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Child X-ing

Del Rio's controversial crackdown on border-crossing students.
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At first it looked like business as usual in the early morning hours of Wednesday, Sept. 9. The line of cars on the Del Rio International Toll Bridge stretched back toward Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, as people waited to cross northward. Headlights glimmered in the dawn as U.S. immigration officers waved folks through – all except for vehicles with children, which were directed to exit to the right of the bridge.

There, Del Rio school district employees handed out fliers citing Texas educational and penal codes. “Upon conducting a check at the Port of Entry your child was observed crossing into the United State from Mexico to attend school. … Your child will be withdrawn from the school immediately,” the notices read in part. “Please come to the Office of Pupil Services … to provide proof of residence in the United States.”

About 200 notices were issued that morning. The orders had come from Del Rio’s new school superintendent, Kelt Cooper, who has made it a priority to root out Mexican residents attending school in his district. Port Director Mike Perez, who has worked at the bridge since 1979, says that previous school administrators occasionally came to the bridge with clipboards jotting down students’ names. But “it hadn’t been done for a few years,” he says. “The flier is new. I’ve never seen that done before.”

The Del Rio News-Herald headlined its story “District Cracks Down on ‘Illegal’ Students.” Cooper told the paper that a census taken two day earlier had provoked the crackdown.  U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents—at Cooper’s request—had counted the number of school-age children crossing on Monday, Sept. 7. On Monday mornings, families typically return to Del Rio after spending the weekend with relatives in Ciudad Acuña. Perez says that agents counted about 500 children.

Cooper said the situation was “out of control.”  “When we have vans with Coahuila license plates dropping kids off at elementary schools and a report that says hundreds of kids are coming across,” Cooper told a News-Herald reporter, “we have a problem. With these kinds of numbers, it was out of control. … (I)t was right in our face.” What wasn’t explained in the story was that all 500 children that crossed that Monday were either U.S. citizens, Legal Permanent Residents or had valid student visas to attend private schools in Del Rio.

CNN and Fox News picked up on the local story and ran with it. In short order, Cooper became a national hero to anti-immigration activists. But local civil rights organizations began looking into potential rights violations. “There was no due process,” says Courtney Schusheim, an attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid in Del Rio. “If you came across the bridge, you were automatically withdrawn from school.”

The law is clear when it comes to a student’s immigration status. In its 1982 decision in Plyler v. Doe, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that school officials cannot ask about a student’s citizenship status. But according to Texas state law—which Cooper says he was following—children must reside in the district where they attend public schools.

All but 20 of the approximately 200 students issued warnings on Sept. 9 eventually returned to Del Rio schools. Texas RioGrande Legal Aid assisted at least 15 families who didn’t meet the new residency requirements imposed by Cooper. Some missed school for up to four weeks. But the crackdown, and Cooper’s blunt comments to the press about his actions, dredged up lingering racial division in Del Rio, where Mexican Americans have fought for equal education rights for more than a century.

Mexican Americans in Del Rio say that whatever the legalities, Cooper’s actions had a chilling effect that could hinder their efforts to enroll more children in school. “It’s not in our interest to keep children who are U.S. citizens from getting a proper education,” says Alpha Hernandez, another attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid. “Every year some children don’t get registered. I’ve seen children 7- or 8- years-old that have never attended school. We are already suffering from high unemployment and low educational achievement.”

Cooper sees the issue as clear-cut. It was never a question of immigration status, he says, but of residency. “If 200 children crossing at 6:30 on a Wednesday morning is not cause enough to be suspicious, then I don’t know what is,” he says. “No, I guess they all have sick aunts because that’s what a lot of them said.

“We have a duty to be reasonable about this, but to what degree we want to be reasonable can be argued.”

While Cooper’s response appears to be unprecedented in Texas, the broader issue is nothing new. For decades, superintendents along the U.S.-Mexico border have struggled to ensure that Mexican students don’t attend schools on the taxpayers’ dime. With families spanning both sides of the border, determining who has the right to attend U.S. schools can be complex.

