Image credit: Sara Prestianni

Think. Discuss. Act. Immigration

Print Friendly and PDF

Review: U.S.-born students in Mexico

Nina Lakhani (2015, March 9). “U.S.-born students in Mexico risk becoming ‘lost generation.'” LA Times.


There are now twice as many US citizens enrolled in Mexican public schools as there were three years ago. With economic opportunity in the United States declining and deportations increasing, more and more immigrant families are returning to Mexico. For those families that have lived a long time in the United States, the transition can bring surprising challenges.

This LA Times article considers the case of Emmanuel Vargas, born in Iowa. He moved to central Mexico when he was thirteen years old, when his father was deported. Vargas and his sister both spoke fluent English and broken Spanish. They are among the almost half a million US citizens in Mexican schools.

Immigrant advocacy groups are finding the Mexican school system to be woefully unprepared for the challenge. Fewer than half of Mexican high schools have any teachers who speak English, and only one in ten elementary schools do. Additionally, Mexican schools require documentation before a student can begin attending classes, which many immigrant families have a hard time providing. Emmanuel Vargas spent a year out of school while his documents were sent back to Iowa to be reprocessed. He reports that his English skills deteriorated in this time, and he knew he was falling behind his former classmates in Iowa and his new peers in Mexico.

“It was really hard sitting at home for so long with nothing to do,” he said. “I…got left behind.” Now age seventeen, he says that science classes can be especially challenging in Spanish and he misses the class discussions he had in Iowa. “It is getting easier as my Spanish is better, but I still feel like I am behind.”

Mexican schools require an incoming student to submit their previous school transcript and birth certificates before they can enroll. Furthermore, they require that all foreign documents be certified with an official stamp or “apostille” to be accepted. This additional requirement is because such documents are often used for identification, and the stamp is a means of preventing fraud. However, many migrants leave the US without the stamp:

Most children arrive in Mexico with only their U.S. birth certificate and school transcripts and have not been registered as dual nationals before departing the United States. Some parents don’t know what documentation is needed and others are afraid to undertake the process because they are in the country illegally.

Each U.S. state has different requirements for obtaining the correct stamps. The process can be expensive and time-consuming and requires Internet access and skills that many returning parents lack.

In the case of Emmanuel and his sister, local high schools refused to accept them until their US birth certificates and school transcripts were sent back to Iowa for authentication and then translated into Spanish by a government-approved agent. The process took a year.

Many students drop out of school after missing so much class time. Immigration advocates are aware of the problem and have been petitioning the government for a change in policy, but so far the results have been slow. According to one advocate:

We know families who just keep trying different schools, sometimes in different states, until their kid is accepted somewhere. This is ridiculous, we’re talking about school, a child’s education. It should not be this hard. We’ve had around fifteen meetings now with the Education, Foreign and Interior ministries, and everyone recognizes this is a huge problem. This is about bureaucratic inertia. It needs someone very high up who can see a political advantage in dealing with these transnational kids to sort it out.

According to one government official, “It’s a problem that must be resolved now, it cannot wait, as the number is increasing all the time. We must find solutions this year.”

The broader state of bilingual education in Mexico remains a pressing concern, as large numbers of young people are entering the workforce without a basic education. One official at the US Embassy in Mexico City says that:

This is a large, growing, very vulnerable and definitely a high-risk population which is a huge priority for the United States. Both countries have an interest in getting them into education. If we don’t, they are at high risk from organized criminal groups. We know many will return to the U.S. when they are old enough.

According to one researcher:

There are huge social and economic implications for Mexico in losing these bilingual and bicultural young people in the context of globalization and its ongoing interdependency with the US. They should be seen as an asset, not a problem….Teachers urgently need training on how to teach children for whom Spanish is a second language, as even with the right support, it can take years to become language competent. There are interesting small projects in some states like Tamaulipas, but it’s likely we’re going to lose this generation of returnees.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. Do you think the US immigration authorities should help prepare deported immigrants and their families for life in the countries where they are going? Should there be some kind of orientation program? The article argues that this would be in the country’s interests. Do you know anyone who’s ever been deported and can comment on the process?
  2. Do you think the Mexican government is xenophobic against US citizens who immigrate, in the same way American society is often accused of being biased against Mexican immigrants?
  3. In what ways do you think the immigrant experience in Mexico is different than in the US?


  1. This article describes the ways that large-scale policies often have unintended results. The United States is trying to prevent illegal immigration, and Mexico is trying to prevent identity fraud, yet the result is that a large number of young people are unable to attend school for long periods of time.
  2. Even though government officials recognize the problem, finding a timely solution is not easy. The United States doesn’t want to allow the families to stay in the US, and Mexico wants to make sure they don’t create an easy opportunity for fraud. The officials who could solve the problem are already very busy with other things, and it would take a long time to work out the details of a solution that satisfies everyone.
  3. In a democracy, the media plays an essential role in ensuring that the government adequately represents the people. If this article had not been written then the problem it describes might only be known to the immigrants themselves and a few concerned observers. Because of the internet, a story like this can make it all the way around the world almost immediately. A popular story can be repeatedly covered by several different news sources, from a range of cultural perspectives. Many powerful groups—such as government bureaucracies—that seem impervious to outside influence are sometimes very sensitive to large-scale publicity.

Peter Bass

© 2018 CYS

Write a Reply or Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *