Addressing the unique challenges shouldered by transborder college students

Colleges and universities in California, New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas are working to better understand and support the thousands of students who commute frequently between the U.S. and Mexico. The Hechinger Report recently highlighted the experience of these transborder students, who face many obstacles to a successful classroom experience: complicated commuter connections, unpredictable waits at the border crossing, strict proof-of-documentation rules, stigma, and the stress of planning for their future amid political uncertainty. Recent policy changes at the border have diverted officers away from points of entry, increasing wait times, which sometimes reach four hours.

An ‘invisible’ population

It is difficult to quantify this population, as students are often reluctant to reveal themselves and risk losing financial aid or calling attention to family members’ citizenship status. Many transborder students are American citizens who live in Mexico for lower-cost housing or to spend time with parents who have been deported. UCLA doctoral student Estefania Castañeda Pérez found that 80 percent of border crossers are U.S. citizens when she surveyed 869 students crossing in San Ysidro, California, and El Paso, Texas, between 2017 and 2018.

Other students have long-term residency or non-immigrant visas. Some commute every day, or stay with friends or relatives in the U.S. on weekdays and see their families in Mexico on weekends. Some start commuting as early as elementary school.

Andrea Morín, who commutes daily from Tijuana to San Diego State University, cannot be categorized as an international student, a U.S. resident, or a participant in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. She says people in her situation often fall through the cracks. “We feel invisible,” she said. “We’re just trying to make our lives better by improving our education.”

Administrators, student groups working to boost awareness, support

Students and administrators are taking steps to increase awareness of transborder students on campus, educate faculty to empathize with students’ struggles to get to class, and create systems that support transborder students. Vannessa Falcón, a transborder Ph.D. candidate in a joint program between San Diego State University (SDSU) and Claremont Graduate University, created the Transfronterizx Alliance Student Organization for fellow transborder students. She also designed an ally training program through the school’s diversity initiatives to foster common understanding among SDSU faculty, staff, and students.

Administrators at Arizona Western College in Yuma are asking faculty to avoid making negative assumptions—for instance, that a student isn’t prepared or dedicated—when students are tardy or absent, given the institution’s transborder student population. “It’s quite the opposite of what they might be assuming, in that the class is so important to students that they’re willing to wait four hours in line,” said Susanna M. Zambrano, associate dean for South Yuma County Services.

J. Luke Wood, associate vice president for faculty diversity and inclusion at SDSU, said that increasing understanding of transborder student stressors must “be a core focus of the work that we’re doing or else we’re missing the mark,” given the school’s location near the border. He tells faculty: “assume that if they’re in your classroom, they are the most resilient, most determined, most caring and committed students that you have.”

The University of Texas at El Paso has secured bus transportation between checkpoints and the university to ease commutes. It has also created a website of resources and has offered temporary housing, virtual counseling, and immigration advising to students. “Our entire economy, our way of life, our culture is very contingent on this very specific border relationship,” said Catie McCorry Andalis, dean of students. “As a public institution, we should be serving our region, and that’s not just the U.S. side of the border.”

Topics in this story

Next Up

Final fall enrollment numbers show ongoing decline

Nearly 1 million fewer students enrolled at U.S. colleges and universities this fall, compared with fall 2019, according to a new report.