COLUMBUS, NEW MEXICO – We received some passionate reader responses to the blogs I wrote recently about American-born children who live just south of the border in Palomas, Mexico, crossing into the United States to attend American schools.
An important point of these stories was that these kids face the threat of violence, because of a vicious turf war between Mexican drug traffickers in the area. It's so bad that U.S. officials and Luna County sheriff's deputies are quite concerned about protecting the children as they come and go across the border.
While many readers expressed concern for the well-being of those children, others questioned how children living in Mexico could attend school in the United States and who pays. "They live in Mexico and should go to school in Mexico," wrote one person. "And who's paying the school taxes for these families' children to attend American schools? What a sham," said another.
At the U.S. Port of Entry at Columbus, New Mexico, about 400 elementary, middle school and high school students show up each day from Palomas carrying U.S. passports and birth certificates along with their text books. They were born in the United States, and are legally U.S. citizens. For a variety of reasons, mostly because of economics or the immigration status of one or more of their parents, they live in Mexico.
It's 'our responsibility'
To learn more about why these children are educated in the United States and who pays for that schooling, I spoke with the Columbus Elementary School principal, Hector Madrid, a decades-long educator and school administrator in southern New Mexico.
"First of all, we have to take into account that all of these kids are American citizens," he said. "By federal and state law, they have the right to be educated here in the United States. That's our responsibility." Teachers have no choice in this matter, he explained. American kids are guaranteed an American education by law.
|Hector Madrid, the Columbus Elementary School Principal, speaks with NBC News.|
On the other hand, Mexican-born children can only attend Columbus schools for one year, Madrid explained, and only if their parents pay a tuition fee of about $3,600. After that, they must complete their educations in Mexico.
Madrid insisted there are great benefits to educating the American-born children in the United States, even if they currently live in Mexico.
"I would say 95 percent to close to 100 percent of these kids that are educated here on this side of the border, in the United States, will stay here after they graduate from high school," he said. "And the majority of these kids will go on to be really strong students with their university studies."
Many of Madrid's students have become teachers in bilingual U.S. communities. He said a lot of them with good math skills have become engineers. "I know a couple who have grown up to be doctors," he said. "They grow up to be very productive citizens once they get their education here in the United States."
The attendance averages in Madrid's school are quite high – about 96 percent. Mexican parents, he said, are very involved in their children's schooling and insist they show up on time to attend class.
"They want their kids to get a good education and they make it a point to make sure they're here on a daily basis" he explained. "They don't want them struggling as they've struggled with their lives."
As for who pays for their education, Madrid said the money largely comes from New Mexico property tax assessments. Some Mexican parents, he said, do have properties in the U.S. and pay taxes.
Those Mexican parents who don't own property in the United States don't pay for schooling directly. The principal, however, said that many do contribute indirectly to state coffers through sales taxes.
"The majority of these people come across the border to buy their groceries, their clothes and items that they need for their households," he added. "So they are contributing to the American tax base by shopping here."
Madrid argues that, whatever the cost, it is important to teach these children, calling it "a very worthwhile investment in the future of our country." He said it not only educates future U.S. residents, the effort generates goodwill and strengthens the social and business ties between U.S. and Mexican border communities.
"We're all going to benefit from this," said Madrid. "The bottom line is the more people we educate, the better off we're all going to be."
Read Mark Potter's original blogs:
Field Notes: Border officials fear growing Mexican drug war
Daily Nightly: Border kids caught in drug war