The education crisis for children of deported parents

In Tijuana, an upstart model tries to address the challenges of educating U.S. kids who relocated to keep their families together.


Angie Romero holds a photo of her and her husband Mike Romero on their wedding day. They were officially wed on Feb. 10, 2013, in Ensenada.
Carlos A. Moreno for High Country News

When Angie Romero thinks about the home in Idaho she left seven years ago after her husband, Mike, was deported, she misses the wide, clear skies. “They were so defined,” she said. Not like here, in Ensenada, Mexico, where the air from the Pacific Ocean is often misty and gray.

Angie was born in Caldwell, a town of just over 50,000 near Boise, where she lived for the first 31 years of her life. Most of her extended family lives there, too: parents, siblings, cousins. Her daughters, Vannessa, 18, and Yisel, 15, were also born in Caldwell, and they lived in a small house in town. But after her husband was deported, they could not pay their mortgage off in time and the house was foreclosed on — the first of a string of losses that followed them across the border, away from everything they knew.

Angie fell in love with Mike Romero in 1999. They were out dancing in Caldwell. He had come to the U.S. from Zacatecas, Mexico, as a 15-year-old without papers, looking for work. Knowing that he could be deported, she often told him, “If you get deported for something stupid — like if you get in trouble with the law — I’m not coming with you. I’m not doing that to our girls.”

But then one night in 2012, he was stopped by police for failing to use his turn signal — the kind of mishap that could have happened to anyone. Angie knew that a deportation can be like a forced divorce: a couple separated by the border for so many years that eventually their relationship falls apart, too. 

So she worked the graveyard shift at a potato plant in Caldwell to make some extra money while she prepared for the move to Mexico with Vanessa and Yisel. After Mike was deported, he had returned to Zacatecas, in central Mexico, but there were no jobs there. “Don’t come,” he told his wife. Instead, they chose Ensenada, an hour and a half south of Tijuana, because it was allegedly safer than the big city, but still had access to the economic opportunities near the border. Idaho, at least, was only an 18-hour drive away.

The Romeros have been rebuilding their lives ever since. In Idaho, Mike was a successful building contractor. In Ensenada, however, he struggled to find steady work. Angie works as a bookkeeper for a California-based surfboard company, but her wages in Mexico are so low ($4.20 an hour) that she returns to Idaho periodically to work for her sister and her cousin at their accounting offices. 

But perhaps the most important hurdle faced by families like the Romeros is also the hardest: What should these relocated families do about their children’s education? Children of deportees sometimes speak little Spanish, and they are strangers to the Mexican public school system and the intricacies of Mexican society. Now, as the Trump administration ramps up its deportation efforts, a makeshift and unconventional education model has emerged in response to the growing number of American children caught in this academic limbo.

Students wait to get into class at the American Learning Center.
Carlos A. Moreno for High Country News

THE SEEDS OF THAT MODEL were planted six years ago in a Tijuana living room, where Jeff Macias’ two boys attended a homeschool cooperative with other families. Macias, a missionary, moved to Tijuana from southern California 18 years ago, but most of the other children in his kids’ homeschool program were U.S. citizens who had relocated more recently, following a parent’s deportation. They paid up to $800 per student each semester to use an online Christian homeschooling curriculum. For most of them, including Macias, it was a big financial burden, so he began looking into alternatives.

Every two weeks, he brought his boys back across the border to visit his mother in San Diego. One day, Macias realized that he could use her address to enroll in a charter school — a public school that operates independently of a school district. He found one based in Southern California that allows his kids to take classes online. Other parents in his homeschool co-op asked if they could enroll their kids, too. Like Macias, they all had binational families, with some members living in Tijuana, others in California and still others crossing the border daily to work. Soon, Macias had so many inquiries that he approached the charter school about establishing his own satellite location in Tijuana. He called it “American Homeschool” and later changed changed the name to “American Learning Center.”

  • High school students running for student body council present speeches to their student government class.

    Carlos A. Moreno for High Country News
  • American Learning Center Coach Ana Vazquez teaches her second grade students reading activities at the Playas de Tijuana school.

