There's Already a Wall for U.S.-Mexico Students
By John McDonald
The past year has seen a harsh dialogue about immigration between Mexico and the United States. But amid calls for building a wall, the reality is that California and other states have long shared a border with our neighbor to the south. Hundreds of thousands of people cross between the two countries each day and our communities, our commerce and our cultures are deeply intertwined.
We also share students. But at times it seems as though a wall has already been built between the school systems in the United States and Mexico that serve them, disrupting lives and impeding education.
"Hundreds of thousands of students are caught in an educational no-man's land where the need for better communication among school systems, bureaucratic requirements and language barriers undermine learning opportunities," says UCLA Education Professor Patricia Gándara.
'Students We Share' Conference
Gándara, and other academic researchers from both countries recently gathered in Mexico City for a research symposium entitled "The Students We Share." A collaboration between University of California campuses participating in the UC Mexico Initiative along with El Colegio de la Frontera Norte (COLEF) and other institutions of higher education in Mexico, the symposium brought researchers together with education leaders and policymakers to help them better understand the challenges facing students and to seek solutions to ease barriers to learning.
It is not a small challenge. Despite heated rhetoric on immigration, data from the Pew Research Center shows that more Mexican immigrants have returned to Mexico from the United States since the great recession of 2008 than have immigrated to the U.S. Research presented by Dr. Monica Jacobo of Centro de Estudios y Docencias Económicas (CIDE) estimates that more than 400,000 U.S. born students are counted in basic (K-9) or pre-schools in Mexico, and these numbers do not include high school students or the thousands who have failed to enroll. Returning families often struggle to place their children in school because they lack official documents from the United States and their children lack official Mexican identity cards. The result is often a delay in enrollment causing students to miss significant amounts of school. The study reports that the lack of documents makes enrolling in middle school difficult and can be an absolute barrier to high school enrollment, which is now compulsory.
Language barriers also pose problems. U.S. born students returning to Mexico are often held back because they can't read and write in Spanish and Mexico offers no programs to transition them. And researchers estimate that no more than 5 percent of teachers nationwide in Mexico are proficient in English and the capacity to teach English is very limited. Researchers note that on both sides of the border it is common to hold students back if their command of the language is not strong—regardless if they have already successfully passed grade level coursework.
"Teachers and schools in Mexico are woefully unprepared to incorporate children of migrants returning to Mexico," says Dr. Lucrecia Santibañez, a professor in the School of Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University who presented at the seminar. (Watch for her forthcoming 'On California' column.) Her research reports that Mexican public schools are largely staffed by less qualified teachers, have poor levels of resources including technology and basic learning materials, and have large class sizes with approximately 40 students in middle schools. Under such conditions these returning students are often invisible. There is also less time for instruction and extracurricular offerings are limited.
These challenges and others are not limited to the Mexican side of the border.
"The students we share suffer challenges that are unique to them, but also many that affect lower income and minority families on both sides of the border, says Dr. Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA.
Great Inequality on Both Sides
Research conducted by Orfield and colleagues contends that educational inequality is deeply embedded in the vast region between Tijuana and greater Los Angeles. Intense segregation of Latinos in weak, low-income schools and lack of access to quality instruction for those learning English also hinder student learning. Among the majority of students in Tijuana and the Latino majority in Southern California, about nine-tenths born as U.S. citizens, fail to achieve the level of education that is essential for economic success and mobility.
Far too few students in Mexico finish high school, and in the U.S. Latinos trail badly in the completion of college degrees. Less than 20 percent of adults in Baja California have a high school degree. And while there has been some slow progress, just 14 percent of Latinos in the region have achieved a Bachelor's or graduate degree and most have experienced declining real incomes over time. These factors have strong correlations with the health of the economy and communities.
An Attitude of Hope
If there is a positive to be found, it is in the hopes and attitudes of the students themselves and what this means for the future. The Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at UC San Diego surveyed a representative sample of 9th and 10th grade students in the municipality of Tijuana and one school district in San Diego County finds young people rooted in a truly bi-national community. Just 10 percent of students in the region say they do not have ties to the opposite side of the border, and more than half say they are very connected to both countries. The students we share have big aspirations for their futures and trust schools and teachers to help prepare them for adulthood.
Students a Critical Asset
"It is critical to our region's competitiveness to identify both the needs and the resources that currently exist to support the young people who will form the labor force in the coming years," says Melissa Floca, the interim director of the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies. "These students are especially well suited to participate in the bi-national economy because of their cross-border cultural fluency, and supporting their educational success should be a major regional workforce development priority."
There is also hope in the collaboration itself. "Students We Share" brought together a unique collaboration between researchers and staff at campuses across the UC system with colleagues in higher education across Mexico. And together, they engaged education leaders and policy makers in both countries. Clearly, they have found much work to be done. But they have also begun an important conversation about what to do about it.
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John McDonald is director of the Sudikoff Family Institute on Education and the Media at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. For more information about Students We Share //ucmexicoinitiative.ucr.edu/