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Border studies: heightened security procedures don't stop Mexican students who want American college degrees.

At 9:30 on a Wednesday morning in July, eastbound traffic on the Veterans International Bridge at Los Tomates is already backed up for nearly half a mile from the U.S. border checkpoint. Sitting in his family's battered Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera in the middle of the bridge, Adrian A. Sanchez takes no notice. Instead, he reviews pages in his physics textbook to prepare for his first day of summer school.

A hundred yards to his right, the harsh sunlight glints off a tall chain-link fence between the car and the Rio Grande. Crowning the barrier are whirls of razor wire that spiral to the horizon.

Class starts at 10 and Mr. Sanchez, who wants to be there early, left his home in Matamoros at 9. Depending on the day, time, and the level of the homeland-security alert in the United States, the five-mile trip might take 30 minutes, or it might take two hours. His father, Luis, who is driving, jockeys through the lines of cars to get ahead.

For two years now, Adrian and his father have crossed the Matamoros to Brownsville so Adrian can get his bachelor's degree in chemistry at the University of Texas at Brownsville, located just across the border.

The Sanchezes are not alone. It is estimated that between 7,000 and 12,000 Mexican students cross the border daily or weekly to attend classes at a dozen public colleges in three states: Arizona, California and Texas.

Experts on U.S.-Mexico border relations say it is impossible, though, to pinpoint more precisely how many Mexicans cross regularly. A main reason is that the F-1 visa for international students assumes that they will reside in the United States, so Mexican students who cross the border are not tracked by where they actually live. Many residents of the region don't live in the country where they hold citizenship, and mailing addresses are often established for convenience.

Life along the border is fluid. Many people have relatives in both countries and may live on either side of the border on any given day. Americans and Mexicans cross the border on short notice to shop, eat, do business, or visit. "They come for a course in English like they come for a haircut," says Jose G. Martin, Brownsville's provost and vice president of academic affairs. Many, like Mr. Sanchez, also come for degrees.

But the heightened security procedures put in place since Sept. 11, 2001, are making long lines to get into the United States a way of life for these students. And at a time when colleges along the border are trying to increase the number of college graduates among the fast-growing Hispanic population, higher-education officials are worried that the security measures may discourage Mexican students from applying to their institutions.

In Texas the state demographer released a report in 2002 that predicted that $9 percent of the state's population would be Hispanic by 2040. Brownsville is already 91.3 percent Hispanic. The report also warned that unless more Hispanic residents get college degrees, the state's economy will lag.

"As the lower Rio Grande Valley goes," says Linda Fossen, associate vice president for enrollment at the Brownsville campus, "so goes Texas, and so goes the rest of America."

So far, U.S. security policies have had mixed effects on Mexican enrollments. The number of Mexican students at the University of Texas at Brownsville has increased 71.8 percent since September 2001 to 299 in the fall of 2003. This year enrollment is 391, up 124.7 percent since 2001.

But other institutions have seen their cross-border enrollments plummet, especially among students in programs that teach English. Part-time enrollment at the International Language Institute at Texas A&M International University, in Laredo, has dropped by half to under 200 students.


Adrian Sanchez is typical of many Mexican students who attend American colleges, says Jon Amastae, director of the Center for Inter-American and Border Studies at the University of Texas at El Paso. The students often live in Mexico because housing and services are cheaper. Some live at home and commute back and forth each day, while others stay with relatives on the American side during the week and cross back into Mexico on the weekends. Many work part or full time at a maquiladora, one of the hundreds of American-owned factories peppering the Mexican side of the border.

By almost every measure, Texas has more Mexican commuter students than any other border state. Historically, Texas colleges have reached out more to Mexican students, both to bolster their interdependent economies and because they share a common culture.