    Carlos A. Moreno for High Country News

Macias arranged to recruit young U.S. citizens living in Mexico for the charter school program, providing them with learning centers in Tijuana and Chula Vista where they could do their schoolwork in a supervised setting. The monthly cost, Macias says, is around $400 per student, which includes the online curriculum, teacher support, learning coach tutoring, and rent, subsidized by the charter school and private sponsors.

For the charter school (which has asked not to be identified, owing to the legally sensitive nature of the arrangement), this all made sense: The influx of Tijuana-based students would boost enrollment and bring in more state funding.

Macias started his program last school year with 11 kids. Initially, he hoped to enroll 50 — enough so that he wouldn’t have to keep crossing the border to work as an Uber or Lyft driver in San Diego — but by September 2018, 218 students were enrolled, mostly from Tijuana but also from as far away as Ensenada. Still, this was just a fraction of the estimated 54,000 American children who live in Baja California after a parent was deported from the U.S. or self-deported in fear. Many of these kids struggle in Mexican public schools, which often lack the resources for bilingual education and additional emotional support for the influx of English-speaking students. In the coming years, there could be tens of thousands more.

“The government is trying its hardest,” Yara Amparo López, the coordinator of the Binational Migrant Education Program for the Mexican government in Baja, told me. “But we still have schools where kids don’t understand Spanish, so teachers are facing a huge challenge.”

For Macias, American Learning Center is a way for kids to regain a little of what they lost when they were forcibly uprooted by their parents’ deportation. But his efforts are controversial on both sides of the border. Though his students are all U.S. citizens, Macias knows that some Americans would balk at educating them with U.S. taxpayer dollars while they live in Mexico. South of the border, he’s facing a different kind of opposition: two lawsuits from private schools in Tijuana that see his initiative as unfair competition, even though most of the families in question could not afford the average private school tuition of $400 per month.

“We’re meeting a need, but not everybody is happy about it,” he said. “They’re not happy in the States, they’re not happy here.”

In their Ensenada home, Vannessa and Yisel Romero complete lessons from the American Learning Center as they wait for their mother to return home from work.
Carlos A. Moreno for High Country News

IN SEPTEMBER, Angie Romero learned about American Learning Center and decided to enroll the girls. Homeschooling, she thought, would make it easier for her to take them back to Idaho with her and prepare them for college in the U.S.

For the Romeros, returning to Idaho has become more and more necessary. “We were doing OK until this year,” Angie told me. Last January, they had to leave the house they had been renting in Ensenada when the owner decided to sell. For eight months, the four of them lived in a small motorhome that Angie had borrowed from her parents while they saved up to build a house on a plot of land her husband had bought.

“I’m a doer,” Angie said. “People thought I was crazy for moving to Mexico, for taking the girls down there, but family is family.”

In the past year, she’s considered trying to bring her husband back to Idaho. But it would be too dangerous for him to cross illegally now; he could go to prison. Plus, she added, he is done with living in the shadows, tired of living in fear of that knock on the door, a visit from ICE. It was exhausting, Angie said, being scared all the time for someone you love.

But having the girls in American Learning Center has helped reassure her about their future. College and job opportunities in the U.S. are much easier to access with a U.S. high school diploma in hand. “It’s important that they have their U.S. education,” she told me. “Yisel wants to do college in Idaho. Vannessa isn’t sure yet, but the U.S. is where they’ll end up living. They won’t stay in Mexico.”

For 31 years, Angie Romero lived in Idaho. She misses the large skies and public lands but returns periodically to work at her family’s accounting offices.
Carlos A. Moreno for High Country News

IN TIJUANA, Macias can often be found at his desk in the Eastlake Church, wearing a black polo shirt with “Mr. Jeff” printed on the breast pocket. The church houses the learning center for elementary school students while high school students attend a separate learning center at the Calvary Chapel, about a mile north.

When I visited, Ms. Sophia, one of the learning coaches, was watching over 30 students doing their online classes at long tables in a dimly lit room. Each learning coach has a bilingual teaching certification from the California Association of Bilingual Education (CABE).

On paper, American Learning Center serves students in Tijuana as well as in the San Diego area, but Macias knows he’s operating outside the charter school’s normal jurisdiction.

