Migrant children of all ages and education levels attend class March 10 at La Escuela Primaria Fernando Montes de Oca Rodriguez in Tapachula, Mexico. It’s the only registered school in the city that doesn’t require paperwork or entrance exams to enroll. (Photo by Mikenzie Hammel/Cronkite Borderlands Project)
TAPACHULA, Mexico – Cristofer Josue Rivera, 9, hasn’t been to school since he and his father left Honduras more than two years ago.
His father, Arnol Sorto, said they traveled to Tapachula in search of a better life, whether in Mexico or the United States.
Cristofer, who wants to be a firefighter, went to school in Honduras, but once he started the journey, it was difficult to enroll in schools along the route.
Cristofer said he misses his teachers, although he now can’t remember their names.
Arnol Sorto said he grew up working to pay for his own schooling because his mother couldn’t afford it. He wants his Cristofer’s life to be different.
“Growing up, I would like a better level of education, good for him,” Sorto said. “He is going to decide what he would like to study. … Like everyone, I want the best for him…a house, everything.”
Cristofer is one of many kids in this city of 350,000 near the Guatemala border who struggle to go to school because of their migrant status.
Migrant children in Tapachula spend more time in the city and its few shelters than the system is designed for – often more than seven months – and they face many barriers to education, including having to move from shelter to shelter, lacking proper documents to enroll in local schools and needing to work to help support their families. The situation is the same at other locations along the trails migrants use to make their way north from Central America.
Some shelters offer limited schooling, but most facilities are too overwhelmed to accommodate everyone for long periods of time.
But on the far northern edge of Tapachula, one school is hoping to make a difference, despite the huge odds against it.
Each year, thousands of migrant children, with or without families, arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border seeking asylum. Historically, under U.S. law, they have been allowed to enter the country while their cases were decided. They come from Haiti, Guatemala, El Salvador and many other countries.
Gang violence, civil unrest, natural disasters and domestic violence are just a few of the reasons migrants all over the world seek asylum in the U.S., but a backlog of nearly 1.6 million asylum cases dims hope of obtaining a better future.
The wait times, already years long, have been stretched even more by the COVID-19 pandemic, now reaching 4.5 years. And that’s just the average time for asylum seekers to be heard in U.S. court.
During the Migrant Protection Protocols – known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy – implemented by the Trump administration as a response to the pandemic and continued by the Biden administration, asylum seekers were forced to wait in Mexico while their cases were being processed, regardless of nationality. In August, the Biden administration won a court battle allowing it to end the program. Asylum seekers again are allowed to wait in the United States for their cases to be resolved.
But many who have not made it to the U.S. border, whose cases are complicated, or who haven’t yet disenrolled from “Remain in Mexico,” have to wait in areas like Tapachula and have little-to-no access to basic education for their children. Children make up almost one-third of all migrants and asylum-seekers waiting in Tapachula for Mexico’s permission to move north.
In 2019, Mexico reported a 131% increase of migrant children in the country. With more processing delays resulting in overcrowded shelters some kids wait up to eight months to receive a decision on whether they receive assistance from COMAR, Mexico’s refugee agency.
Kesia Yairanieth Chirinos Báez, her husband and two children, Román, 12, and Karina, 9, had been staying at the Jesus el Buen Pastor shelter for less than a week when they spoke to reporters in March.
The family was escaping political persecution in Venezuela after they were forced from their home for criticizing the government. Chirinos Baez said she worked many odd jobs in Venezuela but never made more than $5 per month, barely enough to buy a week’s worth of beans and rice for her family.
Neither of her children has ever been to school, but they have aspirations.
Karina said she wanted to be a ballerina and would love to learn how to read. Román said he wants to be a police officer but couldn’t pinpoint his favorite school subject.
“I don’t know … anything. School is beautiful,” he said in Spanish.
Migrant children often are behind in their education and affected by the rigors of their journey. Many, experts say, should be receiving specialized attention. Studies also show that “trauma informed” schools can reduce the negative impact of traumatic experiences on children.
But any school, much less one that might offer specialized trauma therapy, is hard to find for migrant families who have suffered horribly along their journey.
