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Enrollment Decline in L.A. Tied to New U.S. Immigration Law

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School officials in the Los Angeles area say they are seeing the impact of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 in a sharp drop in enrollments from projected levels for this year. And they say they are anticipating steeper declines next year.

Throughout Los Angeles and the surrounding county, where an estimated 40 percent of the nation's illegal immigrants live, only about 15,000 new students enrolled for this school year. More than 38,000 new enrollees were anticipated, according to county and city officials.

In a new report, school officials cite as the reason for the drop what Los Angeles County Superintendent of Schools Stuart E. Gothold calls the "immigration amnesty hypothesis.'' Mr. Gothold speculates that families uncertain about their chances for qualifying for permanent residency may be leaving the country or pulling their children out of school until they are more sure of their status.

"Of the reasons why these students are not enrolling, fear is high on the list,'' said Bob Grossman, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County schools. "Fear of deportation, and fear that their families will be broken apart.'' Many immigrant students may also be leaving school on their own to find jobs to earn the $400 needed to apply for amnesty to stay in the country, he suggested.

Juggling the Budget

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, which includes city schools, officials found themselves faced with a $27-million "problem'' when some 12,000 new students who officials had anticipated never showed up, according to Henry Jones, the district's administrator for financial services.

After three years of averaging 11,000 new students per year in the district, which is the nation's second largest, only 2,000 new students enrolled in 1987, bringing total enrollment to 592,000.

The budget figures, however, were based on an anticipated additional enrollment of 14,000 new students, and the result was a loss of $27 million the district had expected to receive from the state based on average daily-attendance figures.

"Statistically,'' Mr. Jones said, "we just fell off the map.''

Because there were fewer students, the district did not need to hire as many new teachers or pay for expanded services, he added, but some cutbacks were necessary nonetheless to deal with the loss of funding.

In Los Angeles County, the projected enrollment dropped by almost 11,000 students.

The county enrolled 13,798 new students this year in its 82 school districts--only about half the number that had arrived in each of the past three years, according to Mr. Grossman. The county's districts serve a total of 1,321,952 pupils.

No Drops Seen Elsewhere

The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service estimates that there are between 49,000 and 69,000 illegal-immigrant children in the Los Angeles area who are not eligible for amnesty under the reform law--estimates that school officials point to in predicting steeper enrollment drops ahead.

In Texas, where illegal immigrants have also swelled enrollments, officials said last week that they had not experienced a significant enrollment drop this year. But they noted that a new statewide prekindergarten program may have balanced out any declines that did occur.

In Florida, state officials are anticipating an enrollment increase of 67,000 statewide next year. A "normalization agreement'' reached between the federal government and Cuba last year, they said, allowed Cuban citizens to immigrate as legal aliens.

Impact Said 'Intended'

Enforcement of the immigration law, which requires employers to verify that employees hired since Nov. 7, 1986, are eligible to work in the United States, began last June with warnings to employers against hiring illegal aliens.

"The intent of the bill,'' explained Duke Austin, an INS spokesman, "is to deny illegal aliens the ability to work illegally in the United States so they will gradually flow back to their own countries, where they are citizens.''

"If this means that there are fewer illegal children in school, then the bill is impacting exactly the way it was supposed to,'' he said.

Currently, the deadline for amnesty applications for those who can prove that they came into the country before Jan. 1, 1982, is May 4; legislation to extend the deadline to Nov. 30 is pending before the Congress.

Next Year's Projections

Under the terms of the law, the penalties for employers of illegal aliens are to become more severe in June. That threat makes it likely that growing numbers of illegal immigrants will leave the country and that those who remain next year will not send their children to school, Los Angeles school officials predict.

Mr. Jones estimates that city schools will enroll only 3,000 new students in the fall.

"We would be expecting 8,000 to 10,000, but we believe there's reason for caution,'' he said.

County officials are also reviewing this year's drop in enrollment to determine next year's estimate.

"We feel we need to put out the warning light for all our school districts,'' Mr. Grossman said. "We need to send out the message that they may be facing more fluctuating student enrollment than expected, and they need to be real careful and work with their figures.''

Still 'Uncertainty'

Officials who represent immigrant populations, on the other hand, say they do not believe that enactment of employer sanctions will result in a mass exodus of immigrant families.

"There's a lot of uncertainty still,'' said Charles Kamasaki, director of policy analysis for the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic civil-rights group based in Washington. "There is no question that L.A. schools will see some effect, but whether it is a straight-line trend or an apparition, it's still not clear.''

It is unlikely that school enrollment will be affected anywhere else, he added.

The Reform Act does not specify what kinds of sanctions will be levied against employers, Mr. Kamasaki explained.

It is not clear whether employers will be prosecuted or will be able to find "loopholes'' in the law, according to the La Raza analyst. A number of the technical issues included in the bill have not yet been tested in court, he said.

"It may just be like a traffic violation,'' he added. "Until we know just how effective these employer sanctions will be, it is very hard to say how many--if any--people will just pick up and go home.''

This week, the National Coalition of Advocates for Students plans to release the results of a two-year study, funded by the Ford Foundation, on issues surrounding the education of immigrant students. It will suggest, according to Mr. Kamasaki, that the full effect of the immigration bill is yet to come. "As with any law, the ultimate effects will be tested over time,'' he said.

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