Principal Encourages Immigrant Students To Aim For Middle Class

At a rural high school outside El Paso, Texas, the principal tries to inspire poor immigrants or kids of immigrants to go to college, though many have never seen one.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene, good morning.

This next story starts at the beginning of a school day, just after the sun rose over the town of Anthony in West Texas.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

So we have wildcat paw prints here outside Anthony High School, home of the Wildcats.

GREENE: That's our colleague Steve Inskeep who arrived at in this community near El Paso, as he was driving the length of the U.S.-Mexico border.

INSKEEP: We arrived in time for a daily ritual. A 16-year-old student named Alonzo emerged from the school with a folded American flag.

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INSKEEP: Seventeen-year-old Kaela helped him hook it to a cable. They cranked it to the top of the pole.

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INSKEEP: The white stripes seemed translucent in the sun. Alonzo has helped with this ritual since last year. Sometimes he's raised the flag in the morning. Sometimes he takes it down in the afternoon. He's learned to fold it into triangles as tradition requires.

He performs this ritual even though he was born in Mexico and is not a U.S. citizen.

ALONZO: Well, that's actually one time when I was wondering, I was thinking, like, this is ironic.

(LAUGHTER)

ALONZO: But I thought about it and I was, like, wow.

INSKEEP: Ironic but also representative of life in the Borderland.

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INSKEEP: After the flag was raised, Alonzo walked into school, where a group of girls said hello.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRLS: Hey, Alonzo.

INSKEEP: He's tall and skinny, dressed in black, with hair nearly down to his shoulders. We came to his school while reporting on people, goods and culture crossing the border.

The principal here is Oscar Troncoso. We met his brother, Sergio, on the program yesterday. Decades ago, the Troncosos' parents crossed to the United States and the family crossed upward into the middle class. We wanted to gauge the odds that Oscar Troncoso's students can reach the middle class today. He says almost all of their families meet the official definition of low income.

OSCAR TRONCOSO: For example, all of our kids - all 100 percent of our kids get free lunch.

INSKEEP: Every single one.

TRONCOSO: And every single one

INSKEEP: And many, though not all, are immigrants. This is a rural area, rapidly filling up with people as El Paso spreads.

TRONCOSO: We noticed in the last about two or three years that we're getting an influx of more and more recent immigrants from Mexico.

INSKEEP: Though the school doesn't ask about immigration status, it is believed most students are here legally. Some are not, which is why just using first names for all students in this report. The immigrants are numerous enough to affect the way the teachers teach.

JOANNA RIVERA: All right, go ahead and take out your composition books...

INSKEEP: We followed Alonzo, one of the students who raised the flag, into his first period history class. The teacher, Joanna Rivera, led the students in reviewing some of the constitutional amendments.

RIVERA: What rights do we have as Americans? How do we end up getting those rights?

INSKEEP: Knowing her audience, Ms. Rivera spoke of constitutional rights in terms to which her students might relate to.

RIVERA: Put yourself in this situation. Let's say I'm sure a lot of you have relatives who migrated from Mexico...

INSKEEP: Once they make it here, she said, immigrants want the right to vote and other rights that come with citizenship.

In a conference room at Anthony High, the principal helped us gather five students, including those who'd raised the flag. They were described to us as good students, good leaders or both - though many have complicated life stories. I asked for a show of hands.

How many of you were born in the United States? Two out of the five?

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: Alonzo did not raise his hand. In the last few years, he's begun to think about what his status means.

ALONZO: It clicked that, wow, no wonder my mom raised me to be, like, a really good, you know, person - a really good boy. Because if I get in trouble, I'll be - they'll start wondering and they'll throw me back.

INSKEEP: Talking with these teenagers it is easy to sense many families under stress. Junior is 17 and no longer living with his parents. They moved back across the river to Mexico, leaving Junior with his older sister.

JUNIOR: My mom wanted me to stay for a better education.

INSKEEP: Thought that you could get a better education here...

JUNIOR: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...at Anthony than...

JUNIOR: Over there.

INSKEEP: ...somewhere else. Was that hard for your parents to move away and you stayed here?

