Tziritzicuaro, Mexico—Whenever she gets a chance, Principal Zoraida Vargas Serv'n encourages her students at the Gabriela Mistral Telesecundaria to stay in Mexico. "We tell them to keep studying, to get a degree of some kind, to stay and help the community."
But many of the 143 youths in the junior high school will not heed her plea: Vargas Serv'n estimates that 40 percent of her students move to the United States after they graduate at age 15. Others leave before that.
Nearly every young person in this rural community knows someone under 18 who's moved to the U.S. Ask students here if they think they will, too, and every single one says yes. They mean soon: at 15, 16 or 17.
Mexican teenagers are immigrating to the U.S. in increasing numbers. The 2000 Census showed a 58 percent increase in the Latino population in the U.S. over the last 10 years. Mexico is full of towns like Tziritzicuaro, towns that have lost significant portions of their populations to the U.S. In many of these areas, young people see immigration as an almost natural life event. But Mexican youth who come to the U.S. in their teens face a unique set of obstacles, and many youths are finding few people or resources ready to help them cope.
Their troubles often start with the harrowing experience of coming here: More than 1.6 million Mexicans were arrested trying to cross the border illegally last year. Once in the U.S., they find an unaccommodating education system, pressures from their families to take jobs, pressures to join gangs, and few youth services aimed at them.
'She should be in school'
Back in Tziritzicuaro, Lucila Garcia's daily half-hour walk to the Gabriela Mistral Telesecundaria took her past green fields, bubbling creeks, quaint wooden foot bridges, horses, playing children, and Tziritzicuaro's picturesque small-town plaza. In Chicago, the 17-year-old's 15-minute bus trip to Instituto del Progreso Latino's alternative high school takes her past gangbangers, a strip of taco joints, and the high walls and razor wire of Cook County Jail, to a wide, smoggy intersection with no tree in sight.
Vargas Serv'n estimates that 40 percent of her students move to the United States after they graduate at age 15.
But for Lucila's first year-and-a-half in the U.S., she made the daily trek not to school, but to work. "I was the youngest one in the factory," says Lucila, who was then 15. What makes her story atypical is that she found her way to high school at all - one targeted to recently arrived teens from Mexico.
About 43 percent of Hispanic immigrants ages 16 through 24 never enroll in school in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). The vast majority of those youths (77 percent) have no foreign high school credentials.
"I don't think we have any idea how many kids come and never even get their feet inside of a school door," says Ann Jaramillo, who works on school reform issues for California Tomorrow and who taught middle school for 22 years in Salinas, Calif.
Lucila's classmates say that they are the exception and not the rule. "Most of my friends, my cousins, everyone I know that's my age, they're all out working right now," says one youth at the high school run by Instituto, a multi-service community organization for youth and families in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, a port-of-entry for Mexican immigrants.
Lucila's older sister has been working a minimum-wage job at a sausage factory since she arrived in the U.S. a year-and-a-half ago, at 17. The prospects of her ever attending school with others her age appear slim. "I feel bad for her," says the girls' father, who can't support the family of five children on his $6-per-hour job as a butcher. "She's working like an adult - and she's young. She should be in school. But what can we do?"
Recent teen arrivals from Mexico who do make it to school often don't have the same motivation to stick with it as do other students, says Jorge Ruiz de Velasco, a research associate in the Education Policy Center of the Urban Institute and co-author of the report, "Overlooked and Underserved: Immigrant Children in U.S. Secondary Schools," released in January.
About 43 percent of Hispanic immigrants ages 16 through 24 never enroll in school in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics.
"One of the biggest challenges for Mexican youth is that a large number of them are either undocumented or their parents are undocumented. The normal incentives for staying in school - which are weak for a lot of kids at their age anyway - are very weak for undocumented youth," he says. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service had estimated that there were 5 million illegal immigrants residing in the U.S., roughly half of them Mexicans, but 2000 Census figures will likely force officials to revise that number to somewhere around 9 million.
"What is your incentive to stay in school if, after you graduate, you don't qualify to hold a job legally?" Ruiz del Velasco says. "And you're not eligible for financial aid to continue your education if you do really well."
It doesn't help that, due to misdiagnosis of cognitive ability, some of the youths are lost in school while others are bored. A social worker at a suburban Chicago high school says she's walked in on English as a Second Language classes to find youths tracing their hands on construction paper and cutting out "turkeys" for thanksgiving. Frustrated, a number of students dropped out.
Other students have big gaps in their education, caused by the move to the U.S. or stretches when they worked instead of going to school.
Dropout rates are higher for Hispanics than for any other racial or ethnic group: 30 percent in 1995, according to the NCES, compared to 8.6 percent for whites and 12.1 percent for blacks. For Hispanics born outside the U.S., the dropout rate was a whopping 46.2 percent. NCES calculates that "a third of the 30 percent dropout rate registered for all Hispanic youths is due to the large proportion of young Hispanic immigrants who come to this country without a high school education and are not subsequently enrolled in U.S. schools."
Ripped from Ranchos
Those who don't feel connected to school are especially vulnerable to gangs. Kenny Ruiz, executive director of YMCA's Street Interventions Program in Chicago, which provides alternatives for youths in gangs, says gang members there have a name for recent arrivals from Mexico: "paisas" (short for paisanos, or countrymen).
