Like any other high school student in Mexico, Andoni Zazueta (18) wakes up early and has breakfast. But from that point on his day takes a different turn. At 6am he and four, sometimes five other students gather and wait outside a grocery store in northern Tijuana. They then load into a car in which one of their mothers drives them across the US border to the St Augustine High School in San Diego.
“Usually it takes about an hour and a half to get to school if there’s a lot of traffic,” he says. “Once we pass the border it’s still a half an hour.”
When the border was closed after migrants from Central America attempted to breach a barrier fence last November, Zazueta, a US citizen who plans to study law at a university in California, found himself two hours late for school. For the most part, however, because the commute has been part of his daily routine since kindergarten, he sees it as an unremarkable part of his life.
While there are no exact figures, thousands of Mexican students are thought to cross into the US every day for class in school systems significantly more advantageous to their careers than those in Mexico.
Many do so through the San Ysidro international bridge, 30 minutes south of downtown San Diego, and one of the busiest border crossings in the world. Here, about 20,000 pedestrians walk north into the US every day, some of them backpack-wearing students en route to a day of classes in American schools.
After arriving at the El Chaparral border point in Tijuana, they cross a long footbridge to reach US soil, where bags and IDs are checked by US border officers. Once cleared, a 10-minute walk sees them arrive at a network of bus and light rail stations from where they must contend with crowds before taking an onward bus journey to school.
The transnational way of life as experienced by people such as Zazueta illustrates the deep-rooted ties that bind communities on both sides of the border, a border that has repeatedly been identified by US president Donald Trump as a gateway for illicit activities such as drug smuggling and human trafficking.
"Many families in the cross-border region live lives that span the border and it is not so easy to categorise them as 'being from' one place or the other," says Melissa Floca of the Center for US-Mexico Studies at San Diego's University of California.
Zazueta, who volunteers for a charity for migrants in San Diego during school holidays, estimates that between 20 and 25 students from his class of 108 embark on the daily cross-border commute, and all are US citizens.
“The reason my parents put me in school in the US is because of the opportunity to learn and speak English as a native. With a degree from the US, I can get any job,” he says.
His mother frequently drives across the border four times a day on school runs. By 2pm, he and his classmates are done in America – lessons studied, homework assigned – and promptly head back home.
Experts say this cross-border schooling phenomenon has been largely ignored by politicians. “We have a total vacuum when it comes to education. With literally millions of young people in Mexico and the US who grow up in both countries, we need to ensure that cross-border experience does not derail educational and professional trajectories,” says Floca. “This is a potential workforce that perfectly complements the cross-border economy and it is largely squandered. We pay considerably more attention to getting strawberries and avocados from one country to another than we do to supporting binational youth.,” she adds.
Drugs across the border
Tijuana is currently in the midst of a violent crime spree, something Zazueta admits has an effect on his everyday life. In November, two San Diego students who attended a school 15 minutes from Zazueta’s were found tortured and killed in an apartment during their first visit to Tijuana.
Recent years have also seen an explosion in the number of incidents whereby gangs recruit high school students to carry drugs across the border to San Diego.
Despite the violence that last year saw Tijuana endure a record number of murders, Zazueta says he would never consider leaving to live permanently in the US. “I think some people lose their culture when they come to the US,” he says. “The violence with the narcos and all that, that’s definitely a disadvantage of living there[in Mexico]. [But] Tijuana is less expensive, and everything is closer to you.”
He says the commute and having to negotiate contrasting worlds and cultures is worth the effort. “The two cultures, the two languages – I have the best of both worlds. I love where I live, Tijuana is a great city,” he says. “And right next to me is the leading economic power in the world where I can go to university and work.”