This is something the Chirinos Baez family knows all too well.
Chirinos Báez said that on their journey to Tapachula, they crossed jungles where family members suffered injuries, struggled with diarrhea and other health issues, and witnessed fellow migrants die.
“But they’re used to it,” she said when explaining why the children don’t seem fazed by this. “They’ve seen death before.”
In 2018, the family survived a massacre in the mines where Chirinos Báez and her husband worked. The ownership of the mines changed, and Venezuelan employees lost their jobs. After refusing to leave, she said the government sent in armed men to remove the trespassers – one way or another.
Chirinos Báez remembers having a gun pointed to her face, and the only reason she survived was because the gunman saw she had children.
“He just told us to run.”
Parents who want to enroll their children in the local school system often are stymied by the required documentation, such as identification cards and school records from their home countries. Many families, and especially unaccompanied minors, do not carry such papers.
“Students have access to education, but it’s important to have documents,” said Mitzi Gómez, protection assistant of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Tapachula.
“Sometimes they get robbed of their documents, but schools are supposed to welcome them, and they take a test to see their level of reading and writing.”
But according to local activists, some migrants – especially Haitians – are being denied services, even by federal organizations.
Freddy Castillo, a Haitain migrant who works closely with the Haitian Bridge Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for the rights of Black immigrants, said Haitians are getting no educational opportunities.
Castillo and other Haitians allegedly were told they can’t get help because there is too much demand from other migrants for food, housing and jobs.
“I don’t see our children in school,” Castillo said.
Some Tapachula shelters offer limited education services, but that only covers a fraction of families who need and want their children to be in school.
Buen Pastor has an on-site day care and school area at the back of the shelter, where the walls are painted teal and covered in artwork. In the far corner sits a plastic playground set, much too small for the older children.
Fray Matias de Cordova B.C., an organization that provides resources to displaced women and families, has a children’s play space but does not host formal schooling. The group also cites too much demand and too few resources for not having the capability to educate migrant children.
Another shelter, Hospitalidad y Solidaridad A.C., offers a more formalized version of school for those in the shelter, but the program can only handle 100 kids at a time.
Despite limited opportunities, one school off the beaten path is trying to overcome these obstacles and provide for the children left behind.
La Escuela Primaria Fernando Montes de Oca Rodriguez is located down a rocky, unpaved road in Las Gardenias – one of the last neighborhoods on Tapachula’ north side. Beyond it is mostly jungle.
The school focuses on educating migrant children. It’s the only registered school in Tapachula that does not require paperwork or entrance exams to enroll.
Principal Maria Guadalupe Verdugo Escobar, who has worked at Fernando Montes for four years, said she runs the school based on what she would want for her own daughter. Her goal is to inspire change in others.
“My objective is for more schools and institutions to be aware of the function we have. Likewise, seeing that the school is accepting kids, I would also like the others to do so,” Escobar said.
“In this case, our school will be known as one with open arms. We do not reject.”
Escobar said she doesn’t require documents because it would exclude children who need the education and caring environment.
“Unfortunately, not all teachers have the patience, the time and above all, love towards the children,” she said.
Two years ago, a team from Fernando Montes school traveled around in caravans to reach kids, but they couldn’t meet the demand, she said.
In Mexico, the average class size is about 20 students. In the caravans, classes could hold as many as 45 at a time, the majority of them being Central Americans or Haitian.
The school has since moved away from teaching caravans and now recruits migrant children by knocking on doors and searching the streets for kids in need.
Escobar reports that enrollment is increasing again since the pandemic eased but teachers still struggle with scant resources and instructional materials. Fernando Montes school requested funds from the government, as they are a registered school in the city of Tapachula, but the only response they have received so far is that there’s nothing to give.
“I can only ask for change, but here, these are my babies. It doesn’t matter whether they’re 10, 15 years old, they will always be my kids,” Escobar said. “I don’t care if your dad is an assassin, I don’t care if your mom is a radical. What I care about is you. You are the future of tomorrow.”
In the present, educating migrants in Tapachula remains an enormous challenge despite the best efforts and intentions of Escobar and others.