"They're prime targets because they're trying to learn the ropes," says Ruiz. "More than anything they want to fit in."
Many young immigrants also experience a profound sense of loss, Jaramillo says. "I think there's a big sense for some of the kids of just being ripped out of their ranchos and places that they love, and really sort of being forced [economically] to come here. With a large group of these kids I think there's just a longing to go home."
Dropout rates are higher for Hispanics than for any other racial or ethnic group: 30 percent in 1995, according to the NCES, compared to 8.6 percent for whites and 12.1 percent for blacks.
Lucila's mother says her oldest daughter spends her free time "dreaming about Mexico." The girl says she would never go back to Tziritzicuaro without her family, but if it were up to her, she would move the family back despite the extreme poverty there.
Jaramillo says teens understand the pressures their parents face - the economic situation, what it would mean to get deported - in ways that younger children cannot. The public schools often provide little help in dealing with such anxieties. Lucila's 15-year-old brother, Jorge Garcia, is a freshman at the large public high school a few blocks from their home in Little Village, one of the largest, most concentrated Mexican and Mexican-American neighborhoods in the Midwest. Six months into the school year, Jorge says he's never met the school counselor assigned to him. At parent-teacher conferences, his mother says, teachers had to look up Jorge by number before they could figure out who he was.
Some youths' emotional issues may be augmented by misperceptions of what they thought life would be like in the U.S. "They think the U.S. is the greatest, the most marvelous place," Vargas Serv'n says as she stands in the school in Tziritzicuaro. "They think the U.S. is going to solve all their problems." She says that kids who've worked in the U.S. come back to Tziritzicuaro with money, sneakers, clothes and cars - helping to feed a myth.
Some youths' emotional issues may be augmented by misperceptions of what they thought life would be like in the U.S.
Youths at Gabriela Mistral talk about what they think life in the U.S. is like. "The houses are big, with carpeting," offers one youth. Another suggests that if she completed her studies in Mexico she could land a job in the U.S. as a computer technician or veterinarian. Lucila laughs to hear how her classmates back home describe life in the U.S. "They don't know," she says.
They learn the truth quickly. Dalia Garcia, who until last month was coordinator of the alternative high school program at Instituto, says many of her immigrant students work jobs, some full-time. "Most of their parents are supporting family in Mexico, so they are sending money, and these kids have to work in order to help their families. That's something that is very important for that group. If they don't have a job they are looking for one," says Garcia. "Some of them start working at 3:30, 4 p.m., and get out at 1:30 in the morning."
Youth Agencies' Role
Ruiz de Velasco says community- based organizations and youth-serving agencies can help immigrant teens deal with these emotional issues and stay on track with their education, by connecting youths to health, counseling, tutoring and mentoring services. At Instituto del Progreso Latino in Chicago, teachers and administrators in the alternative high school program regularly accompany kids to court or to the doctor. Dalia Garcia says kids sense the support at Instituto; youths who don't work afternoon jobs often hang around for hours after class is over.
Jaramillo says community and youth-serving agencies can help recently arrived teens by giving parents information about how the U.S. education system works, so they will know how to advocate for their children. Jaramillo has worked on this at middle schools in Salinas. "Some parents look at their kid's class schedule and they say, 'Oh good, you have math.' But they don't have the instrumental knowledge that middle-class parents might have about, 'Oh, you have general math. Where's your algebra course?'"
Agencies can link families to services such as day care, so teens can continue their schooling rather than staying home to care for younger siblings.
And how about all those working kids? "Somebody's got to be out there putting sanctions on employers for hiring underaged youth," suggests Jaramillo, who says farmworker organizations are more vigilant about child labor issues than are community organizations that serve kids who might be illegally employed in factories.
Jaramillo also points to groups like Barrios Unidos in East Salinas that work one-on-one with youth: "They see them starting to hang out on the street corner and ... they start talking to them and try to redirect them. Anything that communities can do to engage kids in some productive kind of activity after 3 o'clock is important."
Dalia Garcia, who until last month was coordinator of the alternative high school program at Instituto, says many of her immigrant students work jobs, some full-time.
But recent arrivals tend to be very aware of cultural differences between themselves and youths who grew up in the U.S., Jaramillo says, and may not feel welcome in activities involving other youth. Garcia at Instituto says the Spanish-language youths there rarely mix with the English-speaking ones, even though all are of Mexican heritage. She suggests trying to team recent arrivals with kids like themselves, at least initially.
Perhaps the primary challenge to youth-serving organizations is to recognize recently arrived Mexican teens as a target population. Few programs focus specifically on these youths. Community organizations and youth-serving agencies can help determine whether these teens will be seen as a group with its own issues to be dealt with, or whether they'll continue to be served catch-as-catch can, some in English as a Second Language programs, some by public high schools, some in gang intervention programs - and many, not at all.
Juan Salgado, Executive Director
Instituto del Progreso Latino
2570 S. Blue Island
Chicago, IL 60608
(773) 890-0055, ext. 222
Zoraida Vargas Serv'n, Principal
Escuela Telesecundaria Gabriela Mistral
Ziritzicuaro, Municipio Maravatio Michoacan, Mexico
Jorge Ruiz de Velasco
The Urban Institute
2100 M St., NW
Washington, DC 20037