MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
The land border crossing between Tijuana, Mexico, and San Ysidro, Calif., is the busiest in the world. As Jonathan Levinson reports, among the crowd are students whose families live in Tijuana and who commute each morning to bring their children to school in the United States.
JONATHAN LEVINSON, BYLINE: Juan and his mom, Maria, wake up at 5:30 every morning to make the trek from their home in Tijuana to high school in San Ysidro. They have to get up early because crossing the border can take up to an hour and a half on some mornings.
JUAN: It's been kind of a - it's been a lot. Every day just crossing - it's, like, the time management. It's finishing homework on time. Yeah, it's a lot.
LEVINSON: But Juan's mom says it's worth the sacrifice.
MARIA: (Through interpreter) He has more of a future here in the United States. The school is much better here than in Tijuana. It's a lot of work, a lot for him and for me. We wake up very early, wait in line. But it's worth it.
LEVINSON: They asked not to be identified by their last name because families caught living outside the district can be fined the cost of their education.
Teachers in San Ysidro say as many as 1,000 students cross the border every morning to go to school. I joined them on a recent morning to see what it's like.
It's 5:30 in the morning, and I'm standing here in Tijuana, on the Mexico side of the border. And there's a steady stream of cars pulling up, dropping off kids who are all making their way through the fence, up the ramp to cross the border into the United States to go to school. There are kids of all ages - high school students coming in groups of three, four, and five. There are younger kids walking with their parents. One boy just came by riding on his dad's shoulders with his sister walking alongside of him.
On the other side, some students get on the bus while others take off on skateboards and bikes. But many of the younger ones will walk just a few blocks to Willow Elementary School, where Nancy Alvarado has taught fifth grade since 2000.
NANCY ALVARADO: In many cases, those are the kids who are here every day with their little backpack on and their hair combed and their breakfast eaten. And they get up at the crack of dawn. And any parent that's willing to make that sacrifice obviously wants their children in school.
LEVINSON: Alvarado says there are two primary reasons families move to Tijuana. One is the cost of living in Southern California. The other is when parents of kids who are U.S. citizens find themselves forcibly removed from the United States, many still want their children to have a U.S. education.
ALVARADO: We have kids arrive midyear because somebody got deported, and that's every year. You get some kid that arrives in, you know, April. And it's like, oh, so where were you before this? Ah, Bakersfield. And what brings you to San Ysidro? Ah, my dad was deported. That's every single year.
LEVINSON: All but one of Alvarado's 30 students are Hispanic, and many commute from Mexico.
ALVARADO: Goo morning.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: Good morning.
ALVARADO: (Speaking Spanish).
LEVINSON: As class begins, Alvarado tells me she sees that her students are visibly stressed by having to cross the border every day, especially now with heightened rhetoric about illegal immigration.
ALVARADO: They hear this, the rhetoric of build the wall, and they imagined the Berlin Wall. My kids are very aware of all that.
LEVINSON: Public school budgets are determined by attendance and funded through property taxes. In order to enroll, families must prove residency. No one from the school district responded to efforts seeking comments on whether families of kids traveling daily from Tijuana were skirting the rules. But the executive director of the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce said the community had faith in the system.
JASON WELLS: In the community, we trust in our school district and what they do as far as their residency confirmation.
LEVINSON: That's Jason Wells.
WELLS: I wouldn't say that the community sees children coming from Mexico as a tax burden. Like I said, this community is very supportive to people regardless of their immigration status.
LEVINSON: Maria and her son still lived in the district last year when she registered him for school.
MARIA: (Through interpreter) We lived here in San Diego. But here, the rent is very expensive, so I decided to go to Tijuana.
LEVINSON: But before next year, they will have to find another way to prove residency.
MARIA: (Through interpreter) I'm scared. Next year, they'll ask for a lot of papers. I'll ask for an address from one of my family members. I'll ask for a favor, and maybe he'll stay here with them. It'll be harder for me because we're used to being together. But, well, he has to.
LEVINSON: Nancy Alvarado, the fifth-grade teacher, is quick to point out that most of the families who cross the border would likely be homeless if they stayed in San Ysidro and wouldn't be paying property taxes anyway. Besides, she says...
ALVARADO: Those kids are American citizens. They have a right to live here. That they don't live here now doesn't mean they won't live here someday.
LEVINSON: That being the case, she says it's in the community's and the nation's best interest to see them educated. For NPR News, I'm Jonathan Levinson in San Ysidro.
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