El Paso has become a Mecca for such cross-border education. The University of Texas at El Paso proudly advertises that its student body is 71 percent Hispanic. The university figures that its 1,817 Mexican students made up 10 percent of its fall 2003 enrollment, and that 15 percent of all Mexicans studying in the United States go there. What's more, between 60 percent and 75 percent of all Mexican students who attend the university live in Mexico and commute regularly from Ciudad Juarez and its surroundings. Nearby El Paso Community College enrolls 301 Mexican students.

One of the biggest reasons Texas colleges attract so many Mexican students has been the state's Mexican Citizens With Financial Need-Border County Waiver. Started 13 years ago, the program permits needy Mexican students to pay in-state tuition at eight Texas colleges in counties along the border, including the University of Texas at Brownsville. The program saves Mexicans--including Mr. Sanchez--from paying the much-higher out-of-state tuition normally charged to international students.

California has also reached out to Mexican students in an effort to encourage them to attend its public colleges. In 2001 lawmakers in both states passed similar laws that allow illegal immigrants who attend American public high schools for at least three years and get their diplomas to pay in-state tuition. The students must also promise to apply for legal status if they have not already done so. The programs were designed to help Mexican citizens living in the United States, but they also apply to those living in Mexico who previously attended American public schools. (California's law was ultimately vetoed by former Governor Gray Davis because of the price tag.)

Most colleges in Arizona and New Mexico are located too far from the border to attract many Mexican commuters. The Arizona Board of Regents has proposed drastically reorganizing the state's college system to combine Northern Arizona University at Yuma and the University of Arizona South into a new university. That larger institution, Southern Arizona University, could potentially attract more Mexican commuters.


Back in Brownsville, Adrian looks up from his physics equations at 9:40, when the car halts at the border inspection booth. He and his father hand over their passports, with Adrian's including his F-1 student visa and 1-20 form confirming he is a student at the University of Texas at Brownsville. The officer with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection branch of the U.S. Homeland Security Department scans the documents perfunctorily and asks a question or two in Spanish.

The Sanchezes would be waved through without fuss if not for the white reporter and photographer--definitely not standard cargo in a Mexican vehicle--riding in the back seat. Eyebrow raised, the patrol officer directs cordial but pointed questions at the strangers. When they show their American driver's licenses and explain their presence, the man says the car can pass. The whole inspection takes less than two minutes.

After September 11, part of the American strategy for preventing future terrorist attacks was closely watching international students. The Homeland Security Department created the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, or Sevis, a database that tracks foreign students and scholars in the hope of weeding out potential terrorists. Students must regularly inform their colleges about their studies and travels or risk deportation to their home countries.

Security concerns also led the federal government to revoke the permission that it had given to part-time college students, including many Mexican commuters, to take courses using B visas for nonimmigrant tourists, even though the law technically prohibited part-time study by foreign nationals at American institutions. Full-time students must apply for standard F-1 visas for academic study. Those visas presume that the student will study full time and reside in the United States.

Students and officials at colleges along both the Canadian and Mexican borders panicked at the news, and many commuters either switched to full-time status or dropped out. Hearing their complaints, Congress in 2002 created a new F-3 class of visas for some Canadian and Mexican citizens who commute to study full time or part time in the United States.

The Homeland Security Department went one step further to help Canadian and Mexican students in August 2002 when it granted an exception so that part-time students living near the borders could use F-1 visas. That largely eliminated the need for F-3 visas. The State Department issued no F-3 visas in 2003 and has so far issued only 13 in 2004, all in Tijuana, Mexico. Students continue to stream across the border every day.


Luis Sanchez takes the first exit after the inspection booths and at 9:50 drops his son off at the Brownsville campus. Five minutes later, Adrian is sitting in his physics class, second-row center, scientific calculator out. All but two of his 19 classmates are Hispanic. He is the only Mexican.

The tightened security measures have soured many international students on attending American institutions, and Mexican students have been no exception. The few who can afford to attend college in other countries are going to Britain, Australia and other English-speaking countries. The rest are complaining about having to pay a new $100 fee for Sevis, on top of the increased difficulties in getting a visa and entering the United States.