David Hinojosa, a lawyer with the Mexican American Legal & Educational Defense Fund, says he cannot recall similar checkpoints in the state. “I think it’s outrageous,” he says. “If he’s so concerned about residency, why doesn’t he go to the eastern or western boundaries of his county to see if any students are crossing into his school district?”

Kelt Cooper’s crackdown stirred up a passel of bad memories for Mexican Americans in Del Rio. Since the turn of the last century, they have fought—sometimes with fists, but more often through the legal system—to educate their children.

The nation’s first important school desegregation case for Mexican Americans was decided there in 1928. The Anglo ranchers who ran the city had barred Mexican-American students from attending a then-newly constructed school in Del Rio. “The parents got together and said, ‘This is not right. We pay taxes. We helped build the school, so our children should be able to attend,’” says Eloy Padilla, an assistant city attorney. A district court agreed. The Court of Civil Appeals of Texas, in Independent School District v. Salvatierra, overturned the ruling.

The case galvanized Del Rio’s Mexican-American community, which set its sights on improving its own schools. “I don’t think the superintendent is aware of how sensitive this town is,” Padilla says. “There are still some very raw nerves among a lot of us. Any semblance of prejudice or discrimination, we are going to rise up and fight back. This town has been known to do that for more than 60 years. We’ve never been known to sit back quietly.”

On the surface, Del Rio looks placid. With a current population of roughly 48,000, it sits three miles north of the Rio Grande and retains a small-town quaintness despite the busy Laughlin Air Force Base on its outskirts. Farmers steer tractors down the main thoroughfare. People still greet one another by first names.

But 40 years ago, Del Rio was sharply divided along racial lines. The San Felipe barrio, south of the railroad tracks and closer to Mexico, was populated almost exclusively by Mexican Americans. Anglos lived north of the tracks.

A slow and sometimes painful integration over the decades has blurred the old prejudices. Alpha Guzman, a 55-year-old Del Rio native, says that when she asks her 17-year-old grandson about the ethnicity of his friends, he shrugs and says, “I don’t know.” She also recalls the time he asked about their ancestry. “I told him, ‘We are Mexican.’ He said, ‘Oh granny, that sounds ugly.’”

Guzman tells me this as she sits outside the Casa de la Cultura in San Felipe on a balmy November evening. The center is at the historical heart of the old Mexican-American neighborhood. About 50 yards away runs the picturesque San Felipe Creek, once another barrier between Hispanics and Anglos. Elderly residents of San Felipe still tell tales of their youth, when a vato from the barrio couldn’t cross the creek bridge without suffering taunts and dodging rocks thrown by the gringos on the north side.

For Guzman and her peers, Cooper’s actions looked like another volley in a battle they’ve been fighting their whole lives. Guzman graduated high school in 1972, another infamous year in local history. During her senior year, the San Felipe and Del Rio school districts were consolidated, ending official segregation. Things grew so heated that year, she recalls, that police had to be stationed in the hallways to break up fistfights. Separate proms had to be organized.

“The kids from San Felipe wanted to hear Mexican music,” Guzman says. “The Anglos wanted heavy metal music. We couldn’t agree, so we each got our own prom.”

Fifteen years later, she recalls, the class of ’72 still couldn’t come together. For their 15th reunion, “we met at a bar in Mexico,” says Guzman. “And some of the Anglo students came in with a boom box and put in a heavy metal tape. One of our guys went out to his car and came back with his own cassette of Mexican music and put it in their boom box.”

The owner ripped out the cassette. Anglo alumni stood up, Guzman recalls, and one said, “‘This reunion is over’ and then they walked out of the bar.” There were no more reunions after that. “I heard that they meet in Las Vegas now,” Guzman says, “and hold their own reunion there.”

Inside the cultural center, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid has called a meeting to try to clear up the confusion about the school district’s residency requirements. At least 65 people, mostly parents and grandparents, cram into a small meeting room on folding metal chairs. In an adjacent kitchen, women prepare refried beans for chalupas and stir fruit punch that will be served after the meeting. Children strum Cielito Lindo in a guitar class next door.

