Schoolchildren Mired in Immigration Debate

Families at center of furor fear education may be denied


Alma Rosa Medina remembers growing up in a quiet Mexican pueblo, the daughter of a farmer who could send only five of his eight children to school. She was not among them. Unable to read, Medina brought her five children across the border illegally to give them an education.

Down the Peninsula in a cramped Redwood City apartment, 13-year-old Israel Aguilar is one of many immigrant children who have fallen far behind their peers because they have trouble understanding their teachers. Like many of them, Israel has had little bilingual education.

On the campus at the University of California at Berkeley, Gloria Santiago hurries from one political science class to another. Last winter, she was among hundreds of students expelled from San Diego schools because they were U.S. citizens living in Mexico, and now she is driven by anger toward a career in political activism.

Like Gloria, Israel and the children of Alma Rosa Medina, hundreds of thousands of California students are being drawn into the center of an increasingly political — and increasingly angry — debate over immigration. In the classroom and on the ballot, the debate is shaping the lives of a generation.

”Immigrant children really are caught in the middle of social forces that they have no control over, much less understand,” said Kevin Johnson, a law professor and immigration specialist at UC Davis. ”Immigration restrictionists want to get rid of unauthorized, undocumented adults. And one way of doing that is by going after the children.”

The immigration puzzle is far more complex than Proposition 187, a controversial ballot measure that would prohibit the state from providing public education, welfare and most health care to an estimated 300,000 children from all over the world who illegally reside in California.

For years, state lawmakers have quarreled over bilingual education, causing many educators to complain of a patchwork system that fails to meet the needs of immigrants. Test scores show that few newcomers, legal or illegal, leave high school as well prepared as their English-speaking peers.

Meanwhile, students from six more California border districts may face expulsion — much like those already expelled for commuting to the Mount Empire district from Mexico — as a state audit of student residency proceeds toward completion.

The debate has raised hard questions about scarce resources, racism, and who has the right to share in California’s bounty. Often, though, the students’ own stories remain buried beneath the policy details and rhetoric.


Like a wealthy entrepreneur watching the stock market with trepidation, Alma Rosa Medina intently follows the latest polls on Proposition 187. Her five children are her investment, and as long as they remain in American public schools, Medina feels rich.

But her investment is in jeopardy. If voters approve the proposition, she may have to withdraw her children from public school.

”Me siento con nervios por mis hijos,” she says. I feel nervous about my children.

Backers of the ballot measure are angry about crowded schools and low test scores. They blame illegal immigrants like Alma Rosa Medina and her children, and resent giving them the same benefits their own families struggled to gain through legal means.

But Medina and her husband, Carlos, sound the theme of a generation of newcomers — that America means opportunity. ”What we want,” Carlos Medina said in Spanish, ”is advancement for our children.”

The couple live in Oakland with their children, ages 3 to 20. Carlos Medina, a janitor, had to leave school in the third grade when his parents needed help in the fields of Nayarit, Mexico, where farmers grow sweet tomatoes, onions and squash.

Although Carlos Medina became a legal resident during the amnesty period of the late 1980s, a loophole in the law does not extend that status to his wife and children. Given their uncertain position, the Medinas asked that pseudonyms be used in this account.

Until crossing the border with forged papers in 1992, Alma Rosa Medina’s prospects were grim: Illiterate, unskilled and often pregnant, she had little but good will to offer the next generation. As peasants, the family found it hard to meet Mexico’s requirement that even public school books be purchased.

But in the United States, school was free, and Carlos Medina found steady work. The possibilities seemed endless.

Now, the family rents a middle- class home just blocks from the school where 10-year-old Marcos is in fifth grade. Although sparsely furnished, the home has a green lawn and a wide, Spanish-style stoop.

Sprawled out on living room chairs, the children talked recently about what they want to be when they grow up.

”Quiero ser medico” — I want to be a doctor — Marcos said. ”Cientifico,” said his 12-year-old brother Benjamin. A scientist.

