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.

Juan and his mum, Maria, wake up at 5:30 a.m. each day to make the trek from their home in Tijuana to Juan’s high school in San Ysidro. Some mornings, crossing the border can take up to an hour and half.

But Juan’s mum says it’s worth the sacrifice.

“He has more of a future here in the United States,” Maria says. “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.”

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.

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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 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.

“In many cases, those are the kids who are here every day with their little backpacks on, their hair done, their breakfast eaten, and they get up at the crack of dawn,” Alvarado says. “Any parent who makes that sacrifice obviously wants their children in school.”

Alvarado says there are two primary reasons families move to Tijuana.

One is the cost of living in Southern California. The San Ysidro School District has a staggering 33 percent student homelessness rate, the highest in the country.

In other cases, if parents of kids who are U.S. citizens find themselves forcibly removed from the U.S., many parents still want their children to have a U.S. education.

“We have kids arrive mid-year because someone got deported, and that’s every year,” Alvarado says. “We have kids who arrive in, like, April.”

She says they ask the students questions like, ” ‘Where were you before? Bakersfield. And what brings you here? Ah, my dad was deported.’ That’s every year.”

All but one of Alvarado’s 30 students are Hispanic and many commute from Mexico. She says she can see that her students are visibly stressed by having to cross the border every day, especially now with the heightened rhetoric about illegal immigration.

Alvarado 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.

“Those kids are American citizens,” she says. “They have a right to live here. That they don’t live here now doesn’t mean they won’t live here someday.” With that being the case, she says it’s in the community’s and the country’s best interest to see that these students get an education.

For NPR News, I’m Jonathan Levinson in San Ysidro.


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