Still, says Mr. Amastae, from the University of Texas at El Paso, "for them, this is the best game in town to go abroad because they are close to home, if not at home."

At El Paso, where Mexican enrollment is up by 8 percent since Sept. 11, 2001, Diana S. Natalicio, the university's president, attributes the rise more to the "tenacity and motivation" of Mexican students to get an education "than their circumstances of crossing the border getting better."

Adrian Sanchez agrees that many Mexicans feel it is more difficult to get a student visa. "They think it's harder so they decide not to even try," he says. Personally, he thinks the visa process is relatively easy because of the guidance that university officials gave him. "I do whatever they tell me to do," says Adrian, who plans to graduate in 2006. He wants to continue his studies afterward, but it's up in the air whether he will do them in Mexico or the United States.

First comes a job. After graduation, Adrian intends to work in the United States for at least a year, as his visa permits. He expects he will have to take a job outside the Rio Grande Valley because there are so few jobs here. Eventually, though, he would like to return to Mexico and "give back" to his city. The American degree will help him get a high-paying job at a maquiladora.

After he finishes his class and lab around 2:30, Adrian will hop two buses to get to his current part-time job at a maquiladora, where he makes PowerPoint slides of safety procedures for the workers. Getting back into Mexico today will not be a problem--the border is practically invisible in that direction. But he and his father will be getting up early again tomorrow. With luck, the line that awaits them will be shorter than it was this morning.


Twenty-two years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Plyler v. Doe that every child, regardless of immigration status, is eligible for public primary and secondary education. The Court said that the children of illegal immigrants should not be punished for the acts of their parents. Denying them an education would harm them and the state, the Court said, creating a permanent, uneducated underclass of illegal immigrants.

Fourteen years later, a little noticed provision in an illegal immigration reform law created a new battlefront in the immigration wars. Intended to further restrict illegal immigrants' access to public benefits, this provision limits states' authority over residency requirements and in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities. The 1996 law prohibits states from providing postsecondary education benefits to illegal immigrants unless all citizens are eligible.

Once the children of illegal immigrants graduate from high school, they become unaccepted adults. And there is no easy path for them to gain legal status, only through marriage or the rare employer sponsorship for those with special skills. In the last few years, state legislators have considered the following arguments:

* Unauthorized immigrant children had no choice in entering the United States illegally.

* The state has already invested in their public education.

* College-qualifying students could make economic and social contributions if allowed to continue their studies.

* Allowing in-state tuition rates, at a considerable discount from that charged out-of-state residents, constitutes a reward for lawbreakers (the parents).

* Students should apply for legal status.

* In-state tuition could result in added costs to taxpayers and limited access for other state residents.

Eight states decided the benefits outweigh the costs: California, Texas, New York, Utah, Illinois, Oklahoma, Washington and Kansas.

Kansas, the last to enact in May 2004, is the first to be sued. The Federation for American Immigration Reform, a national organization that opposes immigration, filed suit in July, claiming discrimination against out-of-state U.S. citizens. The Kansas law, similar to the other states, requires that children of illegal immigrants have three years' residence, graduation from a state high school and active effort to attain legal status. U.S. citizens can apply for instate tuition with one year residency in Kansas, financial resources within the state, and an intent to remain indefinitely.

Bipartisan legislation is pending in Congress to repeal the restriction on state residency requirements for higher education and to provide a path for immigrant minors with five years of residence the opportunity to gain legal status.

For more information go to


Laws in the eight states that make long-term unauthorized immigrant students eligible for in-state tuition have comparable requirements. Students must have:

* Resided in the state for three to four years.

* Graduated from a high school in the state.

* Been accepted at a public college or university.

* Signed an affidavit stating they will file for legal immigration status.

--Ann Morse, Christine Walton, NCSL

Michael Arnone is a reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education. Reprinted with permission, from the Sept. 3, 2004 issue. Copyright 2004, The Chronicle of Higher Education (
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Author:Arnone, Michael
Publication:State Legislatures
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2004
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