JUNIOR: Well, my dad got deported so my mom had to move 'cause she had just had a baby.

INSKEEP: Mm-hmm.

JUNIOR: So she didn't want the baby to grow up without a dad. And it was hard for me. It was.

INSKEEP: How did your dad get deported?

JUNIOR: He got caught doing something he wasn't supposed to be doing.

INSKEEP: Oh, so there was an arrest and then he got sent over.

JUNIOR: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Obviously it's hard for them to come over and see you?

JUNIOR: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Do you think it was the right choice, to leave you here?

JUNIOR: Yeah.

INSKEEP: And then there's Zuaramitzi. She was born in Mexico, but after some family trouble she moved across the river. She was adopted in the United States by her aunt.

ZUARAMITZI: We came here with, like, little knowledge of the English language. And we have developed - my brother and I - 'cause we were both adopted. We have developed great knowledge of the language. And I think we have excelled greatly.

INSKEEP: As a matter of fact, she is the valedictorian at Anthony High.

Listening to students from these mostly low-income families, it's clear their exact immigration status is only one of the complexities they face. Many immigration problems can be eased.

The Obama administration has offered delayed deportation for young people who were brought here illegally. Junior is applying for that delay. Alonzo has an American father, and could obtain citizenship if his family applied. But even students in our group who were born in the United States can sense the difficulty of getting ahead.

VINCE: I'm the first one that's going to a go to college in my family, so it's like nerve-wracking because I didn't have the happy childhood.

INSKEEP: The short version of Vince's story is that his family has broken apart. He's living with his aunt, and his older brother and sister did not go to college.

VINCE: A few times Vince has been on a college campus.

INSKEEP: So have you had a moment of walking around on one of those campuses and saying, do I belong here?

VINCE: Yes, actually to this day, I sometimes think at home I think and, I try to picture myself in college. You know, I'm walking and going to classes and just I can't and I'm like struggling like because it's like what if I - like what if I, you know, don't belong. You get me? Like what if I don't fit in and I'm just like the odd one out?

INSKEEP: These students in the Borderland are wrestling with how to make their crossing into a better life. Along the way, they're being forced to think about who they are. Alonzo, one of those who raised the flag, likes math. Maybe he could become a nuclear engineer, he says, or maybe go into aeronautics.

ALONZO: I really like the, the drones and all that, like, I really want to go to some kind of military, but I want go into the science and the math part, so.

INSKEEP: We're by the border where they used drones, have you ever seen one or heard one?

ALONZO: No, because I really recently read about that, too, in National Geographic, calling some friends like, wow, they use drones like near the border, too. Now it goes to the weird part. If I go into that, I know it's going to be ironic because if I help them out and (unintelligible) what if my family's in trouble? Like some family member is in trouble and wants to come over here, does that mean I just ruined their chances to coming over here?

INSKEEP: Alonzo's identity influences his ideas about what he wants to do, though he's still struggling to define that identity.

Do you feel like you're an American?

ALONZO: When you put it that way.

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: Put it another way. Put it in your own...

ALONZO: Because at home I almost don't. I feel like - nah, I kind of - because we speak Spanish, though. We speak Spanish.

INSKEEP: At home he's Mexican. At school, speaking English, he's American. Either way, he's an immigrant. He wants to cross over to a new life, but also remain true to who he is.

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INSKEEP: The U.S.-Mexico border stretches for more than 1,900 miles and there is still some way to go on our road trip.

Tomorrow, we arrive in Columbus, New Mexico. It's a small town famous for being the target of a cross-border raid. Troops under the Mexican leader Pancho Villa attacked almost a century ago. In more recent years, some Columbus residents woke up to witness a very different kind of raid.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Boy, I'm telling you, I thought that we were in Afghanistan. It was 4 o'clock in the morning. It woke me up, the helicopters, and I came out the front door and there were lights of blue and red lights, you know, everywhere. And they were throwing those bombs that they explode and they have a lot light in them.

INSKEEP: We'll have the full story from the Borderland tomorrow. We also continue to Arizona, famous for its stand against illegal immigration across the border. But some officials in the state are also working to boost their trade across the border with Mexico.

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GREENE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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