Two months after the now-infamous flier incident, some parents are still unsure what residency documents their children need. Others still wonder why they were asked to provide additional documentation when other families were not.

Maria Consuela Campa raises her hand with a question for Pedro Cruz, the legal aid lawyer giving a PowerPoint presentation. Her sister lives in Del Rio, she says, and has power of attorney over her son—a document formerly accepted by the district as proof that a U.S. relative has legal responsibility for the child. Now, she says, the district is demanding that her sister take legal guardianship to keep her son in school.

“We had to go to a lawyer, and it cost $800 to give temporary guardianship to my sister,” she says. “I don’t understand why some students can have a power of attorney but I need legal guardianship.”

Until this year, power of attorney was all the district required. It’s a legal document that can be drawn up by a notary. After the bridge incident, parents were told they had to provide more costly custody orders, which require them to go to court and give up guardianship of their children.

After the meeting, Campa explains that she lives in Ciudad Acuña, but her sister lives in Del Rio. Her 14-year-old son is a U.S. citizen. He attended private school in Del Rio, but last year he begged to go to a public high school. “We went through all of this because he wants to be with his friends and he loves American football,” she says. “The guardianship will expire in a year-and-a-half. I am wondering if we’ll have to hire another lawyer and pay $800 all over again.”

Kelt Cooper.

Outside the center, Padilla, the assistant city attorney, hands me a manila folder filled with education case law—seven court rulings on Mexican Americans’ challenges to educational barriers in Del Rio dating back to 1928. In the 1990s, when he served as the education lawyer for Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, Padilla represented many families with residency issues. He sees the school district’s actions this fall as the latest attempt to prevent Mexican-American kids from obtaining an education. If the district wanted to tackle a perceived problem with non-resident students, he says, the proper route would be to contact families of students whose residency looked sketchy—not to conduct a roundup that was bound to reopen community wounds.

“It really needs to be handled on a case-by-case basis,” he says. “You don’t just make blanket statements and blast it out there in the newspaper and scare the whole community.”

Folks in Del Rio were surprised to hear that Cooper had agreed to speak with me on the day after the community meeting. “He turned down an interview with Univision, you know,” says Mike Perez, the port director.

When I arrive, Cooper is sitting at his computer dashing off an e-mail. At 6 feet, 4 inches and 280 pounds, with a shaved head and goatee, he can be intimidating, even behind a desk. “Do I look mean?” he asks. “I guess that’s the advantage of being a former rugby player.”

Cooper, 49, scoffs at the notion that he’s an outsider who doesn’t understand the border culture. He grew up in El Paso and Las Cruces, he points out, and for two years served as the school superintendent in Tornillo, 38 miles east of El Paso. Cooper then spent five years in Arizona, from 2000 to 2005, as superintendent of the Nogales Unified School District. After that, he worked briefly for the Arizona Department of Education before moving back to Las Cruces to care for his ailing mother and teach at the local university.

In November 2008, he was hired as superintendent in Del Rio.

Cooper has made waves—not only with the residency crackdown, but also when he refused to air President Barack Obama’s September address to American schoolchildren. He’s won praise for fixing the district’s troubled bilingual education program, which the state had threatened to take over. For decades each school in Del Rio had taught bilingual education its own way, and sometimes not at all. The district’s 2,000 primarily Spanish-speaking students had received English instruction, on average, about 10 percent of the time.

“I capitalized on the momentum and progress already made by the previous superintendent,” Cooper says. “Now we’re giving students three hours of English a day so that they have sufficient time to learn a new language.”

Cooper extols the virtues of Texas’ public schools. “I have a very strong belief that Texas has the best school system in the country,” he says, leaning back in his chair. “The Texas Education Agency has employed some of the sharpest people in the state.”

Cooper appears to have imported at least one educational principle from Arizona: an overarching concern about Mexican nonresidents attending public schools. His former boss, Arizona State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne, has been on a crusade for years to keep nonresidents out of his system. Under his tenure, school employees have been sent to international bridges to videotape children. They’ve checked children’s residency before allowing them to board school buses.