Regina, 17, had trained in Mexico to be a secretary, but not anymore. ”Quiero ser la jefe,” she said. I want to be the boss.

Medina smiled at her children. ”I enjoy hearing what they want to be and that they will have something that we never had,” she said.

But the family’s ambition does not impress advocates of immigration control. Bette Hammond’s family came from Italy at the turn of the century, and to her, the Medinas’ illegal status makes all the difference.

”My grandfather arrived with permission in 1912 and was separated from his family for two years while he satisfied immigration requirements that he have a home and a job,” said Hammond, whose anger led her to become an outspoken sponsor of Proposition 187. She compared the arrival of people like the Medinas to ”a flood in the bathroom” requiring urgent attention.

”Now that we’re in America, we don’t speak Italian,” said Hammond, a Marin County resident. ”We speak English out of respect.”

The Medinas say learning English is one of the reasons they want to stay — and why they will not leave if Proposition 187 passes.

”Arizona, Nevada,” Carlos Medina sighed. ”There are many other states.”


It took a minute, but Israel got the joke.

”Why do they call it the ‘heartland?’ ” Israel’s eighth-grade teacher asked one day during a lesson on the American Midwest.

”Because everybody loves it there!” called out one smart-aleck. There was laughter. Then a pause. Then laughter from Israel, who was seated up front.

If the ability to catch a quip is a hallmark of ability, then Israel, who arrived from Mexico four years ago, is fluent in English. But the boy with the large brown eyes and sweet smile remains three grades behind his peers academically.

Since a recent leadership change in the Redwood City Elementary district, bilingual education has become a priority. Teachers are using aids such as hand signals and graphics, and Israel’s work is improving.

But the district had no bilingual education program until last year. And for reasons of economics and emotion, many California schools still offer little aid to immigrant students. In fact, bilingual education has risen alongside immigration to become one of the nation’s most contentious topics in school politics. Despite centuries of immigration to America, few policymakers agree on how best to teach the newcomers.

Should academics be taught in a student’s native language or in English? Must students study their culture of origin? Do teachers need bilingual credentials?

Opinions on such questions have shaped entire campaigns for school posts, filled books and inspired countless debates. California’s approach has been hands-off since the last statewide bilingual education policy expired in 1988, although Democrats keep trying to introduce a new one.

Governor Wilson has vetoed such bills, insisting that local school districts be allowed to make their own rules.

For years, Redwood City elementary schools chose to have only a limited program. Israel sat numbly through two years of math, history and a host of other subjects because he understood so little English, said Anita Abeyta, director of bilingual education at McKinley Intermediate School, where Israel now attends.

”It’s sad,” she said. ”He probably needed to study English as a Second Language and get bilingual support. The school has it now, but not then.”

Meanwhile, California’s immigrant students have more than doubled since 1984, to 1.2 million. One in five students in public school speaks limited English, with Spanish their primary language.

Israel is among them. ”I didn’t speak any English in 1991, and my teacher didn’t speak any Spanish,” he recalled. ”Whenever she gave the class some work, she told me to draw. I felt bad. How was I going to learn anything?”

In time he understood more English, but school has been tough. He panicked last year after receiving an assignment to write about Ethiopia and resorted to the age-old maneuver of copying from the encyclopedia. He got a ”B.”

Relieved and bothered at the same time, Israel said: ”If I could change one thing about school, I would want my teachers to speak two languages.”


Gloria Santiago was 5 years old when the garage door of her family’s Los Angeles home crashed down on her father’s back.

Jorge Santiago had been a Beverly Hills gardener. But his accident led to a long slide in the family’s fortunes, a move to a Mexican border city, and the family’s participation in one of the strangest chapters in the saga of California’s immigration debate.

What happened to Gloria and more than 360 other American citizens enrolled in San Diego County’s Mount Empire school district would mark California’s first mass expulsion of students. The action was meant to halt the practice of allowing students living in Mexico to enroll in American schools. It also caused a huge financial loss to the district and prompted a statewide debate about its merits.

