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Repayment System for Services to Aliens Criticized

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Washington--The federal system for reimbursing states that provide education and other services to legalized aliens must be reworked if such programs are to continue, a national policy group has warned.

The American Public Welfare Association predicts, in a report released last month, that education will be the most sought-after service by the estimated 3 million applicants to the U.S. immigration-amnesty program over the next two years. States that provide such assistance, it says, will be spending the largest portion of their funds on education.

But problems in the design of the federal program, the welfare group reports, may inhibit states' ability to provide such services effectively.

"The problems experienced by state education agencies and the local education-service providers have been staggering," the report says. ''They have directly impacted the ability of states to establish programs."

The new study is an evaluation of the first year of the State Legalization Impact Assistance Grant program, which offers $4 billion in federal funds over four years to reimburse states for the cost of providing health, public-assistance, and education services to eligible aliens.

The sliag program is administered by the Department of Health and Human Services under terms included in the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.

Amnesty applicants are required under that law to complete at least 40 hours of training in adult basic education to obtain citizenship.

The public-welfare group released its study in anticipation of an hhs report on the sliag program, due to be submitted soon to the Congress. The report is expected to show that sliag funds were underspent during the program's first year.

According to the apwa report, only $206.5 million of the $928.5 million available for reimbursement was spent in fiscal 1988.

But that apparent underspending, the report argues, was a result of states' inability to provide full services because of problems in the program's design.

One problem cited was the long delays in the release of federal regulations governing sliag grants.

For example, the report says, the Immigration and Naturalization Service did not set the standards for education programs until one week before the program took effect. States were unable to enter into contracts, however, until such criteria were established.

In addition, the report says, state officials have been prevented from meeting the demand for immigrant education by overly burdensome federal restrictions.

Specific concerns raised about sliag varied among the five states most affected--California, Florida, Illinois, New York, and Texas.

In California, for example, the underestimation by state education officials of the demand for adult-education classes was a key problem. In some areas, schools have a six-month waiting list and are now offering classes around the clock.

Officials there were forced earlier this year to borrow sliag funds from next year's appropriation in order to continue the classes.

The apwa report makes several recommendations for revising the sliag program. They include: simplifying administrative requirements; lifting the funding cap on administration of educational programs; allowing states to use funds for vocational education; and extending the application period for amnesty.

U.S. Representative Howard L. Berman, Democrat of California, has introduced a bill that would revise the federal immigration law, including the sliag program. But a spokesman said last week that the Mr. Berman had not yet seen the apwa report and could not comment on its findings.--lj

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