. citizens, who are educating their children,” said Riddle, a retiree. “It is hard on property owners here.”
In New Mexico, school funding is largely paid by the state. New Mexico spent an average of $10,203 per student in 2011-12, with 66 percent of that provided by the state while local and federal governments each paid 17 percent, according to rankings compiled by the National Education Association.
There have been occasional legal challenges to the school system’s education of the children from Palomas, but none has gone anywhere, said Moore, the superintendent.
Reshel wants to change the 14th Amendment, which automatically confers citizenship on anyone born in the United States. For the past three years, U.S. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) has introduced legislation that would “clarify” the amendment so that U.S. citizenship is conferred only when at least one parent is a citizen or has legal status to live in the country. The legislation is stalled in committee.
Luna is the second-poorest county in New Mexico, but the children of Palomas grapple with a different level of deprivation.
Some must learn how to use an indoor bathroom. Others need eyeglasses, shoes and dental care. Many live in unheated homes with dirt floors. As they cross the border, the children move from the Third World to the First.
“Some of these kids come to me, and they’ve never held a pencil before,” said Olivia Mireles, a kindergarten teacher.
Columbus Elementary uses a dual-language immersion model, teaching the children all subjects in Spanish one day and in English the next. “They come in at such a low-level Spanish, they’re not even monolingual — they’re really non-language,” Moore said.
More than half change schools during the year, often because their parents are migrant workers who follow the harvests.
And then there are the drugs. Palomas is along a “narco-corridor,” a smuggling route for drugs between Mexico and the United States. Last year, there was a flurry of students arrested as they tried to cross the border for school, including a 14-year-old boy who was found hiding a 14-pound brick of marijuana in his backpack, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. There has been just one such drug arrest this year.
Violence in Palomas between drug cartels reached a bloody climax in 2009. The impact lingers, making home life chaotic for some children, said Armando Chavez, the principal at Columbus Elementary.
“Sometimes, a kid will be tired because something might have gone on in the home the night before, and they didn’t sleep,” he said. “So if they need a 15-minute nap, we let them take it.”
Scores on state standardized tests are low. Last year, the state gave Columbus an “F” on its A-to-F report card. That rankles Moore, who says crude letter grades don’t reflect the complexity of the challenges they face.
“It sounds like we’re making excuses,” Moore told Duncan during his visit. “But if a child comes from a home with no computers, no books and the literacy in Spanish is so low, it’s going to take us extra time to catch them up. It just is. That’s reality.”
At a time when educators around the country are pushing to get parents more involved — especially in high-poverty schools — the parents in Palomas are cut off by the border.
Chavez is trying to bridge that gap through technology, turning to Skype, the online videoconferencing tool. At the maiden Skype meeting in May, about 150 parents crammed into the San Jose restaurant in Palomas and talked via computer with Chavez and his teachers in Columbus.
“It’s so important to the parents to be able to see the teacher,” Chavez said.
There are public schools in Palomas, but they require monthly fees, beyond reach for many. Parents interviewed said the U.S. schools, with their climate-controlled classrooms, gleaming gymnasiums and clean playgrounds, offer far more.
“They have computers and they teach English,” said Ludivina Loya, 27, whose 5-year-old son, Ian, is in kindergarten in Columbus. “When Ian grows up, he’s going to make his life in the U.S. How is he going to do that if he doesn’t speak English?”
Loya and her husband, Paco, 30, want to send Ian’s baby sister to kindergarten in Columbus. “I hope that they both like school and go to the university and find a better life than us here,” Loya said.
By Palomas standards, they are middle class. She owns a small beauty salon. He runs a food stand. They have a tile floor in their home. They have visas that allow them to cross the border, and they paid the cost of delivering both their children in Luna County.
But most of the Mexican women who give birth in Deming cannot afford the ambulance ride or the hospital bill.
The financial impact on the Mimbres Memorial Hospital in Deming has been significant. The 49-bed facility lost more than $1 million a year from 2007 to 2010, said Dulin, director of the New Mexico Office of Border Health.
Three years ago, with financial losses mounting, New Mexico officials negotiated a new policy with their Mexican counterparts — only life-threatening cases would be allowed to cross the border to go to the hospital; all other cases must be handled by a public health clinic in Palomas. Mexican officials agreed to renovate and staff the small clinic so it can operate 24 hours a day.
As a result, the number of Mexican women delivering babies in Deming dropped by half, from 143 in 2009 to 72 in 2011, according to the Office of Border Health. Ambulance runs from the U.S. border to the hospital also have been cut in half.
Though the change has eased the financial pressure on his ambulance service, Columbus Fire Chief Ken Riley worries that some Mexicans are not getting adequate medical care.
In the past year, two women in labor were rejected at the border and referred to a hospital in Ciudad Juárez, an hour and a half away, according to medical staff at the Palomas clinic. Both women miscarried. Earlier this year, a pregnant woman was turned away at the border and sent to the clinic in Palomas. Finding the clinic closed, she returned to the border and delivered the baby on the floor of the port, Riley said.
On a recent morning in Mr. Rubio’s second-grade classroom at Columbus Elementary, the children stood to face a small American flag protruding from the whiteboard. They recited the Pledge of Allegiance in memorized English.
To reach Mr. Rubio’s classroom, Octavio Ortiz, 7, rises before dawn in the cluttered bedroom he shares with his mother and grandfather in a low-slung concrete house on a dirt road in Palomas. His grandfather is already gone, up at 4 a.m. to work in the nearby fields, picking onions. Roosters crow, and several dogs roam the rubble-filled street.
Octavio changes out of his Spider-Man pajamas and gets his backpack and a goodbye kiss from his mother. There is no breakfast at home. Like all children at Columbus, Octavio eats free breakfast and lunch at school — the only meals that some will get. On Fridays, the school sends 150 children home with extra food.
Octavio’s mother, Sonia, is pregnant, due to deliver a girl in November. She worries that the new border policy will prevent her from giving birth again in Deming.
“Now, they make it difficult,” she said in Spanish through a translator. “They won’t let anybody through.”
It’s hard to know exactly how many of the American children of Palomas eventually make their lives north of the border — paying U.S. taxes, holding jobs and raising American families. But residents on both sides say it is a common result.
Martha Rodriguez, 55, is one of them.
Born at the hospital in Deming to Mexican parents and educated in Deming public schools, Rodriguez owns the seven-room Hacienda De Villa Motel in Columbus. Her four adult children are all employed, living and working in the United States.
“Their story is my story,” Rodriguez said, referring to the youngsters who pass her hotel each day in the school buses from the border. “I was one of those kids. And I’m a business owner. I pay property taxes. We contribute quite a bit. . . . It hasn’t been a free ride.”