Cooper supported Horne’s approach. In 2004, when as superintendent in Nogales, he told the Arizona Republic that he had turned away 50 students that year because he said they lived in Mexico. “I think anyone who facilitates picking up kids [from Mexico] knowingly should be prosecuted for defrauding taxpayers,” he said. “At the local level, everyone in one way or another subsidizes this illegal activity.”

In Del Rio, Cooper says, it costs $4,300 in state and local taxpayer money to educate each student. Using his figures, the 20 children who never returned to school after the fliers were handed out in September saved the district $86,000. Was it worth the trouble?

“Some [superintendents] turn a blind eye because they don’t want to be attacked by civil liberty groups,” he says. “Some turn a blind eye because they don’t have the resources to police it. We have an obligation by definition of the law to establish whether or not some people are eligible to attend schools free of charge. If we don’t do a reasonable job, then we just foist the additional tax burden on local and state taxpayers.”

If there’s a concern about residency, I ask, why not send a letter home with students rather than set up a checkpoint?

“I could do a lot of different things,” Cooper says. “I could also wait until a student breaks an arm or gets H1N1 and we need to isolate him and no one can find his parents.”

We walk outside. Del Rio High School sits across the street from the superintendent’s office. As we talk, a middle-aged Latina stops her pickup truck in the middle of the street and strides over.

“I just want to thank you for everything you’re doing,” she tells Cooper, pumping his hand enthusiastically. “What you did at the bridge was the right thing. Americans can’t be expected to pay for everything.”

Her name is Enriqueta Eaton, she says. Originally from Mexico City, she has lived in Del Rio for 38 years. Back in the ’70s, she says, her husband paid $35 a month so her four brothers and sisters from Mexico could attend school in Del Rio.

Eaton marches back to her truck. A line of motorists wait patiently behind her truck as she hoists herself back into the driver’s seat. The school district no longer accepts tuition from students outside the district, Cooper says. He’s thought about reviving the practice, but says he hasn’t received an answer from Austin.

Cooper jokes about the encounter with Eaton. “I thought, ‘Oh no, now I’m going to get cussed out in front of reporters,’” he says.

Except for civil liberties groups and a few local attorneys, he says, most people in Del Rio have reacted as Eaton did. He’s received dozens of letters from people around the country congratulating him on preventing “illegal immigrants” from taking advantage of U.S. taxpayers. “Some of them want me to run for president,” he says, shaking his head. But “this isn’t about illegal immigrants. I’m not the U.S. Border Patrol. I guess it’s the climate of politics nationally right now.”

Cooper blames the local paper for blowing things out of proportion. “This became a big deal because the local newspaper said we were turning away illegals. That’s what created the fervor,” he says. “I would be surprised if people didn’t get their cackles up. It’s clearly something that civil liberty groups would have a concern with, because Plyler v. Doe was already heard in the U.S. Supreme Court, and that’s not something we can thumb our nose at.”

Earlier in our interview, I’d asked Cooper what became of the 20 students who never returned after the checkpoint on the international bridge. He shrugged. “I don’t know where they went,” he said.

Others can’t help wondering. Attorney Schusheim says that shortly after the warnings were issued, a 17-year-old student came into Texas RioGrande Legal Aid with his parents. “The parents said they were headed to Minnesota to work and they planned to leave their son with a relative to attend school,” she says. “They were being told they needed a court-ordered guardianship.”

After the process was explained to them, the family told Schusheim they would come back for assistance.” They were very afraid they’d lose their work opportunity,” she says, if they were delayed by legal proceedings.

Schusheim waited a few days, but the family never returned. She called a relative of the family. “They’ve moved on,” he said.

Axochitzin Abrego, a 15-year-old student at Del Rio High, says she knows another student who never came back. “First her brother disappeared, and no one spoke about it,” she says. “I asked her where her brother was, but she wouldn’t tell me. The next week, she was gone, too.

“It gives you a weird feeling,” Abrego says, “because they’re just gone, and no one talks about it.”

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. Melissa is a 2014-15 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund.