TIJUANA, Mexico — At the Biblioteca Benito Juárez in Tijuana, Yara Amparo López López, coordinator of the Programa Binacional de Educación del Migrante (PROBEM) in the Mexican border state of Baja California, is presiding over a meeting.
It's her and a bunch of teenagers, speaking Spanish, English, and Spanglish.
For Rosa, whose 10-year-old son doesn't speak Spanish, the meeting is helpful. Rosa’s kids are two of an estimated 4,000 American citizen children who currently attend school in Tijuana.
In the last two years, more than 205,000 parents of American citizen children were deported from the United States. That means a new influx of American kids are now living – and learning – in Mexico.
In Mexico, PROBEM has been around since 1982, helping American kids make their way through Mexican schools. Because the American children often don't speak Spanish, some have a difficult time adjusting. It's hard for the Mexican schools and teachers, too.
Rosa's son is a new student in Tijuana. He's been attending school in Mexico since January 2013.
“He cried for the first four days," she said, "but now he’s happy. He met two friends in his class that speak the same language."
Rosa herself wasn’t deported — in fact, she's also an American citizen — but her husband, a Mexican national, was removed from the U.S.
PROBEM's López says that the program helps parents navigate the bureaucratic process of enrolling foreign children in Mexican schools. It also facilitates support group meetings to help kids adjust.
"We don't have enough teachers, nor do we have a bilingual education program," López said in Spanish.
She says that Mexican schools generally aren't equipped to offer education in dual languages, or to teach Spanish as a second language. She says interested in an exchange program with American teachers, in order to learn about their experiences teaching ESL.
Although PROBEM tries to help American kids in Mexican schools, the language and cultural barriers are too much for some – especially teenagers.
Fourteen-year-old Arya said her mother initially wanted her to try attending school in Tijuana. But that idea quickly withered when the family realized just how difficult the language barrier was.
"I don’t speak Spanish, so I don’t really talk to people down here," Arya said. "Over there, I could understand people, but over here I can’t."
She's an American citizen, who grew up in Lemon Grove, Calif. Arya moved to Mexico a year ago with her mother, after her husband, Arya’s stepfather, was deported.
The family found a new option for the teen: Arya now attends school online.
The program is through the new Youth Recreation and Education Center in Tijuana. Chris Najera and his wife, a teacher in San Diego County, founded the Center specifically to offer American kids another option in Mexico. It opened at the beginning of the 2012-13 school year.
Najera himself was deported to Tijuana nine years ago. So far, most of the students at the Center have been teens.
"It’s a culture shock for them," Najera said. "On the other hand, for younger kids, you know, it’s not that big of a deal—you know they can easily adapt to the new lifestyle."
Most of the kids, Najera says, have a deported parent. First, students independently enroll in a U.S.-accredited online education program. Then they come to the Center during regular school hours to work in a supervised setting alongside other kids.
But the new program faces hurdles. Few parents earning Mexican pay can afford the high fees associated with online schools. Annual tuition for online schools can rival that of private schools, with costs of up to $7,000.
Other teens, like Mikey, take another route when it comes to their educations. Mikey still attends an American school. That means he crosses the border every morning.
Mikey, 15, is an American citizen and grew up in Los Angeles. For the past five years he's lived in Tijuana, since his father was released from prison and deported. He says he'd like his family to be able to return home, but he understands why they can't.
“I don’t want my dad to get sent to jail forever,” he said. Because his father was deported due to a criminal conviction, he would risk a federal prison sentence of up to 20 years if he were caught trying to re-enter the country at any time in the future.
Mikey's mom believes American schools are better than Mexican schools, and that her son will be better prepared to attend an American college with an American high school diploma.
But there's another reason, too—a more practical one.
“I kind of get embarrassed when I talk Spanish," Mikey admitted. "Because I don’t talk Spanish that good.”
Yet trying to matriculate in an American school without a U.S. address is complicated. For the American children of deported parents in Mexico, it often means lying. Since Mikey didn't have a local address, his mom told his high school that their family is homeless.
And so Mikey now wakes up early each morning to leave his house at 4 a.m. He spends an average of three hours every day waiting in line to cross into the United States.
That means if he's had an average annual school attendance – about 170 days of school each year – the 15-year-old has already spent 2,550 hours of his life waiting in the border line since his dad was deported.
That's 106 full days, waiting to go to school.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Most of the subjects in this story would not allow the use of their last names, out of concern for their uncertain legal status.
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