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About 300,000 children born in the U.S. are now living in Mexico because their parents were deported or headed south when jobs here dried up. For many of these kids, adapting to life and school in Mexico is a struggle.
Amy Isackson reports on an after-school program that aims to help these children adjust and perhaps someday return to the U.S.
AMY ISACKSON, BYLINE: The big, cement block Francisco Villa public school is like a fortress in this eastern Tijuana neighborhood. Many of the houses nearby are patched together out of materials people threw out, like old garage doors. The roads are unpaved and deeply rutted.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN)
ISACKSON: The bell pierces the dusty air. Girls in pink jumpers and boys in navy sweaters stream out of class. For 45 of the middle school students here, the sound of that bell is about the only thing that's familiar. Among them are sisters Kimberly and Michelle Vera Soto.
KIMBERLY VERA SOTO: There is teachers that they don't explain the assignment that they leave and that makes it hard.
MICHELLE VERA SOTO: And the kids aren't respectful here. They say a lot of bad words. And then the teacher is like, you won't have no recess. They don't talk to the moms.
ISACKSON: Kimberly is tall and thin. She constantly pushes her long bangs from her eyes. Michelle is about a foot shorter and wears glasses. Their classmate, Denise Sandoval, says one thing she hates about school in Tijuana is waking up early for class, only to discover the teacher didn't show up.
DENISE SANDOVAL: Because they are sick and we don't have substitutes.
ISACKSON: All three girls moved from California to Tijuana a few years ago when their fathers lost their jobs in the recession. Sandoval says when she first arrived, her classmates called her stuck up for speaking English. The Soto girls didn't speak much Spanish.
And science teacher Ana Laura Ortega doesn't speak much English.
ANA LAURA ORTEGA: (Through translator) And what do we do so they understand us?
ISACKSON: Twenty of Ortega's students are from the United States.
ORTEGA: (Through translator) Sometimes they use gestures. Or some of us go look for the English teacher to ask them how do I say this to a kid.
ISACKSON: The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that 300,000 U.S.-born children moved to Mexico between 2005 and 2010. Some of them have landed in the state of Baja California. There are schools that won't even accept these kids, though it's illegal not to. School officials know they can mean extra work and schools are already overburdened. They don't have programs in place to help these kids learn Spanish.
Yara Lopez runs the Baja California Education Department's office to help migrant students. It's a one-woman shop.
YARA LOPEZ: (Through translator) The challenge for these kids is that they're Mexican but they don't feel Mexican. They don't know Mexico. And they don't know what awaits them in Mexico.
ISACKSON: Teachers often don't realize that they have U.S.-born students in their classes. They look just like the other students and have Mexican surnames. Lopez has watched many of these capable kids fall behind. Some drop out. Some who want to go to public high school, face big hurdles, like showing their U.S birth certificate. Many kids don't have a copy with them in Mexico. That's why Lopez helped launch a new after-school program.
LOPEZ: (Through translator) So that they can develop a life in both countries.
ISACKSON: The after-school class, funded by the San Diego-based International Community Foundation, meets three times a week. The teacher, Myrna Zuniga, runs the students through a writing exercise to describe their feelings about studying in Tijuana.
MYRNA ZUNIGA: What do you like in your school? That's it. My teachers, my classmates. My...
ISACKSON: The goal is to help students adjust to the culture shock of moving to Mexico, learn Spanish and prepare them to go back to the U.S., if they want. Many students are crushed to be in Tijuana. Half of those who started the after-school program this fall have already dropped out. Zuniga tells those that remain not give up.
ZUNIGA: (Through translator) It doesn't mean you're not going to be anyone or anything and that life is over. To the contrary, I tell them they have an advantage.
ISACKSON: Zuniga says they day they want to, they can go to the U.S., study, work, live and they don't have to hide.
For NPR News, I'm Amy Isackson in San Diego.