Students Commute From Mexican Border Town for U.S. Education

In cap and gown last week with the Lourdes Catholic School senior class, Jesús Alejandro Espinosa, 18, recited the American Pledge of Allegiance and then pivoted to the Mexican flag and delivered the Mexican pledge.

For 14 years, Mr. Espinosa, who lives in Nogales, Mexico, rode for half an hour in a packed minivan past rows of farmacias and supermercados, a statue of former President Benito Juárez and a 30-foot-high fence to attend Lourdes Catholic, a prekindergarten-to-12th-grade private school.

He was one of 8,931 students who live in Mexico and attend private and public high schools, conservatories, seminars or colleges in the United States under F-1 student visas, according to a 2014 report from the State Department. More than half the students at Lourdes live in Mexico, said Teresita Scully, the school’s campus minister.

“We’re basically one community,” Mr. Espinosa said of Ambos Nogales, or “both Nogales,” because the only divider is the border line itself.

Many families straddle the border to capitalize on job opportunities in Mexican maquiladora factories and education opportunities on the American side.

Spanish is the native language of most Lourdes students, and many attend to improve their English — the school’s curriculum is bilingual — and increase their chances of college admission. The school reports a 100 percent graduation rate.

But the opportunity comes at a price that many families cannot afford. At Lourdes Catholic, the yearly tuition is close to $5,000. Related expenses include a $160 visa application fee and a $200 student exchange crossing card. Most of the Mexican students, including Mr. Espinosa, live in the affluent Colonia Kennedy neighborhood, he said.

In some border cities, public schools are more expensive than private schools. According to the State Department, foreign students who attend public high schools in the United States must pay the full, unsubsidized per capita cost, between $3,000 and $10,000.

Jesús Alejandro Espinosa, 18, who lives in Mexico usually had a 30 to 40 minute commute to get to Lourdes Catholic School in the United States.
Jesús Alejandro Espinosa, 18, who lives in Mexico usually had a 30 to 40 minute commute to get to Lourdes Catholic School in the United States. PAULA OSPINA/NYT INSTITUTE

“When we think of why these students are going, a lot of it is in the hope of economic and social mobility,” said Edelina Muñoz Burciaga, a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Irvine, who specializes in the sociology of education.

In April, Mr. Espinosa traveled to San Francisco with two classmates to speak at high schools about immigration misconceptions.

“They see me and they expect all of these stereotypes,” he said of the students. “They depict us as illiterate. That’s how people represent it.”

Even driving to school every day, students like Mr. Espinosa must deal with traffic delays, additional costs and documentation issues when they cross the border. With increased wait times, many students opt for a $122.25 Sentri card to use the fast lane. Before buying the card, Mr. Espinosa would start his day at 5 a.m. to allow enough time to cross.

“Years ago, it wasn’t such a big deal,” he said of crossing the border.

As a young boy in Nogales, Ariz., Manuel Vasquez, now 52, said he would bike across the border without documents to buy tortillas. “I just had to learn to say, ‘I’m a U.S. citizen,’ ” he said.

But much has changed in the last two decades.

Mr. Espinosa recalled the first day of junior year. He carpooled to the border and flashed his Sentri card to the Border Patrol. But the database denied him entry, and he was detained in a small cell, stripped of his entry card and eventually sent back home.

After missing two weeks of school, he learned that the Department of Homeland Security had not filed his school registration. “We didn’t know what it was,” Mr. Espinosa said, “but you have to comply.”

The young man, who volunteers at aid stations for deported migrants, has become an advocate for immigrant rights. In 2013, he gave an impromptu speech at a congressional hearing in Nogales, Ariz., attended by three members of the Congressional Border Caucus.

“I think his voice is super important,” Ms. Scully said. “When a young person speaks up, the politicians listen. Jesús talks about issues and he knows what he’s talking about.”

On a recent afternoon, the freshly minted graduate walked around the Lourdes campus one more time. He spotted one of his teachers and they greeted each other before Mr. Espinosa continued on his way. “Bye, Miss,” he said.

At the border, he pushed through the turnstiles back into Mexico and passed a longer line headed in the opposite direction to their homes, offices or the grocery store in Arizona.

When he arrived home via taxi, his dogs barked and scratched against a kennel fence. Mr. Espinosa petted them before stepping inside and to his bedroom. Film books, a “Smallville” boxed set and a Harry Potter chest adorn his bookshelf. In the corner are four CDs from his brother’s band, Nikki Clan, which has landed high on Mexican charts.

Mr. Espinosa writes and directs his own short films. In the fall, he plans to attend film school at Centro de Diseño, Cine y Televisión in Mexico City and has aspirations for Hollywood.

Although his mother planned to give birth to him in the United States, he was born prematurely in Mexico. And while he’s no stranger to American experiences such as Thanksgiving and the nine-to-five mentality, “I’m a Mexican,” he said. “I wouldn’t describe myself as an American in any way.”