To local residents who were angry about crowded schools and limited resources, justice was served when the students were expelled.

To Gloria and her peers, the act represented the worst in anti-immigration fervor. Had they not been Chicano, she believes, no one would have complained. The episode caused so much anxiety that she asked that her family’s name be kept secret.

After Mr. Santiago’s accident forced the family to sell their dream home, they eventually moved to the Mexican border city of Tecate, where the family of six could rent a home for just $ 200 a month. It was 1986, and Gloria was 9 years old.

”I didn’t like it at first,” said Gloria, now a slight young woman with brown curly hair and an intense gaze. ”I was afraid I’d have to go to a Mexican school, and I didn’t speak Spanish. But my parents explained that I’d still go to school in the U.S.”

With a small group of friends whose families also migrated south, the little girl often crossed the border to shop and socialize, each time calling out ”American citizen!” to the guards, who waved them through. North of the border they were among the poorest Americans. But on the south side, the families were middle-class.

On the day Gloria’s parents went to enroll her in school, they were surprised to learn that the rules required them to live in the United States four nights a week. At first her parents used a friend’s American address. Later they rented a trailer that became their official U.S. residence.

”Our family spent three nights in Mexico and four in the trailer,” Gloria said. ”We did our best to abide by the law. The problem was that there was not enough affordable housing.”

Things proceeded quietly for five years. By the time Gloria was a 17-year-old senior at Mount Empire High, the number of students arriving in the district from Mexico had soared to more than 360, and her classes were standing- room only.

Yet Gloria thrived. She earned a 3.6 grade-point average on a scale of 4.0. She was editor of the school newspaper, ”The Grapevine,” and had become a bilingual tutor. She joined the student council, the literary club, the German club and the photography club. And she volunteered in a Mexican orphanage.

Then last February, four months before graduation, she and every student living on the Mexican side of the border were barred from school after a state investigation revealed that they did not live within the district.

Local residents had learned that every morning before dawn, the district sent three large buses to collect 361 students who crossed the border from their homes in Mexico. Already angry about overcrowded classes, the parents became more angry when they found out why. They turned to Republican state Assemblyman Jan Goldsmith of San Diego for help.

”There were complaints about how the school districts was spending money to buy extra buses,” Goldsmith recalled. ”There were some comments about how the school had run out of classroom space. But mostly people were concerned that this created an atmosphere of lawlessness, and that the law was not respected.”

Goldsmith sent aides to photograph the students as they crossed the border and boarded the buses.

”It was still dark,” Gloria recalled. ”Then a man with a camera popped out. We thought, ‘Oh, no — they know what’s going on!’ We tried to hide our faces, but there was also a lady on the other side of the street. I felt like an animal.”

Soon the photos were printed in newspapers statewide, and the district cracked down. Legally, it made no difference that the students were American.

”We felt really, really scared,” Gloria said. ”We knew we’d be kicked out of school.”

She learned that the landlord who owned her family’s trailer had given the same address to 17 other families. Yet not one was there when a school official paid a midnight call to the trailer park in search of students.

On February 1, Gloria’s high school principal told her not to come back. Hundreds received the same message, including Gloria’s 8- year-old brother, Alfredo. Most never returned.

But Gloria’s family, anguished, moved back to the United States after only one month.

The Mount Empire district lost nearly $ 1 million in fines and state financing. The superintendent lost his job, and nine teachers were laid off. Today, the state controller’s office is conducting a similar investigation at six other school districts near the Mexican border. Goldsmith and Democratic Assemblyman Richard Polanco of Los Angeles have formed a task force to address border-related issues ”in a nondiscriminatory manner.”

Although she graduated and now attends UC-Berkeley, Gloria remains angry. ”There were a lot of opportunities for the district and Goldsmith to help us, but they didn’t,” she said. ”We told them that housing was a problem, but they wouldn’t deal with it. They knew we were U.S. citizens and taxpayers, but they didn’t care.

”Now I’m afraid that someone might find out I was kicked out of school. I don’t want anyone to be able to touch my education again.”

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