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'Our Strength Lies in Our Diversity'

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The author is a policy analyst for the Corporate Fund for Children, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Austin, Tex.

A strong anti-immigrant sentiment has embedded itself in the state of California. As a result, many wonder whether other states with large numbers of immigrants will follow the same path.

In Texas, fortunately, the anti-immigrant fervor has not spread with the same intensity it has in California. There are a number of reasons: Texas shares close ties with Mexico geographically, historically, and economically. With a common border of nearly 800 miles, Texas and the four Mexican border states of Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, and Tamaulipas share a rich history with a vital connection that is apparent among the thousands of binational families that reside along the border and throughout Texas.

Moreover, Texas stands to make substantial economic gains as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement and, therefore, must maintain good relations with Mexico.

Nonetheless, Texas has managed to initiate a few anti-immigrant policies of its own. Several initiatives have been introduced to address the issues of illegal border crossing, immigrants' use of benefits, and the education of immigrant children.

Operation Hold the Line is the Texas border patrol's attempt to curb the number of immigrants crossing the border from Juarez to El Paso. Although officials have hailed its success, the operation has merely forced immigrants to cross the border at other ports of entry.

Denton County citizens recently attempted to exclude undocumented immigrants from eligibility for indigent health-care benefits, but the measure was defeated.

Finally, the La Joya school district in south Texas recently implemented a policy restricting the definition of residency beyond the restrictions already enforced by the state. Several civil-rights organizations have been closely monitoring the school district for any violations of the 14th Amendment.

Elected officials in Texas have investigated the issue of illegal immigration and its impact on the state budget but have refrained from implementing policies as radical as California's Proposition 187. In 1993, Gov. Ann W. Richards asked the Texas Office of Immigration and Refugee Affairs to conduct a study on the number of illegal immigrants residing in Texas and how much they cost state and local taxpayers. The report's findings concluded that the net cost of illegal immigration to Texas is about $166 million; however, critics of the study argue that a major gap in the report is that it does not address immigrants' incomes, which are estimated at $2.9 billion.

In addition, Governor Richards and Attorney General Dan Morales filed a lawsuit against the federal government in an attempt to receive reimbursement for the costs of providing services to illegal immigrants. Although many immigrant advocates have chastised the lawsuit, they are relieved that the Governor has opposed cutting these benefits altogether.

Recently, Governor-elect George W. Bush made a public statement opposing Proposition 187, a reassuring sign that Texas won't follow the path of California.

Texas has not always stood on middle ground on the issue of illegal immigration. In fact, it was a Texas case that went to the Supreme Court in 1982, setting the precedent for the education of immigrant children in the United States. Before that, Texas attempted to deny undocumented children the right to attend public schools. The decision was challenged and taken to the Supreme Court. The court ruled in Plyler v. Doe that states and public schools are prohibited under the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment from treating undocumented immigrant students disparately solely on the basis of their immigration status.

Denying immigrant children access to public education will only thwart the overall prosperity of this country. Cruz Reynoso, a retired justice of the California Supreme Court, encapsulated the issue clearly when he said: 'Immigrant children bring a wealth of riches to our schools. They come with optimism, energy, and a variety of skills which will make a vital contribution to our nation's future. We will all benefit by the preservation of their strengths which are too often converted into vulnerabilities in the classrooms of our schools.'

Education is not the only issue that has surfaced in the immigration debate. Proposition 187 also denies immigrants access to social services and publicly funded health-care services.

Policies like these perpetuate the widespread myth that immigrants come to the United States to exhaust the social-services system. Studies have proved that immigrants come to the United States primarily to work and to reunite with their families. The myth has even less validity in the state of Texas, where social benefits fall short of being generous. In fact, Texas ranks 48th in the nation in spending on the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program and 46th in per-capita spending on public welfare.

This reality should reassure anti-immigrant proponents that few immigrants come to Texas solely for the $57 monthly A.F.D.C. benefit for their child. A majority of immigrants refrain from applying for such benefits for fear of getting deported. In addition, Texas is faced with such long waiting lists for public benefits that a small percentage of the eligible persons ever receive the services.

The consequences would be great if Texas followed California's lead and decided to prohibit immigrants from the use of social services and publicly funded health care. Many communities in Texas, especially those along the border and throughout south Texas, already experience third-world-like conditions.

The incidence of tuberculosis, cholera, and hepatitis compares to that of many countries with little or no resources. Health care along the border is so inaccessible that it is not unusual for some families to cross into Mexico to receive services.

Moreover, the number of babies born with spina bifida and without brains or spinal cords, a condition known as anencephaly, have reached alarming rates. Although the cause of such severe birth defects has not been confirmed, many attribute it to the increase in U.S.-owned factories in Mexico and their discharge of environmental pollutants.

Denying access to basic immunizations and public health will only shift the burden onto small, community-based organizations that have even fewer resources and services. Denial of such services would cost the state millions of dollars in the long run.

Migration to the United States will not stop unless the economy of Mexico prospers. In the meantime, immigrant families will naturally sacrifice all they have to provide better opportunities for their children. The United States is considered the richest and most powerful nation in the world; this country attracts thousands seeking a better life for themselves and for their children.

The anti-immigrant sentiment is an issue this country has faced throughout our history. Anytime our nation experiences growing pains, the easiest thing to do is to point the finger at those who have virtually no power in this country. Our strength lies in our diversity. Let us recognize the energy immigrants contribute to the pulse of this country and allow them the opportunities to thrive and live prosperous lives. Go directly to "Something Has To Give," Octavio J. Visiedo.

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