“They (the charter school) give me certain guidelines, and I have to follow these guidelines” —ensuring the Tijuana-based students spend time in the Chula Vista learning center, for example, and ensuring they are U.S. citizens with a valid California address. “But I’m still in a gray area,” he told me.

Until recently, there were no official teacher preparation curriculum in either country for schools in the border region that serve binational students. “Teachers are underprepared to address the challenges and build on the assets of these trans-border students, ” said Cristina Alfaro, a professor in the College of Education at San Diego State University and the new Provost for Academic Affairs. They often come to her and say things like, “I don’t know what to do with José — his parents are Mexican, but he doesn’t speak a word of Spanish.”

The language barrier isn’t the only challenge that teachers face. After a parent is deported, students understandably feel alone and stressed out about what has happened to their families.

“A lot of these kids are dealing with trauma in their lives,” said Alfaro.

As they grow older, many attend school in both countries for periods of time. But without the proper support, the disruption often causes academic and behavioral problems.

Alfaro is hoping to help change that through a new binational teacher preparation program that she is directing, collaborating with Mexican educators to address the challenges of thousands of cross-border “students we share.” The initiative is also collecting much-needed data on how these students’ educational outcomes are affected, often for years afterward.

For Alfaro, American Learning Center is one way to help these students achieve more continuity and stability in their education, but she also worries that without good oversight, Macias’ model might open the door to turning public education into money-making ventures.

Though the Romeros’ house lacks a sewer and the water from the tap is too dirty to drink, it sits perched on a hillside with a view of the Pacific Ocean.
Carlos A. Moreno for High Country News

FOR ANGIE, VANNESSA AND YISEL ROMERO, American Learning Center has become another way of navigating the in-between aspect of lives lived both “over there and over here.”

One night in late October, Angie drove to the bus stop in Ensenada with Yisel to pick up Vannessa after school. Soon, the girls would withdraw from public school and take all their classes through American Learning Center — a move everyone was happy about.

Vannessa hopped into the van. “My teacher took forrreverrrr,” she said, exasperated. “I want to finish this school already.”

Although the girls spoke some Spanish when they moved, they struggled to understand their teacher and classmates. “It wasn’t good enough,” Yisel explained. Yisel, especially, has struggled with the transition. Two years after they moved to Ensensada, Angie and her daughters returned from a visit to Idaho when Yisel became depressed. Angie remembers how sad her daughter’s eyes were; a chunk of the 10-year-old’s hair fell out. The incident frightened her; she wondered whether, by keeping the family together in Mexico, she was jeopardizing her child’s mental health.

The other kids still see the two girls as outsiders, calling Vannessa fresita — slang for “stuck up” — because she cares about fashion and likes to wear clothes she buys back in the U.S.

But Angie would rather not dwell on the hardships. “We’ve been lucky in so many ways,” she told me, remembering how her uncle and brother-in-law donated shingles for the roof of their house, and how her husband was able to salvage enough wood for the walls. And though their house lacks a sewer and the water from the tap is too dirty to drink, it sits perched on a hillside with a view of the Pacific Ocean.

Still, the Romeros have lost much more than just a house or a job or even a school. In Idaho, they used to go camping as a family. They miss having access to all those wild places. “It’s not the same in Mexico,” Angie said, explaining that most of the camping areas around Ensenada are near popular sites like hot springs.

When I asked Yisel where her home was, she said it was still in Idaho. Her mother hopes that American Learning Center will help her daughters remain connected to the home she left behind — to the cousins and grandmother she misses and the seasons and landscapes they long for. But a U.S. homeschool program cannot repair everything. She worries that for her youngest daughter, Idaho has become less a home than an escape — a refuge from the difficulties of life in Mexico.

As she turned onto the dirt road that leads to their house on the outskirts of Ensenada, Angie looked into the rearview mirror, at Yisel perched on the backseat.

“I don’t know if she knows real life there anymore,” she said.

Vannessa Romero sits outside her family’s Ensenada home, where she likes to watch the sun set over the ocean.
Carlos A. Moreno for High Country News

Sarah Tory is a correspondent for High Country News. She writes from Carbondale, Colorado. 

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