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October 14, 2002

Border schools weed out nonresidents

From: Arizona Daily Star, Az
Oct. 14, 2002

Say Mexican kids taking spots meant for U.S. students
By Tim Steller

NOGALES, Ariz. - School districts on the Arizona-Mexico line are trying to break a borderland tradition by keeping students who live in Mexico from attending Arizona public schools.

District officials in towns such as Nogales say their crackdown on this long-standing practice is motivated by a desire to reduce class sizes and protect taxpayer money. Educating Mexico's youth is an extravagance they say they can't afford.

"They're taking up seats that should belong to the people of Arizona," said Nogales Superintendent Kelt Cooper.

For decades, some families in Mexico have either sent their children across the border every day to attend school or have had their children stay with Arizona relatives on weekdays and come home for weekends. District officials have sporadically tried to stem the flow by investigating whether students actually live on the American side of the border.

Nogales began its most recent crackdown in the 1999-2000 school year, said Analizabeth Doan, who is now the Douglas superintendent but at the time was a Nogales district official.

"We dropped almost 200 kids (from Mexico) in one blow," Doan said.

Since then the Nogales and Douglas districts have refined their techniques. In Nogales, they routinely scour their databases to find suspicious student addresses, such as one fictitious home that 30 students listed as their residence, Cooper said. They also occasionally station people at ports of entry to check the names of students who cross the border on the way to or from school.

Last year, the Nogales district identified 255 students who crossed from Mexico to attend its schools. Of those, most were able to prove residency in the district, but 76 were unable and were removed.

So far this year, 12 students from Mexico have been dropped because they do not live in the district, a low number that indicates the district's strategy is working, Cooper said.

"I don't think we would get 200 today. But I think there's probably 50 or 60 we haven't caught yet," Cooper said.

The Nogales district has slightly more than 6,000 students.

Border school officials noted that the Mexican side of the border has a much higher population than the American side. In Nogales, Sonora, for example, the population is estimated at 350,000, while Nogales, Ariz., has 20,878 residents, according to the 2000 census.

The problem is not just overcrowding, but also tax fairness and truthfulness, Doan said.

Almost everyone who lives in the district pays property taxes that fund the district, either directly or through rent payments, Doan said.

"When people come in dishonestly, they're not paying property tax, so they become a burden on the property taxpayers," Doan said.

If there were space for a high school student from Mexico to pay tuition to attend Douglas High School, it would cost $4,200 per student, Doan said.

But beyond space and money, there's the problem of the example that cheating the system sets for students, Doan said. If students must lie to get into school, they learn to lie in other situations, she said.

Doan, Cooper and others noted that the issue is not students' nationality or immigration status, legal or illegal. By law, schools are not allowed to consider those factors when enrolling students.

The issue is simply where the student lives, they said. That, however, is not always a simple issue.

Take the case of Lizeth Lopez Amado. The 15-year-old was raised in Nogales, Sonora, but in August she began living on weekdays with her aunt and uncle in Nogales, Ariz. She enrolled at Nogales High School.

The reason, she said: "It would have benefited me to know some English."

Lopez Amado took a full slate of classes for a ninth-grader and found the classes easy but well taught.

Since she was not living with her parents or a legal guardian, her residency raised questions at the Nogales district. In recent years, the district has begun insisting on adherence to rules that require a student to live with a parent or legal guardian.

Lopez Amado's aunt and uncle filed for guardianship, but Santa Cruz County Superior Court Judge James Soto denied the request. He cited the fact that Lopez Amado had only a border crossing card, not a proper visa to live in the United States.

After spending a month in classes at Nogales High, school officials told her one Thursday last month not to come back. She returned home to Nogales, Sonora, but was too late to enroll in high school there. Now she is spending her days at the flower shop her mother runs in Nogales, Sonora.

"Now I want to look for a computing or English school," said her mother, Lizeth Amado Verdugo.

In their effort to crack down on Mexico-resident students, Nogales district officials also discovered hundreds of students from Rio Rico with questionable Nogales residency, Cooper said. Some of them were able to take advantage of the state's open-enrollment system, which allows students to cross district lines to go to schools if residents of a district don't fill its schools.

Their efforts to enforce residency rules uncovered a variety of tricks for trying to document residency in the district, Doan and Cooper said. Some Nogales, Ariz., residents sold false rental agreements; others sold the right to put Arizona utility service under a Mexico resident's name.

Accusations of circumventing residency requirements became a hot political issue in the primary election for the mayor of Nogales, Ariz., last month. Opponents of Mayor Marco A. Lopez Jr. accused Juan Pablo Guzman, the mayor's spokesman, of manipulating the system to get an education in Tucson.

Guzman was born in Nogales, Sonora, in 1979 with a disease that caused him to quickly become blind, said his father, Ramon Guzman. His older sister was also born blind.

Ramon Guzman said he took the children to Tucson for a visit with a specialist. That doctor told him not to look for a cure.

"Dedicate yourselves to educating them," the doctor said, according to Ramon Guzman.

There was no good way to educate the children in Sonora, but a solution presented itself north of the border. A woman who lives in Nogales, Ariz., adopted the children.

Guzman said the woman, Suzette Moreno, did so because she sympathized with the children's plight, not out of any effort to circumvent rules. Moreno did not respond to a message seeking comment.

In the early 1990s, Juan Pablo Guzman enrolled at the Arizona State Schools for the Deaf and the Blind on West Speedway, where he graduated in four years, his father said. During the run-up to the Sept. 10 primary, opponents of the Lopez administration accused Guzman's family of manipulating the system to get him a taxpayer-funded education.

Ramon Guzman, the father, is now an important man in Nogales, Sonora - a co-owner of the popular radio station XENY, 760-AM, and the president of the local branch of the Institutional Revolutionary Party. But at the time his children were attending the Deaf and Blind school, Guzman said, he did not have the money to pay for their education.

Doris Senor Woltman, the compliance officer for the Deaf and Blind school, said she could not pinpoint the cost of a year at the school, but the school receives a voucher from the state of $16,100 per year per blind student.

The Tucson and Sunnyside school districts have not noted a problem with students crossing the border daily from Mexico, district officials said. The hour-long commute from Nogales, Sonora, seems prohibitive, said Barbara Benton, director of school-community relations for the Tucson district, and Sunnyside Superintendent Raul Bejarano.

There are students from Mexico who live with people who aren't their parents, said Bejarano, who was the Nogales superintendent until 2000. But they must simply prove guardianship.

"In some cases, people go around seeking guardianships, which they can do as long as they don't do it to circumvent the law," Bejarano said.

* Contact Tim Steller at 434-4086 or at

© 2002 Arizona Daily Star