Nogales, Mexico – At 6am every weekday, dozens of children and teenagers with colourful backpacks queue at the port of entry in Nogales on the Mexican side of the US-Mexico border, each waiting for a Border Patrol officer to call them forward.
After showing proof of identification, the students walk into the United States, an impossible feat for many of their parents. Some of the students have parents who were deported, and others were born in the US while their parents were in the country with a visitor’s visa.
Now, they all live in Mexico, and the children and teenagers, who are US citizens, make the trek each day to attend school north of the border.
Mira stood with her six-year-old son in line early one morning, surrounded by the boy’s classmates and friends. Both Mira and her son are US citizens, but the boy’s father is not. Mira accompanies her son across the border each day.
While in his early twenties, Mira’s husband lived undocumented in the US, working as a landscaper in the Phoenix suburbs, where he met Mira.
They say that life was good in Arizona and that he was well paid. But one day everything fell apart when Mira’s husband was pulled over in a routine traffic stop. Because he did not have legal residency documents, he was arrested and deported.
“We are the family following the father in this case,” said Mira, who requested that Al Jazeera withhold her surname.
“I wouldn’t be able to spend a night without him. So now I just bring my children to school in Arizona every morning and come back every afternoon,” she added, explaining that she hopes her son’s American education and fluent English will afford him more opportunities in the future.
“When my husband was deported and we decided that our son should continue going to an American school, I thought I would be the only one in this situation,” Mira said.
“But then I’d see the same kids we saw at the school in the United States in Mexico again,” she added. “When I still lived in Phoenix I never knew there would be so many people doing this.”
But there are hurdles involved in getting children into US schools. In order for her son to attend public school in Arizona, Mira needs to demonstrate proof of residency in the district of the school attended.
For that reason, she rents a studio in a house belonging to a sympathetic former teacher in Arizona who provides her with an address to use.
In the line at the port of entry, several parents tell Al Jazeera they rent apartments on the American side of the border so their children can attend US schools; others have their children registered at the addresses of family members who still reside in Arizona.
In an email to Al Jazeera, Cassie O’Quin, spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of Education (ADE), explained that the residency of a student is determined by the residency of the parent or guardian.
“We do test for residency when we audit [the school]. If they do not have the required residency documentation for students they are claiming for state aid, they are at risk for losing funding for that student if audited,” she said.
The ADE could not confirm how many students live in Mexico and attend schools in Arizona, but it said some students live with family members in the US.
“We also see a lot of students with a court guardianship documentation listing someone else as the legal guardian, who then provides proof of their residency. If these are fraudulent, we wouldn’t know that since we do not investigate students or parents, we just audit the school to ensure they are following the guideline,” O’Quin said.
A teacher from a public school in Nogales, Arizona, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of losing her job, told Al Jazeera that she knew exactly which kids in her class make the daily crossing for school.
In the 2017-2018 school year, about half of her 30 students resided in Mexico and travelled north each morning for class, she said. Last school year, she estimated that about one-third of her students cross the border each day for school. Al Jazeera could not independently verify the totals.
“It’s a known fact at our school,” she told Al Jazeera. “We teachers don’t talk about it a lot, but everyone knows it’s happening.”
US media report that hundreds of school-aged children and teenagers cross the border each morning to attend public or private schools. Mexican schools often do not have teachers who speak English, which can be a problem for children who have gone to an English school for years. Although Mexico has invested heavily in increasing the quality of education over the past years, parents believe their US-citizen children will have more opportunities in the future if they attend school in the US
Language difficulties work both ways, however.
Although many parents hope their children will become fluent in English, the teacher says the plan does not always pan out. “I see the children are struggling, especially children that suddenly start to attend middle or high school after having been in a Mexican school,” she said.
“They struggle too much with their English. They end up failing, not graduating and sometimes drop out. It only works when the children are in an American elementary school continuously from the start.”
Many of the children who wait in line at the border are part of mixed citizenship families, with one American parent and one Mexican parent.
Some parents who are Mexican nationals hold a Border Crossing Card (BCC, also known as DPS-150), which is valid for up to 10 years and permits them to cross as often as they like and travel as far as 75 miles (120km) into Arizona. BCC holders can stay in the US for 30 days at a time.
Cesar* said his wife had their first son in the US. Now in high school, the teen crosses each day to join his classmates at school in Arizona.
“We started out on a Mexican elementary school with him,” Cesar told Al Jazeera.
“But when he was nine, we sent him to an American school. His grandmother lives in Arizona, so first he stayed with her during the week,” he said, explaining he hopes to give his son a better future.
Mira and her family agreed, saying it is not that they do not necessarily want to live in the US.
“It’s not that we are not happy here in Nogales,” Mira said. “For us, life is good here, too. My husband is a good landscaper, trained in the United States, so his work is in high demand. We live well here.”
Although Nogales is located in the Sonora state of Mexico, and the US government has identified it for travel warnings, Mira does not worry about safety in the area.
“We stay pretty much by ourselves, so we don’t experience any problems with that,” she said. “It is just ridiculous to have these divisions, to have a wall between two places.”
*Name has been changed to protect the individual’s identity.